All that glitters is not gold

A fascinating piece of technical research on the use of gold in 19th-century hand-coloured lithographs, commissioned by La Comédie Française in 1826-1827 for the première of two new plays, yield some unexpected results.

In 1680, Louis XIV of France funded La Comédie Française – or Le Théatre Français – by royal decree, in order to promote French Classical theatre. Plays by La Comédie Française have set excellent standards in all domains of theatre creation, including costume design. The theatre staged seven new plays in the 1820s. The original sketches for the costumes were kept in the theatre’s library (currently part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and reproduced in hand-coloured lithographs, commissioned by La Comédie Française itself. The Rijksmuseum owns several of these lithographs, depicting costumes from the plays Le Siège de Paris, Marcel, and Louis XI à Péronne, each of which premiered in 1826 or 1827.

The plays had one thing in common: they all address an event taken from French history. There was indeed a growing interest in the past, and particularly the Middle Ages, and historical accuracy was increasingly important. Hence, the costumes were no longer devised by a costume designer who drew inspiration from the not always accurately portrayed classical attire on history paintings, but instead by an artist who for his sketches investigated the past. For some time,  La Comédie Française worked together with the painter Eugène Delacroix, followed by Jean Alaux. Both artists collaborated with costume designer Henri Duponchel, in a partnership that was quite novel at the time.

Fig. 1:  Le Siège de Paris, Martin Sylvestre Baptise, after Henri Duponchel, after Jean Alaux, 1826, paper,  h365 x w277 mm, RP-P-1904-3835, with the sword and details in clothing and headband coloured with glittery pigments.

For each theatre play, La Comédie Française published a series of lithographs depicting the costumes of the characters from the story. The craftsmen who coloured the lithographs produced different more or less elaborate editions, using either fairly expensive or more affordable pigments. This is for example, illustrated by the clothes of the young Frank Osvin (Fig. 1), and those of Jean de Maillard (Fig. 2), two characters from different plays. Both costumes include metal accessories with a similar glittery appearance. Frank Osvin wears a metallic headband and carries a sword with shiny, metallic inclusions to which correspond brown areas of discolouration on the verso of the print. Jean de Maillard’s belt and other accessories are visually slightly shinier but are not associated with any paper degradation.

Fig. 4 The  real gold in Jean de Maillard’s belt and accessories reflects the light much more than the copper based pigment in Frank Osvin  under raking light (HIROX image, x 35)

XRF was used to identify metallic elements present on both prints. In this case gold glitter was used to highlight Jean de Maillard’s accessories, while Frank Osvin’s headband and sword were merely coloured with brass, a copper and zinc alloy (Fig. 3).

RP-P-1904-3835 and 3841 both graphs with Cu and Au peaks identified
Fig. 3 Comparison between XRF peaks for metallic garments of Jean de Maillard (RP-P-1904-3841) in red, showing a strong peaks for gold (Au) which is absent on the purple graph, and Frank Osvin (RP-P-1904-3835) in purple, showing strong peak for copper (Cu) which is absent on the red graph.

A closer look to these metallic garments using HIROX digital microscopy reveals interesting differences in surface appearance.

Fig. 4 The gold  in Jean de Maillard’s accessories is unaffected by corrosion  (HIROX image, x 140)

The gold does not show any corrosion while the brass does. The latter presents dark, greenish areas of corrosion, which contribute to a less shiny appearance. The rather flat surface of the gold flakes reflects the light much more efficiently than the scattered light reflected by the rougher and somewhat chunkier surface of the brass particles. The glitter from Jean de Maillard’s belt therefore looks brighter than that of Frank Osvin’s accessories.

Fig. 8 The very flat and smooth gold flakes reflect light better than the rougher, irregular copper based pigment  (HIROX image, x 700).

As for the reasons to use ‘real’ or ‘fake’ gold, the most parsimonious explanation would be that quality was guided by the market. The retail price of finely hand-coloured lithographs with real gold would have been justifiably higher.

With thanks to Francoise Richard, Rozanne de Bruijne and Femke Coevert.



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