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The Colored Theatrical Cabinet Card

The Colors of Life

David S. Shields 

“The reproduction of objects in their natural colours, by means of the camera, is a subject which has occupied much of the attention of many of the most illustrious pioneers of photography; but, as yet, without definite result.  Until that problem is solved, to give photographic portraits their full value as likenesses—to give them life and individuality—the photographer must have recourse to the art of the painter.”[i] (1859)

The studios of the celebrity and theatrical photographs all contained both graphic artists and camera men.  Most of the central figures who produced theatrical portraiture during the cabinet era received training as a graphic artist before taking up the camera.  Napoleon Sarony, Jose Maria Mora, Banjamin J. Falk, Marc Gambier, Arthur Glines, W. H. Rulofson, Elmer Chickering, Henry Rocher, Louis Thors, William J. Kuebler, Jacob Schloss, and Edward Fowler had been trained as draughtsman, in pastels, and painting.  Even those photographs who had been schooled in camera craft from the first—Philip Rose, William M. Morrison, Joseph Hall, William Frank Bacon, Joseph Gehrig, et. al.—maintained in their studios at least one person who could generate a crayon portrait from a photograph or tint and black and white image.  Most of the studios conceived of themselves as image production facilities, and photography was simply the commonest and least expensive option for a sitter seeking a likeness. Whether a small scale operation such as Albert Naegeli’s or an ambitious studio such as Marc Gambier’s, the artistic portraitist offered likenesses “executed in oil, water-colors, pastel, crayon, and india-ink, in the highest style of art, from locket to life size.”[ii]

Most popular among the artistic enhancements of a photographic likeness was, as the author of our epigraph indicates, was the coloring of the black and white image.  This in the eyes of the public corrected the greatest apparent fault of photography—its transmutation of a world of color into a world of tones.  Certain American photographers worked as developing color processes—William Kurtz and Banjamin J. Falk—among the artists who concern us.  But the problems proved so daunting, and the results so unlike the natural tints of objects, that Kurtz turned to issues of mass photo reproductions because he promised an easier solution, and Falk abandoned his efforts at color portraiture entirely.  Even when the Lumiere Brothers introduced the autochrome process at the turn of the century, the instability of the color in any given image made masterworks in the medium rare.  When the prints began to fade and colors stray upon exposure to light, experimenters began seeking other solutions that would not become found until the third decades of the 20th century. 

From 1859 to the end of the cabinet card era, the tinting of images took place as a matter of course. The cabinet card, printed on albuminized paper, looked best when the tonal image was overpainted with watercolor paints.  Yet a vogue for more intense oil coloring seized certain of the metropolitan studios in the 1860s.  The color was irrationally intense, and corresponded to the rather lurid costume coloring introduced in connection with the extravaganzas.  To counter the clash of blocks of contiguous intense color, tactful painters left tonal sections separating painted areas. [Fredericks: Lizzie Kelsey] But this highly selective coloring of images violated likeness.  When watercolor painting of photographs became established as the predominant mode of coloring in the 1870s, a much more lifelike quality of imagery could be managed, particularly if the colors were applied in thin transparent washes.  For a brief period in the late 1860s Gurney & Son experimented with images employing both oil and watercolor, for instance in the remarkable profile portrait of the most gorgeous of the “British Blondes” Pauline Markham.  Red, gold, and white oil paint give impact to the festoon of the hat, her color, her bracelet and famous gold tresses.  Watercolor tints her cheeks and gloved hand.  [Gurney & Son: Pauline Markham]

Two strategies dominated painting photographs: the reference strategy made use of a photograph as a template for a painting with projected or mirror images on blank canvas supplying the architecture of the image. [iii] Sarony employed the strategy frequently in the last years of his life when painting excited him.  The more common approach was to watercolor directly onto a paper photographic print.  This did not require the skill that the former method did.  And in the case of the theatrical portrait the photograph had a kind of fetish value, being somehow a direct representation of the loved original.  Sarony learned as early as 1872 that nothing provoked the desire and emptied the wallet of a devotee so quickly as an oversized imperial or elephant cabinet tinted with an expert hand.  Who were the expert hands who did the majority of the coloring in the studios?  Marc Gambier worked at Sarony’s.  Other photographers used free-lancers. Francesco A. Marra, who maintained a private studio in Union Square, used “brilliant aniline colors,” colored Gurney & Son’s Pauline Markham image.  Florence A. Francis at 769 Broadway also worked for several of the photographers on special projects.[iv] Sarony’s watercolorists produced a series of masterpieces over the last quarter of the 19th century. Consider the delicacy of  the treatment of the dress pattern in the Lily Langtry character shot from “An Unequal Match,” the Tom Taylor play in which she made her American premiere in 1882.[v]  [Sarony: Lily Langtry] There is a compelling naturalness to Langtry, a rightness that makes one understand why Oscar Wilde hymned her as “The New Helen,” an avatar of the ancient Greek ideal.  The dress is that of a country wife, not of a titled aristocrat; yet it is beautiful, well fitted, and evocative of green fertility.   

