Pierre Gentieu (1842-1930) came to America from Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France in 1860 when he was 18. While still in France, he drew and painted, and learned the bookbinding trade. His introduction to photography could have been through a cousin who owned the first camera in Orthez. Also, his experience as a Yankee soldier and his being a subject of a 1863 Civil War encampment field photograph could have contributed to his interest in photography.
After serving in the Civil War, Pierre married the sister of his friend and comrade from the 13th Connecticut. Since Pierre’s family in France were breveted chocolatiers, he began his career by opening chocolate bakeries in New York. He later opened a restaurant, but that got him into financial trouble. At the age of 35, with a wife and two young children, he changed career direction. In 1877, Pierre found a job at the Du Pont Powder Company and moved his family to Wilmington, Delaware.
Beginning as a powderman in the Lower Yard, Pierre soon received the attention of his boss, Lammot du Pont, with a gouache painting he made of the Lower Yard. He was then promoted to a job making sieves for separating powder grains, which was safer and maybe saved his life from the frequent accidental explosions. In 1881, Francis du Pont appointed Pierre to be Yard Clerk. From then on, Pierre worked in the office.
Pierre sometimes brought his camera to work with him. Francis and other members of the du Pont family shared Pierre’s interest in photography. Considered the “best amateur photographer in the Brandywine Valley,” Pierre was the only worker allowed in the Yards with a camera.
Pierre Gentieu created sharp-focused, sensitive portraits of the workers and families who worked at the mills, landscapes and workscapes carefully composed with an artistic eye. His work shows what life was like for working people, many who were new immigrants, at the first big industrial company in the United States, which happened to be situated in the most photogenic location there ever could be for a gunpowder corporation, along the banks of the picturesque Brandywine River Valley in the rolling hills of northern Delaware.
In 1946, Pierre S. du Pont, the son of Lammot du Pont who first recognized Pierre’s talent, purchased the collection of 354 glass plate negatives from Pierre’s children, dating from 1879 to 1917. Pierre S. du Pont made a set of prints for the family and for the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, and donated the glass plate negatives to the Historical Society of Delaware.
Pierre Gentieu is often mentioned in the books about the old Du Pont Powder Company. Pierre was a loyal employee who always gave more than what was expected. Through his photographs, and also his writings, Pierre greatly contributed to the history of industry, immigrants, and the Brandywine Valley. His fine photographs present a rare, long-term study of how it was during the heyday of the old powder mills at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
“The photographs of Pierre Gentieu are truly one of the key collections without which Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation exhibits, publications, and restorations would not be the same.” – Hagley Newsletter, Fall 1981
“Gentieu’s pictures show a deep sense of camraderie…
“Pierre Gentieu’s photographic record of the Du Pont powder mills is rich and extremely valuable…
“Gentieu’s photography was very straight forward, with simple camera angles and poses dictated not only by his equipment, but also by his clear minded approach. He was a gifted amateur photographer who desired to show things distinctly in his pictures. For this he was encouraged by the officers of the Du Pont Company, and we can be thankful that he has left us the benefit of his vision. His photography was to leave a mark in the history of the company he worked for so faithfully for so long.” – Corporate Images: Photography and the Du Pont Company 1865 – 1972, Jon M. Williams and Daniel T. Muir, of the Hagley Museum and Library