Petiot-Groffier: Businessman, Politician, and Photographer

The discovery of the world’s oldest photographic lab

A photography taken by Petiot-Groffier in 1853:the hospital at Chalon with its original nave (exists no longer)(coll. Société d’Histoire de Chalon)

The recent discovery of Fortuné-Joseph Petiot-Groffier’s lab reveals another side of this exceptional personality, to whom the inhabitants of Chalon owed quite many a thing during his lifetime.

It had been hidden away for decades, when all of a sudden, it is caught by the bright limelight: the recent discovery of Fortuné-Joseph Petiot-Groffier’s lab, situated in a house close to Chalon, shows yet another side of an exceptional life, which lasted from 1788 to 1855.
Fortuné-Joseph Petiot was born in the time of the French Revolution – some months before the major events – on September 16th, 1788. The boy, who had two sisters and a brother, could not help being immersed in public affairs from his youngest age onwards, since his father, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph, had a long political career of his own: deputy of the Third Estate in the Estates-General in 1789, being involved in the major parts of the revolutionary events, he became a judge under Napoleon, presided the civil court at Chalon, and eventually was elected councilman during the Restoration.

During the time of the Restoration, Fortuné-Joseph Petiot himself – young lawyer, and husband to Olympe Groffier (since 1818) – began his own political career, among a group of young liberals who managed to challenge the Bourbons, who were back on the French throne. Group members included Moyne, Petiot’s brother in law, as well as Emiland Menand. With the Fall of the Restoration in 1830, Fortuné-Joseph Petiot-Groffier became an important representative of the new regime, both as the mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône (1832-1835) and as a member of parliament under Louis-Philippe, on the benches of the so-called “Juste milieu” (i.e. parliamentary representation of the middle classes).
To his political life can be added a particular talent for business affairs: a child of the thriving industrial era, Petiot-Groffier was equally the founder of numerous enterprises. After the establishment of the steam mill at Saint-Cosme in 1823, the sugar refinery of the Alouettes – which he co-founded in 1836 at Châtenoy-le-Royal – became one of his most famous undertakings, specializing in the fabrication of domestic sugar on the basis of sugar beet.

As if this was not enough, Petiot-Groffier shortly before had succeeded in yet another domain, by introducing to Burgundy the so-called method of the “champagnization” of wines. The Petiot-Groffiers, who owned major vineyards in Rully and Mercurey, thus aimed at transforming their white wines into sparkling wines, with the help of specialists from Champagne, whom they contacted in 1822. One of them, François-Bazile Hubert, even joined them in Chalon: the first attempts at Rully achieved an almost immediate success, the Burgundian sparkling wine was born.

Among all of his numerous activities, Fortuné-Joseph Petiot-Groffier also had a precious hobby: photography. Had he known Nicéphore Niépce? It is highly probable that the two men had met, as Niépce (although he already died in 1833) was his contemporary. Was it because of their potential acquaintanceship that the industrial entrepreneur developed a need to fix images on paper? We do not know. What we know for sure, however, is that Petiot-Groffier was fairly well-known in Chalon for his skills of taking pictures.
Thus, it is no surprise that – in 1853 – he was contacted by the newly-founded Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie to take some “general viewpoints” of the hospital at Chalon, whose nave was to be demolished, “so that the building – highly appreciated by the inhabitants of Chalon for centuries – would be preserved for our descendants” (cf. the photo on this site).

The word “photography” was not yet in use. For us – these days – these “general viewpoints” have turned into nothing less than some of the earliest photographs of the Chalon of 1853 – Petiot-Groffier’s dignified heritage to posterity.

Gilles Platret