While Sarony’s watercolorists often colored images to beautify them, there were images tinted in order to convey mood.  Maggie Mitchell appears in drab tatterdemalion as Fanchon the Cricket, a wild girl abandoned by her mother, and raised by her grandmother, Fadette, a country witch. [Sarony: Maggie Mitchel as Fanchon] Fanchon spoke to a potent fantasy of the period—that a young women beyond the pale of respectability, unconventional in dress and manners, unallied to a notable family, entirely lacking in urbanity—could by force of spirit and exercise of will find love, place, and wealth.  The role, adapted from the novel La petite Fadette by bohemian George Sand, catapulted Maggie Mitchell to fame after its 1861 premiere in New Orleans.  Mitchell won universal admiration for her fey and fiery presentation of the title character.  Her dance with her own shadow inspired raptures for its uncanny presentation of a private soul caught up in the poetry of being.  It remained one of the most memorable stage scenes experienced during the 19th century.  Sarony’s image of Mitchell shows her in her mid-30s, after having played the role over a decade.  The candid directness of her glance at the viewer conveys the essence of Fanchon’s character, while the murky green light the suffuses the image suggests the mystique of fertility and nature.  Fanchon is more a personality than a beauty.  Her entire lack of vanity seems a rebuke of fashionable femininity.

Sarony used color at times to modify public perceptions of a performer.  Clara Morris, “the Queen of Spasms,” earned a reputation in the 1870s as a hyper-emotive actress, indeed the ideal female lead for tear-jerker drama.  Child of a bigamist, she knew a childhood on the run from disapprobrium with her mother.  Her teen years were spent learning ballet and acting.  She earned stardom as a member of Augustin Daly’s stock company in Wilkie Collins’s “Man and Wife,” and for twenty years played a series of victims and hysterics, at first to immense applause, later to a decidedly mixed audience  reaction.  Sarony’s French format color cabinet portrait of Morris as Julia in “The Hunchback” presents the character in a moment of more serene feeling. [Sarony: Clara Morris, The Hunchback] The pastel shades of yellow and blue temper the impression of Julia as a woman of passion, suggested by the torsion of her pose.  The harmony of the background tinting with Morris’s dress is best appreciated when we notice has the tan of a wall is underpainted with blue to echo the color of her dress.   Sarony’s image seems  to be saving Morris from her impulses. 

Sarony’s aesthetics went beyond the appreciation of the qualities of his sitters.  He could just as well make the image about clothing, and have the human subject operate as a clothes horse.  In certain of the tableaux portraits scenery mattered most.  If Henry Rocher  was the great visual chronicler of the second age of theatrical portrayal of women—that in which dresses expanded to become complexes of fabric—Sarony at times matched the Chicagoan’s appreciation of a spectacular gown.  When color mattered greatly he took up brushes as his palette and painted the print himself.  Reporter Evelyn Malcom came upon him in 1899 touching up an image of Minnie Palmer.[vi] One wonders whether Sarony’s expert hand painted the delicate details of the gown on  starlet Rose Temple. Temple never attained leads in plays and operated as much as a model as a performer.  But an oversized color cabinet shows her skills at setting off a spectacular stage dress, probably designed by S. W. Laureys, the costumer for the Union Square and Madison Theatres during the 1870s and 1880s.  [Sarony: Rose Temple]

