Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Camouflage Artist | Mary (Mittie) Taylor Brush

George de Forest Brush, Mrs. Brush, c1888
Above George de Forest Brush and Mary Taylor Whelpley eloped (to the dismay of her parents) and married on January 11, 1886, on the bride's twentieth birthday. They were both artists, and for the rest of their married lives, he made beautiful portraits of her, most often holding one or more of their nine children (one died in infancy). This (my favorite) is his first portrait of her, dated c1888.

Having given birth to and raised so many children, how could Mary (better known as Mittie Taylor Brush) have the time and energy to do anything else? But she accomplished quite a lot. As is now currently featured in the August 2016 newsstand issue of the Smithsonian's AIR&SPACE Magazine (pp. 28-31), she was one of the country's first female aviators (as was her friend and sometime neighbor, Amelia Earhart), and the inventor of several attempts at airplane camouflage, by reducing its visibility (see her patent drawings below). As we have noted in earlier posts, her husband (a friend of Abbott H. Thayer) and their son (Gerome Brush) were also important contributors to World War I-era camouflage.

US Patent 1619100

Written by aerospace engineer Nick D'Alto, the title of the AIR&SPACE article is "Inventing the Invisible Airplane: When Camouflage Was Fine Art." It's a fascinating article, accurate and richly illustrated (although, oddly, her name is misspelled as "Mitty" throughout), and reveals (to great surprise) that parts of her airplane have survived. Discovered in a New Hampshire barn in 2011, its remains are currently on display at the Eagles Mere Air Museum in Pennsylvania.

US Patent 1293688

For a wealth of memorable stories about the Brushes and their married life, see their daughter's wonderful biography, George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter (Peterborough NH: William L. Bauhan, 1970). See also Brush family articles and related info in CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009).

Friday, August 5, 2016

Theatrical Stage Lighting and WWI Camouflage

Abbott H. Thayer's stage lighting effects: Before and After
Above In earlier posts, we've featured American artist Abbott H. Thayer's ideas about countershading, a method by which volumetric forms appear insubstantial, less thing-like. Using hand-painted wooden duck decoys, Thayer was one of the first to demonstrate the ease with which a viewer can be deceived by the calculated interplay of light and shade.

Less well-known are Thayer's theatrical lighting effects. In the pair of photographs above, he documented a full-body skin-tight leotard which he had skillfully colored with gradations of light and dark. On the left (with light from below), the human figure is clearly visible, while on the right (light source from above) the same figure has all but disappeared, simply by switching the lights.

Thayer applied countershading to other objects as well. Notably, he once countershaded a small cast of the Venus de Milo, which he installed in a display case in the town hall of Dublin NH. He precisely lit the statue with alternating light sources, so that "it was the delight of the school children to press the buttons and [by that] to make her come and go."


Theatre set designers have long experimented with visual effects, especially stage illusions that make use of forced perspective. As noted elsewhere, theatre and film set designers made critical contributions to World War I camouflage. Thereafter, there was an increase of interest in duplicitous stage lighting. In the early 1920s, a number of news articles described the lighting experiments of a Russian-born theatre designer named Adrian V. Samoiloff, who devised a theatrical setting in which he could change the appearance not only of the scenery but also the props and costumes. All this was done in an instant, by a switch of backstage lights (100 different switches in all). The curtain remained fully open, and as the audience observes—

…behind the scenes, somebody does something and everything is altered in a flash. The grim mountains [the prior stage setting] become a Hindu temple, the frowning rocks melt into sands and palms, and the tall, slender young woman becomes a stout Indian maiden.

Variations on this technique were soon widely adopted and are generally known today as the Samoiloff Effect. When asked at the time if these methods were new, Samoiloff replied—

Well, all the elements of it have been known for years; I have merely brought them together and worked them out scientifically and systematically. Do you remember, for instance, the postcards we had as children, which showed one inscription in one light and another in another? Well, that's part of it. Then during the war [WWI] we heard a lot about "dazzle" and camouflage, and how a few apparently random lines of paint would alter to the distant observer the shape of the outline of a vessel. That's part of it, too. I have merely worked along these and similar lines until I got the results I wanted.

