Earl’s Take On Nature

The Artistry of the 1920s has been widely and lovingly depicted, but colour has been more notable by its absence. Although not entirely. 

All images: The author.

The human mind sometimes works in mysterious ways. Because until relatively recently the fact that photography and film originating from the late 19th and early 20th century was black and white, subconsciously the idea that the world presented in those pictures was one bereft of colour often took hold in our brains, even though we of course knew better in our hearts.

The rediscovery of the amazing body of work by French philanthropist Albert Kahn and his colour photographs using experimental autochrome plates – the oldest ones dating back to 1909 – has done a lot to correct this view, as has the recent impressive film production about world war 1 by Peter Jackson, They shall not grow old.

In printed publicity material, until roughly 1930 the presentations were also almost invariably black and white, sometimes enlivened by coloured borders and embellishments in the layout. But as in photography and film, there were exceptions – today’s subject being one of those.

Looking at the cover, at first one might think it to be a catalogue for a paint manufacturer, albeit an unusually luxurious one. The title “Color creations from nature’s studios” likewise offers little clue to the fact that this is a very special – and rare – Cadillac brochure published to promote some of the earliest works of GM’s Art and Color section headed by Harley Earl.

Earl had impressed GM President Alfred P. Sloan so much with his 1927 LaSalle design that he ordered the creation of the Art and Color section (later to be renamed GM Styling), making the 34-year old Earl its first director.

Harley Earl would create a revolution in the automotive world by making appearance and colour at least as important (he himself might say more important) as the technical engineering merits of a car. In order to promote GM’s new division and its works across the country, in 1928 a tour was organised in which a selection of special Cadillacs and LaSalles were put on display in luxurious hotels in America’s major cities. This brochure was printed as a catalogue of these vehicles created by Art and Color.

It is a large item, measuring 10 by 13 inches with stiff, almost book-like covers doing justice to its elevated status. There are a total of 40 pages. On each spread of two pages a colour or colour pattern from nature is shown and discussed, while on the opposite page a Cadillac or LaSalle utilising the same colour scheme as an inspiration both outside and inside is presented.
The bird of paradise, the angel fish, curite, rose coral, the grand canyon and the orchid are among the examples from the living world  that inspired a unique, specially created car.

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An excerpt from the foreword illustrates the train of thought leading to the creation of these cars:

Nature, master artist, does not draw lines. She works with masses of color. It is the one skill she never relinquishes, the one that never fails her. Forms crumble. Motion comes finally to rest. Sound sinks to silence. Color alone abides. It may fade- it does not vanish.

Here in the gay plumage of a bird, there in a gorgeous undersea fish; now in a rose resplendent in June sunlight, and again in the lavender shadows on January snows; in the fragile splendor of an afternoon butterfly and in the adamantine heart of a gem buried deep in the core of the earth – everywhere and always, nature hangs her earth with rich tapestries and veins its rocky bastions with vivid hues. It is the final, the glorifying touch of her handiwork. Only when the mechanical structure is perfected does she take up her palette. After the seed the flower; after the larva the butterfly.

Considering the preponderance of cars in dark, drab colours plying the streets in those days, these vivid creations by GM’s Art and Color must have been quite a sight. Unfortunately, none of these twelve special cars is believed to have survived. Harley Earl would go on to add colour and styling to the automotive landscape for the next three decades – making GM the undisputed leader in this field in the process.

Unlike Mother Nature, Earl would eventually be confronted with the fact that his ideas were getting out of touch with the reality of  real-life practicality and the public’s taste. Nevertheless his legacy was important and an indispensable pillar upon which the American car industry built its image for most of the 20th century.

If you want to know more about Albert Kahns pioneering colour photography project, I heartily recommend the beautiful book, The wonderful world of Albert Kahn by David Okuefuna.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

13 thoughts on “Earl’s Take On Nature”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. The delightful brochure you feature today is a wonderful counterpoint to yesterday’s piece on VW and BMW’s rebranding. The contrast between those flat, sterile logos and the visual (and, I’m sure, tactile) pleasure of the brochure couldn’t be more striking. Thanks for bringing it to us.

  2. Another nice beginning of the day, thank you Brrrruno.
    The “Zeitgeist” is always so present in the brochures you present, this one is really beautiful.
    The first thing that came to my mind is the well known D’Arcy Thompson’s book “On Growth and Form”: a seminal work of 1917, some years before this brochure.
    I have the impression that it influenced, in some way, also Harvey Earl: this connection between nature and the mechanical world may not be casual.