Simon W. Laureys (1820-1887) was as much a presence in the theatrical world revealed in cabinet cards as Lafayette W. Seavey.  A Belgian who entered the costuming trade as a child apprenticing at the Opera Royal of Brussels, he became a master designer and fabricator in his teens working with Planche. During the 1840s he circulated through the great theaters of Europe—the Porte St. Marin in Paris, the King’s Opera of Holland, the King’s Opera of Berlin. Late in the decade he settled in London, creating stage clothes for Astley’s and then Drury Lane Theaters.[vii] In 1851, Laureys entered into royal service creating the court clothes and robes for Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal family.  Simultaneously he provided costumes for Her Majesty’s Theater.  Concerned with historical accuracy, he explored the royal collections for antique armor and uniforms, and dressed Charles Kean’s company for their historicist Shakespeare productions.[viii] In 1866 he was lured to the United States to costume the landmark extravaganza “The Black Crook” at Niblo’s Garden Theater. He was installed as the resident costumer there until the theater fire, when he lost his “wardrobe, books, and medals.”[ix] He established at atelier at 9 Great Jones Street in Manhattan and served as resident costumer for the Union Square Theater and took commissions directly from performers. In 1877 he moved to 788 Broadway.  

Laureys dominated his profession and in certain respects operated beyond its ordinary operation.  “Every first class theatre has a costumer for the male and and also for the female sex. The costumers attend to dressing the characters for the play, and it is only stars who provide their own outfit.  The only except is when men appear in a civilian’s dress, which, being in the fashion of the day, may come from their own tailors.”[x] Laureys outfitted the stars, male and female, besides designing costumes for the Union Square and later the Madison Theaters. In 1881 Laureys was asked “What period in dress are we living in now?” He replied,

What is called the fantastic period—all colors and glitter.  That accounts for the many new fashions, because the milliners must bring out something new, just as a kaleidoscope must show a different combinations of colors every time the bits of glass are shaken up.[xi]

Because the ordinary black and white theatrical character portrait did not portray the kaleidoscopic play of color in costumes, it did not convey the signature quality of the age—the “colors and glitter.”  Consider the Jose Maria Mora portrait of Ione Burke, an actress associated with Niblo’s Garden, who regularly wore Laureys’s creations.[xii] [Mora: Ione Burke in Laureys Gown in the Woods]  We view it as a white gown interesting primarily for its volume, shape, and ruffled ornament.  In all probability this was a panoply of pastels, like Sarony’s colored image of Rose Temple.

Mora had begun his career as a painter in the studios of Paris in the mid-1860s.  Yet when he founded his own studio, he concentrated his energy in perfecting texture and form by being the most aggressive retoucher of theatrical photographs.  While he painted negatives and some of his own backgrounds for black and white reproduction, the coloring of prints never engaged his imagination.  Sarony’s steady production of large format colored images no doubt made him consider painting.  But the few colored images issued by Mora seem more experiments than commercial products.  His most extensive series of experiments consisted of various schemes of coloring portraits of Clara Marion Jessie Rousby.  Mrs. Rousby was an attractive English woman in her twenties, possessed of a pleasant singing voice, an easy graceful walk, and a girlish demeanor.  Critics agreed that her mimetic range suffered limits, and that dignity was something completely beyond her.  In 1871 she undertook a tour of America, playing at the 14th Street Theater during her run in New York.  Hence the Mora portraits of Rousby were among the first  offered for public sale by the young artist-photographer.  Two of the images—a bust and a ¾ length had a single added color.  In the bust portrait the flesh is chemically tone and Rousby’s hat enhanced by yellow watercolor.  More dramatically, details of Rousby’s coat and skirt are painted royal purple.  A bust portrait wearing the same gown is more elaborated colored with pink stripes and yellow trim.    This small image does suggest that Mora tried to capture the vibrancy of the “fantastic age” of theatrical costuming.  Colored images by Mora’s studio survive for four other performers: Cora Brown Potter, Lotta Crabtree,  burlesque performer Carrie Perkins, and Ada Dickson. For two of these sitters the color was a single added hue that provided an intensification of a tonal effect.  Only Carrie Perkins came from the ranks of the buffo artists whose images made Mora’s international reputation.  Indeed, while the newspapers and magazines abound with comment about the abbreviated satin shorts and flesh colored leggings of the burlesque queens, they make no great appearance in the surviving corpus of colored photographs.  Nor do the girls in trouser roles appear.  Travesty, semi-nudity, and circus costume, despite their commonness in black and white, rarely made it color, if we are to judge by the holdings of the major American archives.  Did the customers for this kind of image balk at the higher prices of the mammoth colored cards?