Samoiloff's indebtedness to military camouflage is tacitly supported by another article (Variety, October 1921), in which he is said to have worked as "a designer of scenery for the Imperial theatre in Petrograd" who "was loaned to the British Navy during the war." Later, while living in London, the first theatrical production in which Samoiloff used his lighting effects was "The Valley of Echoes" at the Hippodrome in 1921. To accomplish this, he used a mechanism that "resembles a small traveling crane, operated from a table, and it runs on a system of tiny railway lines."

In the same year, a comparable effect was achieved by another designer named Nicholas de Lipsky (purportedly a Russian prince and a protege of ballerina Anna Pavlova), who introduced it in New York at the Shubert Theatre for a dream sequence in "The Greenwich Village Follies." It seems likely that Samoiliff and de Lipsky were associated, and as implied by articles that note that "Samoiloff and de Lipsky appear to have come from the same Russian school," and that both had somehow been involved in wartime camouflage. Both may also have been allied with the Hippodrome in London.

Through the Hippodrome, de Lipsky had become friends with an American set designer named Roy Pomeroy (in the US, he was the first recipient of an Academy Award for special effects) who had invented special cameras for the British during the war, including one that "could be used to render camouflaged objects detectable." (A source that contradicts this claims that Pomeroy conducted photo experiments for the US, not the British.) After the war, Pomeroy and de Lipsky apparently worked together on a scene-altering lighting system (different from that of Samoiloff) that was partly based on this photographic process for deciphering camouflage. In de Lipsky's case, there are surviving photographs (see below) that show two views of the same stage production and its costumed cast. The performers have not changed costumes, but are simply illuminated by two different sets of lights.

de Lipsky's stage set transformation (1921)

Oddly enough, there was another invention announced in 1921 that used alternating light sources to make objects disappear or to change appearance. Did one predate the other, or were they discovered concurrently but independently?

We've talked about some of these before because they were developed by an American artist-scientist named Charles Bittinger.  It was interesting to learn that his stepbrother was the painter Marsden Hartley. But it's even more interesting that, during both World Wars, Bittinger was a prominent civilian participant in the US Navy's camouflage research unit.

Judging from an article by Henry Chapin called "Two Pictures on Single Canvas" in the New York Evening Post (October 7, 1920), Bittinger's experiments may have predated the efforts of Samoiloff, de Lipsky and Pomeroy. Another article with much the same content (and a nearly identical title, "Two Paintings on the Same Canvas"), written by M(argaret) Fitzhugh Browne, was published in the following year in Popular Science Monthly (Vol 98, 1921, p. 30). The article shows two images that were painted by the artist on a single canvas—one is a portrait of a women, while the other shows a man and a horse. When viewed in ordinary light, only the portrait is visible; but when viewed under red light (aided by using a filter), the portrait vanishes and only the man and the horse can be seen.

In considering applications for Bittinger's discovery, the author writes—

The stage, with its demands for instantaneous and mystifying transformations, furnishes a very fertile field for this new art. In Mr. Bittinger's New York studio is a miniature stage set with a scene on the Riviera, which immediately changes to Madison Square in winter when the red light is switched on. Costumes, too, can be handled in endless effective ways by applying the principle to the dyes used and to the patterns in which the colors are put on. A chorus might come dancing on in dresses with horizontal stripes. The light changes—and instantly the stripes are vertical; and so on in infinite variety.

She then turns to potential applications in advertising and interior design—

Advertising, also, with its demands for "before and after using," or similar illustrations, is a sphere in which some striking results can be obtained; and there are even possibilities of house decoration—a frieze that would appear of one color and pattern by daylight, and of an entirely different design by artificial light.

In subsequent years, Bittinger went on to other related innovations. In 1929, he painted three murals for the Franklin Institute, depicting various stages in the life of Benjamin Franklin. The images in each painting changed, depending on its illumination. In 1935, he completed a painting of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, which, viewed under different conditions, was changed into an image of the Mona Lisa.

By coincidence, recently we ran across three US government photographs of Charles Bittinger, from the digital archives of the NARA, one of which is shown below.

Charles Bittinger (WWII era)