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Lost Art in Autochrome

J.B. Kerfoot, c. 1910

Every once in a while at MCHA, a dusty box reveals a truly unexpected gem. Such was the case with a donation of images taken by John Bartlett Kerfoot (1865 - 1927), a respected photographer and antiques dealer in Freehold. In 1917, Kerfoot opened what became a prestigious antiques shop on the corner of South and Elm called The House with the Brick Wall. Both the house and its wall still stand today. Many illustrious collectors were regular patrons, including Robert W. DeForest, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1913 - 1931) and founder of its American Wing in 1922.

Before the days of the cellulose film negatives most of us are familiar with, the medium used to produce standard monochromatic images was a fragile glass plate coated in a light-sensitive emulsion. Originally, photographers had to coat their own plates, resulting in uneven application and wet edges that often inadvertently bore the stamp of their thumb. Kerfoot’s era produced the more convenient pre-coated dry plate, commonly used from the 1880s through the 1920s. In 1904, the Lumiere Bros. of France patented an exciting new developing process called Autochrome that produced rich color images with a soft, ethereal quality. They made their much-anticipated color plates commercially available in 1907 to the excitement of both professional and amateur photographers alike.

Examples of Autochrome images:

First image: Christina, 1913. The Royal Photographic Society. Second Image: Three Little Girls Next to Kastel Fortress in Bosnia, 1912. Musee Albert-Kahn. Third image: Bosnian Woman with Tattooed Arms, 1912. Musee Albert-Kahn.

Constantin Brancusi

In 1914, Kerfoot used these Autochrome plates to capture color images of sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s (1876 - 1957) first solo art exhibit at Alfred Stieglitz’s provocative 291 gallery. After studying for a short time under Auguste Rodin in Paris, Brancusi rose to fame at the landmark 1913 Armory Show of modern art in New York. He is now widely considered both the patriarch of modern sculpture and one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. Of the works on view at 291 , The First Step was Brancusi’s first piece in wood. Done in a primitive African style, it depicted the form of a child about to walk. The avante-garde representation set the stage for Brancusi’s bold contribution to the shaping of modernism.

It was after this exhibition that Brancusi destroyed The First Step in order to re-purpose the head into a new piece called The First Cry. Aside from Kerfoot’s color image, there appear to be only two images in which the original sculpture can be seen in its entirety, both taken in black and white by Stieglitz during the exhibition. Although carved from a simple piece of wood, the warm tones of the graining come to life in Kerfoot’s image in a way that the black and white images cannot convey. MCHA's Autochrome is the only color image of this pioneering and influential modern piece of art, and a unique opportunity to see it as it was seen by museum-goers over a century ago.

The Museum of Modern Art dedicated a year-long special exhibit to Brancusi’s work in 2018.

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