CULTURE & ARTS

Hand-Painted Daguerreotypes From The 1850s Capture The Color Of Nudity

Before the dawn of color printing, there was hand-painting.

Warning: This post contains nudity and lots of it.

Stare at a color image from the mid-19th century, and you'll likely notice a few subtle differences between the vibrant photos of now and the eerie daguerreotypes of then.

That's largely due to the fact that in the 1850s, to color a photograph required mastering the delicate technique of hand-painting. There were no color printers, not even Kodachrome film; photographers had to hand-color their black-and-white images by adding pigment themselves. 

Daguerreotypy, the process of capturing an image on light-sensitive silver-plated copper, is one of the earliest photographic processes introduced by Louis Daguerre to the public in 1839. Experts often attribute the first hand-painted photograph to Johann Baptist Isenring, a Swiss artist who heated a mixture of gum arabic and pigments atop his early photos. In the 1940s, Isenring and his contemporaries would use a paintbrush to apply the pigment to the various areas of a daguerreotype they wished to color, sometimes dusting the mixture through carefully crafted cutouts. Similar techniques became popular in England and France around the same time. In Japan, artists already skilled in watercolor and woodblock printing employed a comparable practice, applying oil paint to the exposed emulsion of photos. 

Until the 1950s, when color film became available to professional and amateur photographers alike, the art of hand-painting persisted. Thumb (or scroll) through an archive like the Library of Congress, and you'll likely find remnants of the age of hand-painting. Unlike the sharp contrast of reds, blues and yellows in 21st century digital prints, the hues of hand-colored images lack fine delineation. Violet, pink and turquoise battle the preexisting monochrome outlines, hovering above the initial image like a ghost. The results blend the best of two worlds -- painting and photography -- in an art form almost forgotten to today's tech-savvy artists.

Despite its dwindling popularity, we can still celebrate the undeniable beauty of Isenring's practice thanks to a reserve of hand-painted (and notably erotic) photos in Getty's archives, courtesy of Galerie Bilderwelt. Below is a sample of hand-painted daguerreotypes, created by an unknown artist in the 1850s, that showcase early artists' attempts to illustrate the color of the human body -- the female body to be more precise. 

  • A nude woman is lying on her bed showing her back. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is lying on her bed showing her back. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is sitting on the floor next to a dog wearing only stockings. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is sitting on the floor next to a dog wearing only stockings. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A woman is sitting on a chair with her nightgown pulled down to expose her left breast. Her right foot is in a bowl as if she
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A woman is sitting on a chair with her nightgown pulled down to expose her left breast. Her right foot is in a bowl as if she is washing her feet. She is holding a thin Russian cigarette. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is standing near a table with leaves and flowers painted around her waist. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreoty
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is standing near a table with leaves and flowers painted around her waist. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A woman is kneeling on a chair praying. She is wearing a white wedding dress which is open in the front showing her breasts.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A woman is kneeling on a chair praying. She is wearing a white wedding dress which is open in the front showing her breasts. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • Two nude women are sitting next to one another only wearing a necklace and a string of pearl in their hair. Hand-colored ster
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    Two nude women are sitting next to one another only wearing a necklace and a string of pearl in their hair. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is sitting on her bed playing with a bird. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is sitting on her bed playing with a bird. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • Two nude women are sitting next to one another on some cushions on the floor. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    Two nude women are sitting next to one another on some cushions on the floor. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • Two women are taking care of laundry while an old man is standing behind one of them who has her breasts exposed while she is
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    Two women are taking care of laundry while an old man is standing behind one of them who has her breasts exposed while she is bending forward. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850. 
  • A nude woman a holding a fan is sitting in an armchair. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman a holding a fan is sitting in an armchair. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A semi-nude woman is combing the pubic hair of another woman standing next to her with her skirt lifted and her blouse pulled
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A semi-nude woman is combing the pubic hair of another woman standing next to her with her skirt lifted and her blouse pulled down. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A semi-nude woman is standing in front of a mirror with her breasts exposed wearing a pearl necklace. Hand-colored stereoscop
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A semi-nude woman is standing in front of a mirror with her breasts exposed wearing a pearl necklace. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is sitting in front of a mirror wearing a necklace. Another one (pearl) is in front of her. 1850. Hand-colored s
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is sitting in front of a mirror wearing a necklace. Another one (pearl) is in front of her. 1850. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype.
  • A nude woman is sitting next to a pile of armor including daggers and a sword. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is sitting next to a pile of armor including daggers and a sword. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • Two women are sitting next to another spinning in front of a studio curtain with countryside scenery. One has her blouse unbu
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    Two women are sitting next to another spinning in front of a studio curtain with countryside scenery. One has her blouse unbuttonend and one of her breasts is showing. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is resting on a chaise lounge holding red flowers and a string of pearl with her right hand. Hand-colored stereo
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is resting on a chaise lounge holding red flowers and a string of pearl with her right hand. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is resting on a chaise lounge holding pink flowers and a string of pearl with her right hand. A large
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is resting on a chaise lounge holding pink flowers and a string of pearl with her right hand. A large transparent wedding veil is draped around her and over the lower part of her body. She is wearing a marriage band. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • Three almost nude women are shown in a studio setting with elements of a harem as well as ancient Greece. The woman in the ce
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    Three almost nude women are shown in a studio setting with elements of a harem as well as ancient Greece. The woman in the center is holding a lyra and is wearing a transparent veil. Hand-colored stereoscopic-daguerreotype in a contemporary case. 1850.
  • A nude woman is standing in front of a mirror wearing shoes, stockings and a hair band. Her hands are in a muff. Hand-colored
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is standing in front of a mirror wearing shoes, stockings and a hair band. Her hands are in a muff. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
  • A nude woman is kneeling on a chair showing her back. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
    Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
    A nude woman is kneeling on a chair showing her back. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.

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