Technology and Innovation

Almost from the beginning of human history, certain colorants have been considered valuable enough to carry long distances and trade between tribal groups. From naturally-occurring pigments like red and yellow ochre, manganese, and lead to modern synthetic dyes and pigments available in every hue imaginable, the desire for colorful fabrics and decorative objects has driven technological innovation in textiles, ceramics, photography, printmaking, and the fine arts.

Abbie Churchill  Henry C. Byrd (1804-1884)
Little Rock, Pulaski Co., Arkansas
ca. 1857
Oil on mattress ticking
42 ¼ x 37 ½ in.
Accession No: 98.51.1
Gala Fund Purchase in honor of  Adron  and Ginger Crews

Technology  and  Innovation:  How have the fine art painter’s tools changed since the 1850s?

When artist Henry Byrd made this portrait of young Abbie Churchill in the late 1850s, the painter’s tools and techniques had not changed much since 1400s, but American and European artists were poised on the precipice of rapid technological development. Before the overwhelming adoption of the collapsible paint tube, invented in 1841, each pigment was ground into linseed or poppy seed oil using a glass muller on a stone slab. For the sake of economy, most artists made only enough paint for the day’s work, laying out just a few colors on a relatively small palette.

Standing at his easel, the 19th-century artist needed a solid foundation in draftsmanship, but he also had to remember a dizzying number of rules governing the possibilities and limitations of each pigment. Some pigments could not be worked with oil, and many pigments created chemical reactions when mixed, altering colors and even eating away at the linen support. Wax, alum, chalk, and other drying agents were added to correct what were seen as deficiencies in each pigment’s intrinsic properties. Itinerant artists like Henry Byrd probably would’ve purchased raw pigments and other fine art supplies from a merchant like S.H. Tucker, a Little Rock dealer in a wide variety of dry goods and stationery shipped to Arkansas through contact with wholesalers in bigger port cities like New Orleans. In lieu of fine linen canvas from England, Byrd painted this portrait on a support of tightly-woven blue and white mattress ticking.




Black Vulture or Carrion Crow
Drawn from nature by John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Engraved, printed and colored by Robert  Havell
Double elephant folio
37 x 47 in.
Accession No: 93.34
Gift of Dr. Alex A. Pappas

Technology and Innovation: How were colored prints made for Audubon's original The Birds of America?

Before the invention of photography and precision-ground lenses, if you wanted to study birds closely, you needed to be handy with a rifle. American naturalist John James Audubon was interested in the fledgling field of ornithology from a young age, and he spent hundreds of hours shooting and sketching wild birds. To create life-like poses, he pinned a freshly-killed bird to a board of his own design, wiring it into place and working quickly with pencils and watercolor before the creature deteriorated beyond use.

Almost from the beginning, Audubon was determined that even the biggest birds he drew should be reproduced at life-size. When printers Robert  Havel l and his son were hired, they used the largest paper then available, the double elephant folio. Robert  Havell  Jr. first created a copperplate engraving based on each of Audubon’s original drawings by incising the design into a sheet of copper with a sharp tool called a burin. Then he inked the entire copper plate and wiped it clean, so black ink remained only within the incised lines. A printing process called aquatint was used to create effects like texture and value. Color printing was in its infancy in the 1830s, so once the black lines were printed, color was added by hand using watercolor paints. Robert  Havell  Sr. created one perfect ‘pattern’ print that was copied over and over by a team of colorists who painted each print to match the reference pattern.

Black Japanned chair
Maker unknown Likely American
19th century
Maple or pine with fabric cover over original rush seat
32 x 14 ½ in.
Accession No: 73.11.7
Gift of the  Elger  Estate

Technology & Innovation: Why was this chair painted gold and black? 

Fueled by increasing trade with countries like Japan and China in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans and Americans developed a taste for all things Asian. The love for "Oriental" imports included art, ceramics, textiles, and perhaps most of all, black lacquered furniture. Lacquer finishes were prized for their lustrous depth and striking black sheen and those who could afford it incorporated imported pieces into their home decor. Yet for many people, high price and limited supply meant that authentic lacquered furniture was out of reach.

Lacquer is made of carefully processed sap from the Chinese lacquer tree, which is a species Western craftsmen didn't have access to. Ever ingenious, they developed ways to replicate the glossy black finish by using varnishes, a product derived from plant resin. Cabinet makers and furniture decorators called their faux-lacquered furniture “japanning”; the mistaken view of the time was that “Japan” encompassed all of  southeas t Asia, India, and China. This process further imitated imported furniture by incorporating faux bamboo, floral, porcelain elements, and gilt chinoiserie  designs. Fine black lines, referred to at the time as pen work,  were  applied to further enhance the lacquer designs.

Crazy quilt square
Maker unknown
ca. 1890
Silk, velvet and cotton
9 ¼ x 10 ½ in.
Accession No: 2003.4.120
Gift of Peg Newton Smith

Technology  and  Innovation:  How did a Victorian quilter have  access to  such a wide variety of fabrics?

