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.

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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. 

Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A nude woman is lying on her bed showing her back. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A nude woman is sitting on her bed playing with a bird. 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.
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.
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A nude woman a holding a fan is sitting in an armchair. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
A nude woman is kneeling on a chair showing her back. Hand-colored stereoscopic daguerreotype. 1850.

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Art History's Most Erotic Artworks
Francisco de Goya's "The Nude Maja"(01 of 13)
This circa 1800 painting will go down in history as "the first totally profane life-size female nude in Western art -- thought to be at least one of the first explicit depictions of female pubic hair. At the time of its creation, the Catholic Church banned the display of artistic nudes, so Goya's nude woman and its more modest counterpart, "The Clothed Maja," were never exhibited publicly during the artist's lifetime.
Katsushika Hokusai's "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife"(02 of 13)
There's almost no ambiguity regarding the erotic nature of this painting. The print -- a perfect example of Japanese shunga art -- depicts a fisherman's wife deriving pleasure from a rather unique encounter with an octopus. But do you recognize the artist's name? Yes, the man behind "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" had more than landscape likenesses up his sleeve.
Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights"(03 of 13)
Ok, so you may associate "The Garden of Earthly Delights" with its array of terrifying, otherworldly creatures, but the painting has its fair share of sensual details. Dating from between 1490 and 1510, the work plays host to a whole carnival of sins, including the acts in the image above, in which nude men and women are seen frolicking with each other, horses, birds, mermaids, plants... you name it. Writer Laurinda S. Dixon described it as teeming with "a certain adolescent sexual curiosity."
Paul Cezanne's "Seven Bathers"(04 of 13)
Cezanne is well known for his various images of nude bathers, many of whom were women. "Seven bathers," however, portrays the figures of nude men -- though some are rather androgynously rendered. This scene of beautifully crafted male bodies is surely not the most erotic of subject matter, but the ways in which the artist toyed with classical representations of the body and the relationship between the viewer's gaze and nakedness makes for a borderline erotic aesthetic. It is assumed that Cezanne, due to a lack of available models, painted this from memory or imagination.
Titian's "Venus of Urbino"(05 of 13)
Mark Twain once called Titian's Venus "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses." With her unabashed nudity and strong gaze into the viewers' eyes, the nude female in this 1538 work of art is undeniably erotic.
Gustav Klimt's "Frau bei der Selbstbefriedigung"(06 of 13)
Klimt, the Austrian symbolist painter with a penchant for gilded canvases, brought you uber-famous works like "The Kiss" and his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. While those images, not to mention the many nude figures that populate his other paintings, exude sensuality, there's nothing quite as erotic as "Frau bei der Selbstbefriedigung."
Peter Paul Rubens's copy of Michelangelo's "Leda and the Swan"(07 of 13)
For early 17th century audiences, it was likely more acceptable for a woman to be shown engaging in explicit acts with a bird than with an actual human being. Hence, "Leda and the Swan," based on the Greek myth in which Zeus takes the form of a swan and "seduces" a woman named Leda. Artists like Cesare da Sesto and Paul Cezanna also chose the crude story as inspiration for paintings.
Miyagawa Isshō's "Spring Pastimes"(08 of 13)
Created in 1750, this shunga scroll depicts a tryst between two men, one likely a samurai and the other a kabuki actor taking on a sexualized female role.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Swing"(09 of 13)
This Rococo masterpiece from 1767 is full of symbolism, all of which centers on a young woman's extramarital affair. See that man hidden in the bushes on the left side of the canvas? He's not only on the receiving end of that kicked-off shoe, he's also getting quite a peek up the woman's dress. Erotic? Maybe. We'd settle for 18th century creepy.
Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon)"(10 of 13)
Picasso's famous Primitivist painting portrays five nude prostitutes allegedly from a brothel in Barcelona. With their unconventional female forms and relentless gazes, the image is a proto-Cubist version of erotica.
Egon Schiele's "Friendship"(11 of 13)
Despite the title, there's a underlying sense of sexuality in Schiele's depiction of two naked individuals, embracing in a twist of line and form reminiscent of the great Austrian painter's intense figurative works.
Diego Velázquez's "Rokeby Venus"(12 of 13)

Call it "The Toilet of Venus," "Venus at her Mirror," "Venus and Cupid," or "La Venus del Espejo," Velázquez's nude painting shows a woman deriving pleasure from the sight of her own naked self. For a painting made between 1647 and 1651 -- a time period marked by the Spanish public's disdain for naked bodies in art -- the work was on the salacious side. (In case you were wondering, Titian and Rubens also made their own versions of Venus at a mirror.)

Gustave Courbet's "L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)"(13 of 13)
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