Art Markets: Hand-painted photo art can fool the eye

Recently a customer brought what he thought was a painting to an appraiser for evaluation. The framed artwork was a landscape, signed and titled at the margins, apparently painted in soft, muted colors. But the appraiser noticed a silvery shadow at the edges, a telltale sign of the oxidation that can occur with old black and white photographs. It turned out that the picture was actually a skillfully hand colored photograph printed on cotton stock and adhered to a board before it was matted and framed.

The first thought upon this discovery was that the picture was the work of the best known exponent of painted photo landscapes, Wallace Nutting. Alas, the indecipherable signature was not the distinctive Nutting flourish. A nice piece of work from an unknown hand, the tinted photograph was worth around $75. If it had born Nutting’s signature, it could have fetched at least twice as much.

In his day, Wallace Nutting (1861-1941) was among the most popular and prolific artists working in America. By his own estimation, millions of his fanciful photos were produced into what became a cottage industry for the man who started out as a preacher.

Along with lithographs, hand-tinted photographs were an affordable way for the growing middle-class to add art to the walls of their homes. These mass produced works on paper brightened the lives of Americans who could not afford to commission or purchase original paintings.

During the early 20th century, modestly priced hand-colored photos created as art was a unique concept distinct from the mechanically reproduced prints on the market for the general public. Hundreds of artists and illustrators were creating works, reproduced for magazines and periodicals, calendars, books and advertising markets.  These works were fashioned to sell a product, not the artwork. Published in disposable formats, many of these pictures were quickly lost.  But some of the images became popular and were then reproduced as inexpensive framed art prints. Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) is a classic example of an illustrator for the trade who went on to be published as an artist.

Nutting began taking photos of his surroundings on the East Coast in 1899. Inspired by what he called “a love of the beautiful,” his photographs captured an Arcadian ambiance that the natural landscape, endowed with an endless bounty of pastoral views, provided. Nutting never considered himself to be an artist. After studying theology at Harvard and graduating in 1887, he became a Congregational minister. In 1893 he was awarded a doctor of divinity but his life as a cleric was cut short when at the age of 43, plagued by ill-health, he reluctantly retired from his ministry.

He pursued his photography and in 1904 founded the Wallace Nutting Art Prints Studio in New York City. A year later, he relocated his enterprise to a farm in Southbury, Conn., dubbing it “Nuttinghame.” By 1912 he had moved again, this time to Framingham, Mass., where he settled permanently with studio and home and called it “Nuttingholme.” He employed up to 200 colorists, who were hand-painting photographs of what became the Nutting signature style of softly lit photos of hearth and home.

Nutting is regarded as being the influence behind the early 20th century revival of the American Colonial style. Typical of his interior scenes would be a woman seated by a fireplace, dressed in colonial attire, crafting needlework with the warm fire burning nearby. Cozy and inviting were the prevalent themes in these popular images. Another mark of interest for Nutting was exterior depictions of colonial facades of homes, with a woman and child posing outside the front door, dressed in fine period fashion, welcoming the viewer into their home, and perhaps into the world in a quieter time.

As hand-colored photo art became popular, hundreds of photographers throughout the country produced snaps of foreign and regional travel, historic landmarks and interior scenes. As with the Nutting Studio, the presentation of the completed work usually displayed the photo mounted on a matboard support and included a pencil signature of the photographer and a title of the piece, inscribed directly below the image. Often the hand-colored photograph would be matted and framed with hand-painted embellishments on the frame.

Collector interest in 20th century hand-colored photography produced between 1900-1940 is active  with many treasures still to be found. Wallace Nutting remains at the top of the market in sales. Several photographers who worked with Nutting went on to establish their own careers in the genre. They include David Davidson (1881-1967), Charles Sawyer (1868-1954) and Fred Thompson (1844-1909).

Davidson opened the David Davidson Studio in 1907 in Rhode Island and also produced millions of hand-colored photographs until its closing in the mid-century. Similar to Nutting in style and technical skill, he has been called second only to Nutting.

The Sawyer Picture Company in Concord, N.H., thrived from 1903 well into the 1970s, surviving nearly two decades beyond founder Charles Sawyer’s death. Depictions of the state’s landscapes were the firm’s popular product. Monterey coastal scenes were also produced. The business of landscape and pictorial hand-colored photographs were marketed as tourist art. Not unlike postcards, they were of interest to travelers to the area who would purchase a hand-colored framed photograph  of a local scene and display it as a remembrance of a place visited.

Of the three most popular photographers competing with Nutting, Fred Thompson’s studio had the shortest course for its founder. Established in 1908 in Portland, Maine, the Thompson Art Company featured New England landscapes and tall-masted sailing ships. Not long after launching the business, Thompson committed suicide in 1909.  His son, Frederick M. (1876-1923) continued operating the company until his death.

The works of these four photographers routinely appear at auction. The most commonly seen are Nutting’s, which command the highest prices. From under $100 to close to $1,000 for a multiple lot, a piece of history from the Wallace Nutting Studio can be easily obtained at auction. But you don’t necessarily need to go to an auction house. Walk into most any antique shop in America and you’re likely to find hand-colored photographs from the period, some by Nutting and his associates and many more by the forgotten artisans who followed in their path.

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