A Victorian-era crazy quilt square holds a myriad of 30 unique pieces of fabric. Velvets in chocolatey earth tones and silks in pale pink and crimson red are accented by yellow and white embroidery stitches. Composed of a household’s clothing and textile remnants, this crazy quilt square is a wonderful way to see the variety of fabrics available to Americans during the second half of the 19th century. Mail-order design books such as  Godey’s  an d Journal of Design  offered Americans the latest fabric samples, from patterned cottons and calicoes to high-styled silk, chiffon and crepe for fine dresses. For the first time, Americans (not just the wealthy elite) could purchase textiles of varying colors, patterns, and textures.

The industrialization of textiles in this country during the 19th century provided Americans with an unprecedented abundance of affordable fabric. Manufacturers in major cities produced fabrics like silk, velvet, and cottons in varying colorful prints. This new found supply essentially gave rise to the pieced quilt in America. In particular, crazy quilts—which got their name from the seemingly random arrangement of fabric pieces—appealed to needle workers of all skillsets and economic means. The crazy pattern was widely adored for the chance it gave its maker to add personal touches  such as memorial ribbons and personal initials, and  to  make use of her “rag bag” of dress and household textile remnants.

“Currant” Flock Paper for General Purposes
Manufactured by  Woollams  and Co.
The Journal of Design
Flock paper, paint
5 x 4 in.
Accession No: 87.68.2

Technology  and  Innovation:  What toxic ingredient created green in early Victorian wallpaper?

Victorians fell in love with a particular color called “Scheele’s Green,” named after the Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who first developed it. But the secret ingredient used to make this lusted-for hue was arsenic, an extremely toxic naturally-occurring element mined and used by manufacturers to color paint, wallpapers, and clothing. Arsenic was blamed for the deaths of miners and many consumers who were exposed to this pigment through painted objects and home furnishings like wallpaper.

Arsenic is a metalloid, meaning it and can bind with another metal to form an alloy, or a compound mixture. Scheele first combined arsenic in the 1770s with copper when he produced his brighter-than-usual green pigment. The copper-to-arsenic ratio, along with the degree of heat applied during the bonding process, determines the intensity of the resulting green. Even though arsenic was used as a rat poison at the time, consumers and manufacturers continued to deny its toxic effect on humans. However, as number of arsenic-related illnesses and a deaths rose, manufacturers eventually stopped using it in their production.

Machine printed-wallpaper entered the mass market after 1840. Mechanized rollers allowed manufacturers to produce a higher volume of paper, making wallpaper more accessible and affordable to middle class Americans than traditional block-printed wallpaper. Rococo revival floral patterns were especially popular during the first half of the 19th century.

Orange tureen
Maker unknown
Canton, China
ca. 1810
Glazed hard-paste porcelain
11 ½ x 14 ½ x 8 ¾ in.
Accession No: 2006.45.1
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. Howard Stebbins, III.

Technology  and Innovation:  How was this tureen made?

Chinese porcelain, “chinaware,” has always been popular in America. In 1785, when America’s  firs t merchant ship in the Chinese trade returned from Canton, her hull contained the porcelain pieces made to order for the American market. The mechanics of the porcelain trade with the West was a streamlined, multi-step process  completed at several different locations. From the digging of clay,  the  forming  of  objects at a potter’s wheel or using a mold,  the  decorating and glazing, the firing of kilns, to the final packing and distributing of the items to merchants, this process was automated at different villages established for each  individual step.

At Canton, the vessels received final decorations specified by their buyers. Traders shared designs and personalized emblems from their customers with the painters who masterfully copied these designs.  While visiting Canton in 1769, American traveler William Hickey noted, “we found upwards of a hundred persons at work in sketching or finishing the various ornaments upon each particular piece of ware, some parts being executed by men of a very advanced age, and others by children even so young as six or seven years.”

This tureen features  the Fitzhugh,  an immensely popular pattern of the time,  with a floral quadrant of chrysanthemum clusters spaced around a central field which was filled with the buyer’s  own design. The orange over-glaze, with a personalized emblem of the rampant United States bald eagle, painted  en grisaille  (dark brown over-glaze enamel painted to present an appearance with more shades) is an extremely rare combination. 

Roderweis  family outside their home
Photographer unknown
Jacksonville, AR
ca. 1880
Photographic print and watercolor
10 ½ x 11 ½ in.
Accession No: 96.49.2
Gift of the Estate of Ina Dupree

Technology  and Innovation:  Why did this late 19th century family have their photograph color-tinted?

When the  Roderweis  family posed before their home circa 1890, innovators in the field of photography had not yet figured out how to feasibly process color photographs. Still, it’s fair to say that everyone yearned to see their lives captured in color. The photography industry’s solution was (for only a few pennies more) to colorize the black and white prints by hand.

After they were processed, the photographic prints were  tinted  by a “colorist,” a trained professional usually hired by the photographer.  It was common for the photographer to make color notes on the back of his print for the hand-tinter to use as her guide. The colorist applied her colors with a small brush, using pastel, oil, or watercolor. Varnishing the print first  ensured  an even application of the color medium.

The colorizing of  Roderweis’s  print was perhaps a bit of an amateur job, or the family chose a minimal but affordable treatment. The artist brushed the principal elements of the image: the ground (grass & vegetation), the roof of the home, and a big blue sky. The five members of the  Roderweis  family remain untouched, and stand in their original black and white forms.