Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 316 – A Duncanson and Coates’ – Chemical Paintings


Part 316: A Duncanson and Coates’ – Chemical Paintings

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872)

While researching the life and times of Robert S. Duncanson, I repeatedly stumbled across the mention of his collaboration with an African-American photographer named “Coates.” They created a form of visual spectacle called “chemical paintings.”

Contemporary authors repeatedly cite the same article from March 19, 1844, advertising “Chemical Paintings…four splendid views after the singular style of Daguerre.” I located other newspaper advertisements for the same show that predate this one, however, none credit either Duncanson or Coates. Chemical paintings originate in Cincinnati during 1843 which coincides with Duncanson’s participation in the project. Some scholars purport that Duncanson was the artistic mind behind the images while Coates took care of the technical side.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 Feb 1844, page 2.

Did “chemical paintings” refer to the paint or the process? In 1993, Joseph D. Ketner suggested that the compositions were created on light-sensitive surfaces and were allowed to develop under the auditorium lights with dramatic contrasts of lights and darks (“The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1871-1872”). They would have to be a reversible effect if they used the same canvases repeatedly. I discovered that they did use canvas, Ketner described, “With each of the images, the darkened auditorium was gradually illuminated, causing lighting effects in the pictures that thrilled the crowds.” So, front light on the composition caused the change? Ketner was much more fascinated with the collaborative aspect than the process, suggesting that was one of the earliest collaborations between a painter and a photographer in the United States.

I was intrigued with the actual process and theatrical venues for the presentation more than their collaborative effort. What Ketner, and all of the other authors failed to cite, was that the production actually opened in 1843 before touring under the proprietor’s name – Robert Winter Jr. “Chemical Paintings” opened during August of 1843 at the Concert Hall in Cincinnati and then went on tour for three years. The last advertisement that I found was when the show was in Richmond, Virginia.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 Sept. 1843, page 3

The four scenes exhibited at the Concert Hall were listed as “the Milan Cathedral,” “City of Jerusalem and Crucifixion,” “Interior of the Holy Church of the Sepulchre,” and “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Newspaper advertisements promised, “Each painting possesses the peculiar properties of portraying two distinct Pictures on the same canvas” (The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 Sept. 1843, page 3). I thought of the electric scenic theatres during the 1890s – FIFTY years later. Any scene lit by colored lights could alter the composition from day to night, especially if portions were backlit. Could it be that simple? I though of the colored panels on the back of a drop from 1867 to create a brilliant sunset.

Colored panels sewn to the back of a drop to create a brilliant sunset effect. The 1867 drop is one of many in storage at the Royal Swedish Workshop space.
Detail of colored panels sewn and glued to back of drop.
Front of the scene.
Front of he scene with tree
Side view of 1867 scenic pieces.

While on tour, three of the paintings were damaged during a fire and we learn a little more about their composition; portions of it were linen (Public Ledger 1 Dec. 1843, page 2). Obviously, the surfaces that were “light-sensitive” had to reverse for another performance the next day. Only one set of paintings toured. There was also no apparent competition, so they had the market on the secret.  These were also not one-time-use, or disposable paintings on photographic paper as suggested by Ketner. I highly doubted that with the amount of detail described for the “reveal” in each scene that anything could be painted with fresh paint, or applied to the surface before another show. Maybe the “chemical picture” referred to the new and brilliant chemical-colors used to paint the linen backing – dyes. So what about Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s process, other than it was introduced worldwide in 1839? Ten years earlier this French artist and chemist came into contact with Nicéphore Niépce when obtaining a camera obscura for his work on theatrical scene painting from the optican Chevalier. Niépce had already managed to make a record of an image from a camera obscura using a process he invented – heliography.

I thought of something that Gene Meier mentioned a month ago – many of the early Chicago and Milwaukee scene painters were also chemists. Daguerreotypes use a silver-plated copper plate that is first buffed and polished. Then the plate is sensitized to light with iodine and bromine in specialized, light-proof boxes. A light-proof holder exposures the plate to capture the image. Then the plate is developed (“brought out”) over hot mercury, fixed by immersion in a solution of sodium thiosulfate and then washed with distilled water. The final step was to tone or gild the plate with gold chloride. I was stumped and could not see how this could be anything other than the utilization of Daguerre’s “light-proof boxes” on the back of a dyed section of linen. The images created by Daguerre seemed to be permanent and not reversible.

But I was thinking of how this spoke to the public’s insatiable appetite for visual spectacle and curious about the compositions and touring productions venues. One of their shows opened at the City Hotel in Brooklyn on December 20, 1843. A later article (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Feb, 1844, page 2) described the Chemical Paintings for the Milan Cathedral scene: “The first appearance of the picture – which represents a day scene – does not impress the beholder with anything like an adequate idea of the subject; but presently the gorgeous hues of an Italian sunset fall upon it, and the turrets, spires and statuary of the Cathedral, as well as neighboring café and exchange, are bathed in a ruddy glare of light. To this twilight succeeds, when the picture assumes a beautifully calm and soft aspect. Finally, the shades of night fall upon it, and the moon darts her beams upon the tall pinnacles – which appear to stand out in bold relief, while the sky gradually becomes enlightened. At this point of the exhibition, the spectator involuntarily breaks forth in applause. But its grandeur and artistical skill are not fully apparent until the illumination takes place. Then you see persons clustering about the café and exchange, or going to the midnight mass, while the solemn notes of the bell and organ seem to invest the multitude with life and motion. It is really a very splendid thing” (15 February 1844, page 2). Ads promised “A glance at the “Cathedral of Milan,” when illuminated for the midnight mass, is alone worth the price of admission” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 February 1844, page 2).

To be continued…

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