A native of France, and schooled in the Parisian ateliers of Le Creton and Charles Camino (1824-1888) as a draughtsman and miniature painter, Marc Gambier came to the United States during the social unrest occasioned by the Franco-Prussian War in which he fought in 1870. He decamped to the United States in late 1871, briefly attempting to set up as a painter in New York City. Leading a marginal existence for two years, he sought out Napoleon Sarony who had visited the studio of his mentor Camino during the early 1860s. Sarony hired Gambier to do crayons, colored photographs, and photo-based pastels—an important component of Sarony & Company’s image business. In 1879 he joined with painter J. J. Schlumberger in the partnership of "Marc & Schlum" in a studio on the top floors of 16 West 14th Street. In 1881, he jettisoned his partner. Within a year, Gambier announced in advertisements that he had "a national reputation for style of pose and finish."
During his six years with Sarony, Gambier had absorbed many lessons: offer a diversified range of portrait media, stress the hand of the artist in the image, make one’s setting as luxurious and diverting as possible, display examples of one’s work on the walls, and devise periodic photographic gimmicks and innovations to stimulate the public’s craving for novelty. Gambier’s novelty was the "stamp photograph," fully developed images the size of a postage stamp that can be tucked in the letter as a kind of signature. In one particular, however, Gambier departed from his mentor. Sarony had persons of the theater come to him for work; Gambier went regularly to the theater, not in the capacity of a photographer, but as a scene designer. He designed, for instance, the spectacular raft scene in "The World"—a visualization of oceanic disaster that galvanized viewers.
In 1884 Gambier moved his studio to 879 Broadway, a venue with more ample display areas than the 14th street premises. An active member of the French community in New York City, his studios became the resorts of many transatlantic gentlemen. Gambier had a reputation as a master of swordsmanship and pistol shooting, and was reputed to have participated in several "affairs of honor." He was also a practical joker of immense craft and with the aid of several friends set the New York constabulary on a wild goose chase over a purported illegal duel. At the end of the pursuit, the bamboozled Inspector Williams doffed his cap and said, "Gentlemen, you have sold us."
Gambier experienced financial difficulties in 1886, leading to non-payment of his rent on his Broadway premises. The crisis led to a redirection of focus toward his original métier, drawing and pastel work. Gambier’s career in the 1890s concentrated on graphic arts, yet he maintained his connections with the theatrical world, supplying drawings for souvenir programs honoring long-run plays and star performers such as Maxine Elliott and Alice Nielsen.
NOTES: Richard Edwards "Marc Gambier," New York’s Leading Industries, 122. "Jest and Earnest. Inner History of the 'Affaire D’honneur' at Fort Lee," New York Herald (Aug 18, 1887), 8. Gambier Ad, Truth (Apr 9, 1882), 6. "The Photographer’s Congress," Boston Evening Transcript (Aug 22, 1881), 1. Drawing and biographical sketch, New York Public Library Digital ID 1241521. David S. Shields/ALS