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Opening this clever, whimsical, and surreal album from the Art Institute’s collection is like entering another world. But who compiled it? Clues appear throughout its pages, offering tantalizing indications of the maker’s nationality, class, gender, and even name. A watercolor B on a door—a portal to the album—graces the opening leaf. All of the evidence, including photographs, portraits, and writing, seems to indicate that B refers to Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, known as Blanche (1831–1906), the second wife of the diplomat Hugues-Marie-Henri Fournier (1821–1898). A career diplomat from a young age, Fournier was posted in Stockholm from 1862 to 1872, the period from which many of the album’s Swedish photographs date. He was later stationed in Rome, and the pages toward the end of the album feature pictures of Italian rulers and sites. Fournier eventually settled down in France, where this remarkable album found its way to a Tours bookseller and, ultimately, to the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The contents of the photographs document Swedish sites and monuments, works of art from museums across Europe, notable diplomats and royalty, and a recurring group of family and acquaintances. As the second wife of a diplomat, Blanche Fournier could have used the album to help establish herself and her family within a specific social set, or even to establish her role as a new wife in her second marriage. The album also may have functioned as a sort of travelogue, depicting places where she visited or lived. The painted elements of the album reveal that its maker was knowledgeable about the artistic styles of various cultures, skilled in botanical and zoological observation, and well versed in the symbolic language of flowers. Together, however, the photographs and drawings often create unusual, daring, and even surreal compositions, playfully transcending the mere recording of friends, family, and sites. Although her intended meanings are now lost, today’s viewer might well surmise that Madame B found an outlet for creative expression and fantasy in her album, which allowed her to play beyond the confines of photographic truth.

Pour yourself a cup of tea and take this rare opportunity to flip through all the images in Madame B's marvelous album.