Though watercolored prints survive from many of the major theatrical portraitists of the cabinet era, certain studios developed reputations for their handling of certain dimensions of the coloring.  William R. Howell, the New York portraitist, hired painters who became expert in rendering flesh tones.  A portrait of actress-manager Lina Edwin from ca. 1872 approximated the look of a rouged state performer. [Howell: Lina Edwin, colorAntonio Moreno had the darkest, densest color of any photographer, with opaque brick reds and dusky gray-blue.  His painters handled watercolor in a manner that resembled the oil painters of a decade previously.  These were also standard sized, not elephant, and it must be said that they are more eye-catching from a distance than watercolored cards, so would have enjoyed a commercial advantage at a newsstand.

Because a several technological developments in he 1890s, most theatrical photographers suspended the hand coloring of prints.  Progress in the development of three color photography caused Falk and Kurtz to experiment with filters and clustered lenses instead.  Kurtz’s work in developing photolithography in color for mass printing in the 1890s enabled black and white submissions to editors to be colored at the printers.  Most of the covers of Theatre Magazine were treated in this manner.  Printers undertaking the coloring of images obviated a category of labor cost for photographers.

Nevertheless, a handful of photographers generated tinted portraits. One late master of coloring theatrical portraits, Samuel Thorbeck of Denver, continued the practice into the twentieth century. His work provided a bridge to the first colorists for motion picture portraits on the West Coast. Certain of his subjects were performers in that first generation who transitioned from stage to screen, such as Maude Fealy, the Denver-based beauty, who toured the country in a number of plays during the first decade of the 20th century until signing on as a screen actress with Thanhauser in 1911.  Thorbeck’s refined handling of color in a series of Fealy as Parthenia from “Ingomar” (1905) contrasted with the garish  norm of coloring in magazine illustration of the day.  [Thorbeck: Maude Fealy in “Ingomar”]. Their standard cabinet size looked increasingly diminutive contrasted to the 11x14 expanse of Theatre Magazine’s full page images, or even the 8x10 silver bromide paper photographer that was establishing itself as the norm for photographers in 1905.  In certain respects it was a last beautiful reminder of the familiar qualities of the hand held image.




[i] How to Colour a Photograph (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1859), v.

[ii] Richard Edwards, “Naegeli, Photographer and Artist,” New York’s Great Industries (Chicago: Historical Publishing Company,  1884), 216.

[iii] How to Colour a Photograph, 34.

[iv] “Art Matters: Our Crayonists and Colorists,” New York Herald Tribune, December 14, 1873, 9.

[v] “Mrs. Langtry’s Pictures,” New York Herald Tribune, November 27, 1882, 8. This extraordinarily candid interview with Sarony and his cameraman Richardson, revealed that he regarded Langtry’s handsomeness dependent on her figure as much as her face, that he did not prefer full face head on images of Langtry, and did not think her the most beautiful person he ever shot (Fanny Davenport got the nod). The demand for the images, however, was intense. 

[vi] “Distinguished Beauties as They Posed fro Hours Before the Camera of Leading Photographers of New York,” St. Paul Globe, February 3, 1889, 14.

[vii] “Simon W. Laureys,” The New York Mirror Annual (New York, 1888), 114.

[viii] Richard Edwards, S. W. Laureys, New York’s Great Industries (Chicago & New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1884), 93.

[ix] “Stage Dressing; Talk with a Man who has Dressed Many Actors and Actresses,” New York Herald Tribune, August 22, 1881, 2. This is the one surviving published interview with Laureys.

[x] “Theatrical Wardrobes,” St. Alban’s Daily Messenger, November 3, 1882, 2.  Next to Laureys the most reputable costumers in New York were Mrs Lander, who specialized in historical characters,  Andrew Jackson Allen, who died men’s wear, J. W. Horner, the the 6th Avenue dressmaker,  T. V. Lauvuette,  Harry J. Seymour, Fritz Roemer, Wolf Dazian, and the team of Albert and Harriet Eaves, who occasionally backed productions.  J. R. Paulen was the foremost designer in San Francisco, Alfred R. VanHorn in Philadelphia, J. Deaves in Chicago.. “Costumers and Customers,” New York Herald, 278, 6, October 5, 1885, 6, explored the commercial relationships between performers, costumers, and the major dry goods stores that sold cloth in New York City. 

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Niblo’s Garden,” New York Herald 35, 32, February 1, 1870, 2.