At first glance you cannot tell.
The colours are rich, the subject common among painters of the Hudson School. A misty light illuminates an Autumn landscape. The autumn glow of the changing leaves is mirrored in sky and water. The details – the small figures, the autumn leaves picked out by a shaft of light on the branch above the two women seated on the bank, the reeds and and water plants in the foreground – fade away from us into the softness of an autumn mist.
The picture is carefully composed. The trees rising from the banks frame the horizontal surfaces of the water and the banks around it. Dimly seen mountains in the background knit the vertical and horizontal elements together. The expanse of the sky above and the small size of the man, his boat, and the women on the bank establish the scale, the vastness of the landscape.
But the thing I find most interesting about this picture is that it is not actually a painting. It is a chromolithograph of a painting by Alfred Thompson Bricher, a painting called Autumn.
Chromolithographs were a type of print developed in the nineteenth century. Artists like Bricher used the then-new technology to make copies of their work which they could then sell for much less than the original. The technology made his work more accessible to more people, and greater accessibility helped him develop more of a following as well as allowing him to sell to a whole new group of people. A great asset for artists who had to live on the proceeds from their work.
More accessible did not mean easily produced, though. Chromolithographs were very complex. Each colour, each shade in a painting had to be reproduced in the print. This was done by using a separate plate or stone to print each colour, which meant that each colour had to be placed exactly where it should be on each print – a long, involved process which required a very good eye for and understanding of colour, and great accuracy on the part of the lithographer and his team.
Well done, the layering of the colours created a very rich finish; the end product could look very much like an oil painting, and good prints became (and still are) collectors’ items. Bricher, an astute businessman as well as a popular artist, had numerous chromolithographs made of his work.
It helped that he had found a niche popular with many – more widely, he created beautifully executed, deftly composed paintings of coastal or lake or river scenes; more narrowly, he was known for his atmospheric paintings of Autumn. It also helped that his paintings are full of beautiful colours, speak of sunlight, and catch the illusion of depth in the water and movement in the waves. His ability to do this was no doubt a result both of his hard work and his close observation of the subjects he painted.
The chromolithographic prints increased his reputation by allowing more people to see and buy his work – but only because of his talent, skill and hard work.
Perhaps the lesson is the same now as then: technology may give us new ways to reach out to an audience, but for anyone to care we must have something worthwhile to share.