Painted Photograph of an Unknown Man (ca. 1855–70)


After some years of experimentation, in 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced that he’d developed a way of making a lasting image using, not the artist’s brush or pen, but the rays of the sun. Around the same time as the “daguerreotype” came to being, across the channel the English scientist Henry Fox Talbot also invented a way of capturing the fleeting world into image — in this case not onto a silvered plate as had Daguerre but rather onto paper treated with salt and silver nitrate, a “salted paper print”. And so, with these two men’s efforts, the revolutionary art of photography was truly born. It would be some decades though before colour could be captured, and so, with demand for colourful images high, photographic studios soon began to hand-colour their monochrome prints. Only three years after Daguerre’s announcement, came the first American patent for hand-colouring daguerreotypes, with a second patent following soon after. There were two ways to steer a photograph, be it a daguerreotype or a salted print, from its monochrome existence into the world of colour: hand tinting, which involved subtly painting the image so that it was still identifiable as a photograph, and “over-painting”, painting over a photograph so completely so as to entirely obscure its technological origins. The wonderful example featured above, a salted print found in the collection of the Rijksmuseum and of unknown provenance, is unusual in that it seems to be neither of these. The bold, almost Van Gogh-esque, application of the paint seems to imply a desire to pass the image off as a painting, but there are sections of the photograph left entirely untouched. It could, of course, be that the job simply, for whatever reason, went unfinished. Though it is perhaps nice to think that this hybrid effect was deliberate — a conscious reflection of a radical period in art history, where the centuries old tradition of painting was meeting a quite different method of capturing a moment in time.

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  • Alan

    Its not a daguerreotype but a “salted paper print” (follow the Rijiksmusem link) that has been over painted. Its clearly on paper, just a little bit of research would have informed you that its obviously not a silvered metal plate.

    • Public Domain Review

      Hi Alan, it was certainly not our intention to say it was a daguerreotype. The daguerreotype process was mentioned only in that, being the first kind of publicly available photographic process, it represents the art of photography as a whole, and thus its “intrusion” into the dominance of painting — and also that the daguerrotype seemingly was the first medium to be subject to this “overpainting”. But having said all that, I realise it could be easily be read as to say the image is indeed a daguerrotype — so sincere apologies for this carelessness. When making the post, in fact, the Rijksmuseum did not state it was a “salted paper print”, merely that the medium was “paper” (which we figured was obvious). It seems they’ve now updated the information. And we shall do the same so as to make this a little clearer. Thanks so much for your help!