Merging Techniques – New Research into Lindauer’s Use of Photographs

The extent to which Gottfried Lindauer used photography for his portraits was thought to be limited to an aid for sketching, but recent examination of two Pākehā portraits has revealed that the artist also painted directly over photographic images.

Lindauer's painting technique did not alter significantly during his career in New Zealand.  To a large extent he appears to have continued to follow the practices he had learnt while a student at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna.  This involved sketching out the image in pencil on a white ground and then applying transparent glazes over the surface to create an illusion of depth.  Lindauer was particularly skilled in this process, producing portraits that are strikingly life-like.  The infrared images taken of works in the Partridge Collection clearly reveal the pencil under-drawing, and show a confident style with an accuracy that might have been difficult to achieve if he had not also been working from photographs.  It also appears that he projected the images onto the canvas using an epidiascope as forms are outlined, rather than drawn in.

The idea that Lindauer might also have painted directly onto photographs is not new and in 1965, Auckland Art Gallery restorer, Mr Les Lloyd, was reported to have found a photograph under one of the artist's oil paintings on board from a private collection.1 Unfortunately the details of this discovery have been lost and it was only this year that we have had the opportunity to examine two paintings by the artist that appeared to have a photographic base.

The Very Rev. De
Berdt Hovell, 1896Gottfried Lindauer, The Very Rev. De Berdt Hovell, 1896, private collection

The portraits of The Very Rev. De Berdt Hovell 1896 and Mrs Emily Hovell 1897 (both from a private collection) are painted directly on thin cardboard rather than primed canvas, and the paint application is uneven compared to other paintings by Lindauer. In raking light, it appears as if only the highlights have been painted and there are tiny traction cracks and voids in the surrounding paint.  These are also unusual as Lindauer's painting are generally fairly stable.  In addition, under infrared, the paintings were found to be grainy and photographic in appearance, with no pencil lines.  This is not to say that there was any doubt that these paintings were authentic, but that the artist had used a different technique and taken advantage of a new technology.

Raking light
detail (Rev. Hovell)Raking light detail (Rev. Hovell)

Painters started to use photography to aid accuracy, which was particularly important for portraits, and to speed up the painting process.  In conjunction with the camera lucida and other optical devices with a lens and a mirror, it was possible to project an image onto another surface.  An image by Louis John Steele on loan to the Sarjeant Gallery appears to be painted using a photographic image so Lindauer was not alone in using this type of technology in New Zealand.2 We had reason to believe that the photographs used for these Lindauer paintings are albumen prints, as this was the dominant medium for commercial portraiture from the 1860s to the 1890s.

Infrared detail
(Rev. Hovell)Infrared detail (Rev. Hovell)

Commercially available albumen papers came in various sizes and could be cut down by the photographer for special use. Cabinet prints in the size of 5 ½ x 4 inches to 6 ½ x 4 ¾ inches were most commonly used for larger portraits, but are not quite big enough for the Lindauer paintings under discussion. It is possible that a larger paper size usually reserved for landscape photography was used for the portraits. The pre-coated papers had to be sensitised by the photographer with a silver nitrate solution reasonably close to being used, as sensitivity diminished after the coating was applied. Albumen papers were extremely thin and delicate and had to be pasted down onto card or a heavy backing to protect them, as most commonly seen in cartes-de-visite.

Microscopic examination of the portraits of Rev. and Mrs Hovell reveals that in unpainted areas such as the left ear, paper fibres of the photograph below are visible, a known characteristic for identifying albumen prints. We assume that Lindauer cut out the face from a photograph that was provided to him and adhered it to the cardboard (faced backing board) that was used for each portrait of the Hovells. The close association of Lindauer with the photographic studio of the Foy Brothers in Thames has been explored by Ken Hall in Early New Zealand Photography.  However, at the time this portrait was painted, The Very Rev. De Berdt Hovell was Dean of Napier Cathedral, which geographically links him to the studio of photographer Samuel Carnell. Lindauer also used Carnell's studio portraits of Māori sitters for his paintings.3

But how were we to confirm whether the painting was on a photograph or not?  We were reluctant to take samples from such a thinly painted work in such good condition.  Fortunately, we had access to a hand-held X-ray fluorescent unit supplied by Bruker AXS from the United States.4 The use of this instrument allowed us to do non-destructive elemental analysis of the paint layers.  If silver was found, this would prove that a photographic image was beneath the oil paint, as it is not used in paintings.  Just to be sure, we tested another Lindauer painting on canvas from the Gallery collection painted in 1896, the same year as the portrait of Rev. Hovell.  The portrait of Whetoi Pomare had clear pencil lines under the paint when viewed by infrared and as predicted, had a negative result for silver.  In comparison, silver was clearly identified in the shadows of the faces of The Very Rev. De Berdt Hovell and Mrs Emily Hovell, which is where the photographic image would have been particularly dense.  This confirmed our theory that the portraits had indeed been painted on photographs.


Sarah Hillary, Principal Conservator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Ute Larsen, Works on Paper Conservator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki



'Foy Brothers' portrait of Ana Reupene Whetuki and child' by Ken Hall in Early New Zealand Photography, Edited by Angela Wanhalla and Erika Wolf, Otago University Press, 2011


Bruce Kaiser, Bruker AXS Inc, USA
Heike Winkelbauer, Conservator, Auckland Museum
The owners of the Lindauer portraits The Very Rev. De Berdt Hovell and Mrs Emily Hovell

  1. Auckland Star, 1 Nov 1965
  2. The existence of the Steele portrait was brought to our attention by Mark Strange. Email to Ute Larsen from Mark Strange, National Library, dated 12 March 2012.
  3. K. Hall, 2011, p 48
  4. Our thanks to Chief Scientist Bruce Kaiser of Bruker AXS, for his kind assistance and expertise.
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