The Lumière Brothers: The World in Colour

Lumière Brothers Studio, Still-life with Lobster, c.1907. Autochrome on glass with paper sealing tape, 12.9 x 17.8 cm. Purchased 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Institut Lumière Photo: NGC

Photography’s emergence as a naturalistic and relatively fast way of composing and obtaining pictures revolutionized image-making. The public embraced this product of technology and chemistry with great enthusiasm, but – just as our global society today is exposed to a voluminous and constant stream of images – the mid-19th century audience was also overwhelmed by these mechanically and yet apparently magically produced images. Were these images fact or fiction? Art or science?

From the outset, photographers and a steadily increasing number of amateur practitioners demanded and inspired inventions that would accelerate the process of capturing images. Photographers thus learned the techniques – and their limitations – from their predecessors. They also determined needs for new processes that would be faster, have higher standards of definition and capacities of reproducibility, and formally more adaptable to changing aesthetics. And, to make images that were more naturalistic, they needed to conquer the issue of colour.

Decades passed between the practice of hand-colouring daguerreotypes and paper prints to the arrival of the autochrome, the first commercially viable colour process. In parallel, the departure from the concept of the photograph as a mirror of the world to the staging of scenes was an innovation that not only allowed 19th-century photographers to participate in prevailing painting genres, but earned them a more elevated artistic status. These early works ranged from modest re-arrangements to highly theatrical tableaux.

From the 1890s onward, the Lumière Brothers experimented with colour photography and, in 1903–04, they invented their autochrome plates. Patented as Autochrome Lumière, it is accepted as the first commercially available colour photographic process. The brothers were the sole manufacturers of autochrome plates, for which the method of production entailed several complex steps that precluded individual photographers preparing their own plates. 

Born in Besançon, France, the Lumière brothers – Auguste Marie Nicolas (1862–1954) and Louis Jean (1864–1948) – were well placed to make the contributions for which they are still celebrated. After attending the largest technical school in Lyon, Le Martinière, they would apply their considerable talents to saving their father’s photographic plate-making factory from near-bankruptcy by automating production. They would go on to create new successful photographic plates, called ”etiquettes bleues” and in 1895 produced what was purportedly the first moving picture.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Fruit and Butterflies, 1652. Oil on oak, 32.8 x 48.8 cm. Purchased 1982. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Their 1907 Autochrome of a still-life with lobster achieves a high level of colour vibrancy and resolution that must have made it an exemplary work with which to boast to potential clients, a good example of the level of the fidelity of their process. Resembling a photograph of a 17th-century Dutch still life painting in the style of artists such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem (who frequently included lobsters as subjects), and Willem Kalf, it is conceivable that the brothers made this image as a way of testing the degree to which their autochrome plates could produce colour fidelity that would rival that of a painter’s palette and serve as a means of reproducing works of art.

Heinrich Kühn, Hans, Mary Warner and Lotte, 1907. Autochrome on glass with paper sealing tape, 18 x 24 cm. Purchased 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The contemporary Austrian photographer Heinrich Kühn was attracted to the autochrome process for the range of hues it offered. As a photographer who maximized painterly attributes of tonal harmony and already added pigments to basic light-sensitive process, the act of working with a photographic process featuring integrated colour – like the autochrome – was a natural stage in Kühn’s evolution as an artist photographer.

The Lumière Brothers manufactured Autochrome plates until about 1940. They are perhaps better known for another invention, the Cinématographe, and the resulting 50-second films they produced between 1895 and 1905. Having famously claimed that film had no future, they seemed to have been far more interested in experimenting with the prospects for colour film.


The article draws on material published in the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition catalogue The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, available at the NGC Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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