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01.01.2016 Colors of 1876 or The Short Triumph of Photochrome, Léon Vidal’s Process


Colors of 1876 or The Short Triumph of Vidal’s Process

When photography was born, the family of inventors and the community of witnesses was certainly extremly happy but a little concern about, let’s say, the monochromatic aspect of the new born technology. Where had gone the rainbow colors ?

Rare artists praised the elegant simplicity of monochromes, and Delacroix wrote in his Diary: “Thursday,November 24th 1853. Walk in the Galerie Vivienne in the evening, where I saw photographs in a bookshop. What caught my eye was Rubens’ Raising of the Cross, and it particularly interested me : the imperfections, now that they are no longer hidden by the technique or the color, are more visible. The sight, or rather the memory of my emotion in front of that masterpiece have kept me occupied the rest of the evening, in a charming way.” (Eugène Delacroix, Journal, French ed. Corti, page 714).

But the challenge was to capture colors. Two French inventors simultaneously submitted scientific processes to the Academy of Science based on a trichromic separation during the year 1869: Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron. The Prussian invasion delayed the work in progress, and when in 1876 they could show the first realisazion, they were completely outbidded by Leon Vidal industrial staged colors solution. The prints, woodburytypes with rich miniatures colors and gold and silver manual additions, were so spectacular that the natural colors looked much too pale. The Triumph of Vidal was short and his prints extremly scarce. A cheaper semi-industrial process was soon invented in Switzerland until the Lumiere brothers gave to the Natural light its revenche in 1907 with the autochrome.

Let’s quote Nathalie Boulouch:

“At the exhibition of the Société Française de Photographie, held at the Palais de l’Industrie from May 1 to July 1, 1876, three-colour photographs obtained by this method by Louis Ducos du Hauron were juxtaposed with photochromes by Léon Vidal. Since the date of his patent in 1872,



[Vidal] had produced “chromophotographic prints” using the indirect method. He then positioned himself as a rival to Ducos du Hauron by displaying the same industrial pretensions. Convinced of the progress that colour would bring to the art of photography — ”made monotonous by monochromaticity” — Léon Vidal did not believe that full colour reproduction could be achieved … without human intervention in the choice and intensity of colour … Photochromy therefore used a principle analogous to that of colour lithography, associating the use of a black and white negative which, in addition to precision of detail, naturally added the contrast of chiaroscuro. Vidal’s photochromes, which illustrated the Trésor Artistique de la France (published by Paul Dalloz), were dazzlingly superior to those of Ducos du Hauron, which still left much to be desired; the mediocrity of the latter stemmed essentially from the lack of colour sensitivity of the emulsions. The same was still true two years later at the Pavilion of Photochromy at the Paris World Fair, where Léon Vidal was awarded a gold medal.

By 1875, the latter had reached a level of industrial development sufficient to run the workshops set up by Dalloz at the headquarters of the Moniteur Universel. His application of the photochrome process to the reproduction of coloured objects attracted particular attention for its rendering of artworks, ceramics, silverware, metals and precious stones. His appointment as professor at the École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1879 provided him with an ideal platform for publicising such uses of his photochrome method and promoting his conviction as to “the greatly increased value that future publications will glean from the powerful attraction of colour.”

During the 1880s and 1890s, the industrial production of colour images experienced a boom. In Switzerland, on January 4, 1888, the Orell Füssli firm patented the Photochrom (also called Aäc) process developed by their employee, the lithographer Hans Jakob Schmid, and created the Compagnie Photochrom Zürich in order to market this new technique. A year later, they were awarded a gold medal at the Paris World Fair.

Like Léon Vidal’s prints, Photochroms combined the precision of photographic negatives with colours added by hand by lithographic printing, which could involve from 4 to 14 colours. The circulation of photochroms expanded subsequent to the creation of the Photochrom Company of Detroit, which purchased the exclusive rights to the Photochrom process for North America in 1895…” (Nathalie Boulouch, Fécondité de la couleur, Translated by Sally Laruelle (Eyrolles, 2009 and Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, colloque, december 2015)














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