From the time photography was invented, there was an acknowledged need for an easier way of producing high quality reproductions of works of art, original works or popular views to illustrate books, which up to then required the making of steel engravings, each of which could take up to a year to produce. Printing the photograph using a traditional ink press was perceived as the solution and to that end, the Duc de Luynes in 1856 initiated a competition for the best method of photomechanical printing and another prize the best method for making permanent pigment-based photographic prints.
One of the most talented early experimenters, was the painter and photographer Charles Nègre who took up the methods originated by Niepce and his cousin, and elaborated them by introducing an electrolytic step, plating the partly developed steel plate with gold to protect the half tones, then aquatinting it and etching it in nitric acid. He received a French patent in 1856 and was a finalist in the Duc de Luynes competition.
As the competition was intended to support industrial applications of photography, many of the samples submitted were drawn or painted illustrations that would be extremely difficult to reproduce using traditional engraving or lithography. This heliogravure is one such sample submitted by Négre. We are fortunate enough to have the test in chine colle which makes for an interesting comparison of fidelity and nuance in the earliest stages of photogravure’s evolution.