  3. Thanks, Bruno. That brochure must be a treasure to own. Having once had access to a trove of old US magazines from the late 1930s to early 1950s, even popular ones had no real colour photos except for the covers, so car advertising was usually in black and white, sometimes wih “comics” red or green closely-spaced dots to make lines for a bit of “colour”. Since you have many brochures, what was the norm for them in the 1930s and 1940s?

    Your article had me off re-looking at colour photography progress from the 1840s to the modern day. I re-read the Wiki entry now and then because of my addiction to the site shorpy.com and its high resolution reproduction of photographs from the very earliest days including original daguerrotypes, glass plate negatives and emulsion negatives held by a US federal government archive collection. The resolution can be quite stunning. They are 98% black and white, of course, but a few colour ones from 1940 on are featured. Colour posters from WW1 on are quite prevalent, though – they must have stood out in their day.

    The Autochrome colour process system invented by the Lumiere Brothers was the de facto colour photograph standard from the time of its introduction in 1907 till the middle 1930s. Millions of photographs were taken using it. So perhaps capitalizing the name of the product/process is warranted. As that Wiki article notes, Autochromes were vivid when viewed as intended in normal daylight, but reproduction of them is difficult, dulling them if usual processing is employed. No doubt the book on Hahn’s photography has been given the royal treatment!

    On the vehicle side of things, my introduction to a well-kept 1925 Marmon back in the early 1960s, replendent in deep green, red spoked wheels and some undercarriage, with gold detailing and polished brass accoutrements rather took my breath away. Up till then, I had assumed that most cars were black or maroon back in the 1920s. The Marmon reminded me of a crack LNER locomotive redone in early British Railways livery, the kind that fascinated me in my childhood as they rushed under bridges belching steam.

    1. Hi Bill,
      I have a nice collection of car brochures but not very many from before the second world war. From the ones I do have and the ones I have seen at fellow collectors full colour print became the norm after about 1935 (with some cheaper “saver” giveaway folders still in black and white, sometimes with one or two additional tones added) but between about 1920 and 1935 there were full colour brochures, but these were mainly printed for the top end cars on the market, and then usually those from the larger manufacturers such as Cadillac, Packard and such. A make like Marmon that also wasn’t exactly cheap had no full colour brochures that I know of. In my collection I also have a 1936 Auburn brochure which includes the supercharged speedster but it is in black and white with red as an additional tone to liven things up a bit.
      In ads for magazines colour made headway earlier, but mostly in the expensive magazines like Fortune or Holiday. And here also the majority of full colour ads were for Cadillac and Packard. DeSoto however had quite a few full colour ads starting in the thirties. From about 1940 on most ads for any make except a few imports were predominantly full colour in all magazines, National Geographic being an exception until about 1950.

      If you can find it, the book about Albert Kahn’s photography project is really great!

      Finally, I’m sure that Marmon must have been an impressive beast- especially because I assume you saw it outside on the street instead of in a museum which somehow reduces the visual impact to my eyes.

  4. Hi everyone.

    Just wanted to Say hi and sorry that I havent Been able to read you and keep in touch. À lot or things happened in my Life and my dad Passed Away after a long illness. I really missed you all and I home I’ll be able to read DTW and comment Again some day.

    Take care

    1. So sorry to hear of your loss, NRJ. Take care of yourself and yours.

    2. NRJ: I can only reiterate my sympathies. I hope you are coping and that you stay well and strong. Best wishes from us all here.

    3. Condolences, NRJ. May happy memories of shared love and sweetness temper your pain and sadness. I look forward to your continued participation when you are ready and able.

    4. My condolences for your loss Nrj ; No need to apologise for your absence- DTW will still be here when you are ready.

  5. Hello NRJ, I’m afraid that whatever I say will be inadequate, but I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I hope things will become easier, given time. In the meantime, please take it steady.

    1. Thank you all for your messages, this means a lot to me as I really value the site and its writers/commenters.

      It was unknown for you but you helped me cope with some really bad times at the time that I was a regular commenter. Not just my dad’s illness and passing but many other very difficult circumstances going on in my life but reading you all and commenting on DTW was a lifesaver in a way, you have no idea.
      This could explain the mood swings, the shouty style, obsessive commenting and general crazyness :). I never meant to be trollish, it’s like I had this second persona on this site to cope with the difficult stuff. Im sending lots of love and good vibes to other people with difficult circumstances and hope that they can find peace. Ok it’s time for me to go hug a tree but thank you again for your very kind messages and for DTW to be in existence.

  6. What a wonderful find. Some things never change: even now, people create fantastic palettes of colours by sampling photographs, most often taken from nature, then share them on Pinterest and Instagram for other people to use.

  7. NRJ, condolences.

    Bruno, what a delight you bring forth. My bookshelves sag with COVID related purchases but I might be asking for Albert Kahn’s book for my impending birthday…

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