Chemical Inspirations: Printing and Representing “Rainbow”-Style Textiles during the First Decade of Photography

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, March 11, 2020
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk by Courtney Wilder, Allington Dissertation Fellow at the Science History Institute.


Courtney Wilder

Courtney Wilder

Science History Institute/Jay Muhlin

In 1843 a rage for fabrics printed in the “rainbow” style spread across Europe. These fabrics exhibited subtly fading bands of bright colors obtained through chemical innovations in dyeing (colors that, nonetheless, often proved fugitive). By 1848 the rainbow fabrics had faded from fashion, and extant examples have been locked away in museum storerooms or hidden in obscure manufacturers’ and dyers’ trial books. The paucity of visual representations of rainbow fabrics is also to blame for their absence in the collective imaginary of 1840s fashion: painted portraiture eschewed them in favor of more neutral, timeless textiles, while photography at the time was incapable of recording the rainbow fabrics’ prismatic colors. However, this presentation argues that though they appear “faded,” representations of rainbow garments in early photographs in fact offer one of the period’s most synergistic alliances between pictorial element and representational medium. Part of this visual dynamism lies in the graphic inspiration that rainbow textile designs seemingly drew from experimental photogenic drawings. Conversely, photographers pursuing a modern form of art portraiture, in particular the Scottish team of Hill and Adamson, seemed to embrace the challenges of representing fashionable “fading” fabrics in a medium constantly fighting this effect. That some of the period’s most important textile chemists, such as John Mercer in England and Daniel Dollfus-Ausset in France, were also early dabblers in photography underlines the sympathy that existed between these industrial art forms. As this presentation reveals, this cross-media sympathy is manifested especially powerfully in apparently faded photographs of rainbow-printed textiles.


About the Speaker

Courtney Wilder is a PhD candidate in history of art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her scholarship seeks to explore the visual and material culture of everyday life, especially as it was influenced by technological change. She is currently working on her dissertation titled “Novel Impressions: Prints, Textiles, and the Visual Economy in Europe, 1815–1851.” The dissertation explores the expanding imaginative possibilities that textile printing in particular represented as a powerful economic, scientific, and social force within a rapidly expanding consumer market. The dissertation asks how these stylistic shifts were anticipated and driven by, as well as mirrored in, the broader cultures of print, an area similarly affected by new technologies and that was being directed at new audiences.

Courtney holds an MA in history of art from the University of California, Riverside, and a BA in history from Vanderbilt University. She has also held curatorial research positions at the Getty Research Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.


About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

Please Note

In response to concerns about the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Science History Institute is adjusting activities to limit interpersonal contact (for example, using larger rooms and more distance between chairs) and increasing the frequency of cleaning common areas and wiping down frequently touched surfaces. We will continue to monitor the situation in Philadelphia and will make further adjustments as needed.