What is a Cyanotype?

Cyanotypes of feathers made by Amanda Jirón-Murphy.

Cyanotypes of feathers made by Amanda Jirón-Murphy.

We’ve been talking cyanotypes here with Snapshot in the galleries. The show features a few photographs of that process by Henri Rivière and last week we held a workshop. So what is a cyanotype?

Cyanotype is a 170 year old photographic printing process that produces prints in a distinctive dark greenish-blue. The word cyan comes from the Greek, meaning  “dark blue substance.”

The process was invented by Sir John Herschel, a brilliant astronomer and scientist, in 1842. (His father was the astronomer Sir William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus. Interestingly, Uranus, due to mostly methane gas in its atmosphere, appears cyan blue.)

However, Herschel did not use cyanotype for photography, but for reproducing notes. It was a family friend, the botanist Anna Atkins, who used the cyanotype printing process in 1843 to create an album of algae specimens. She created the images by placing objects directly on photosensitive paper; this process is called a photogram (unless you are Man Ray, in which case you call it a rayograph). She is regarded as the first female photographer.

Compared to other photographic printing processes, cyanotype is easy and inexpensive. No darkroom is needed, instead it uses the power of the sun and iron salt solutions rather than the silver salt solution of black and white photography. Ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide are combined, and exposure to UV light creates ferric ferrocyanide, also known as Prussian Blue (named for the color of the Prussian military uniforms.) The cyanotype process was also used to create copies of technical and architectural plans, and these copies were called blueprints; even though the cyanotype process is no longer used, any construction document or detailed plan is still referred to as a blueprint.

Although most of today’s digital cameras have settings like “black and white,” “sepia,” and “blue,” the “blue” is clearly not a cyanotype. Mixing up your own home alchemy is not recommended, since the chemicals are, as chemist and photographer Mike Ware writes, “toxic if ingested . . . and it will obviously stain skin, wood, clothes, textiles, household pets and any other absorbent surfaces.” However, there are easier ways to work your own cyan magic.

You could do-it-yourself. Even Martha Stewart has instructions online that make me want to Do It Now!

Or you can buy ready-to-print supplies online.

Or, for instant gratification, our Museum Shop carries a Sunography kit, containing six pieces of 5″x7″ coated-on-both-sides archival paper. You don’t have to use a whole sheet but can cut it to make smaller images. All you need is your inspired creativity and our friend the Sun.

Finally, here’s how to care for your cyanotypes.

And remember, if you make a photogram, you can always rename it after yourself, just like Man Ray.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

The International Effort to Bring Charles to Washington

Henri Evenepoel, Charles in a Striped Jersey, ca. 1898.

Henri Evenepoel, Charles in a Striped Jersey, ca. 1898. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 19 5/8 in. (73 x 50 cm.) Fondation Roi Baudouin, Brussels. A gift from Anne and André Leysen.

Unbeknownst to members of the press as they streamed into the beautiful Snapshot galleries for a preview on February 1, a star work in the exhibition had finally been placed on the wall just moments before.

If you’ve walked through Snapshot, chances are that for you, as for the majority of other viewers, it’s your first encounter with Belgian artist Henri Evenepoel‘s paintings and photographs. The Phillips Collection is the first museum in the United States to present his works, despite his renown in his home country. Among self-portraits and loving images of his family, you may have discovered Charles in a Striped Jersey.

In the exhibition’s early planning stages, curators instantly recognized this work as a masterpiece and decided it was integral in introducing Evenepoel’s work to American audiences. Phillips Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone, who wrote the catalogue essay on Evenepoel, knew she had to track down the painting and secure it for the show.

After research and a visit to Belgium to seek help from the Patrick Derom Gallery, the piece was located–a promised gift from a private family to the King Baudouin Foundation collection in Brussels. Eliza sent a loan request to the family and, after much back and forth, they agreed to lend the painting, but only to the exhibition’s first venue, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for the beloved work had a busy schedule. After the showing at the Van Gogh Museum, it was due to move quickly to an exhibition in Brussels organized by the King Baudouin Foundation where it would be on view until just one week before Snapshot opened. Not much time for a transatlantic journey . . .

Knowing how important the painting was to the exhibition, Eliza mounted a campaign to convince the owners to lend the piece anyway. Eliza pled her case at the Belgian Embassy, to both the ambassador and cultural attaché. She made it clear to the painting’s owners and  to the King Baudouin Foundation that we would accept Charles no matter how late he arrived. Eliza’s tenacity paid off, and with great support from both the Belgian Embassy and the lenders, the painting was finally cleared to make its first journey across the Atlantic. Charles in a Striped Jersey arrived the day before the exhibition’s press preview, and after a mandatory 24 hour respite in its crate, was installed just in time.

Since its installation, Charles in a Striped Jersey has been a star attraction and has not only introduced viewers to the talents of a previously unknown artist, but demonstrated the importance of The Phillips Collection’s relationships with embassies and international organizations. The family that loaned the painting visited us to see the work hung in the exhibition and were extremely proud to play a role in introducing Evenepoel to Washington, D.C. The Embassy of Belgium hosted a dinner at the Ambassador’s residence to celebrate the introduction of this extraordinary Belgian artist to a U.S. audience.

The Phillips Collection is extremely appreciative of all those who made such a beautiful, important loan possible. We are proud to be the first and possibly only venue to display Evenepoel’s masterpiece Charles in a Striped Jersey in the U.S.

Congenial Spirits: Nudes 100 Years Apart

Duncan Phillips once explained “I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time.” Phillips’s curatorial philosophy is a hallmark of The Phillips Collection and gives visitors the opportunity to see artworks from different time periods, originating from different countries, created by different artists displayed together under one roof.  Displaying artworks in this way allows visitors to discover new relationships between familiar artworks.

(left) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Small Bather, 1826. Oil on canvas, 12 7/8 x 9 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1948.(right) Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, c. 1935. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952.

(left) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Small Bather, 1826. Oil on canvas, 12 7/8 x 9 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1948.(right) Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, c. 1935. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Small Bather (1826) and Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) provided such a point of departure for one of my recent tours of special exhibition Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard. As I did visitors on my tour, I invite you to consider the relationship between these two artworks, and ask yourself the following set of questions:

What do you see in each work of art?
What is the subject?
How would you describe the style of each painting?

Next, consider additional question:

What are some similarities and differences in both the style and subject of these two artworks?

And finally, ask yourself:

How might the invention of the camera inspire some of the differences between the two artworks?

I encourage you to share your observations in the comment section below.  You can read some responses I received on my tour after the jump. Continue reading