Background: How to understand color on antique maps
The terms ‘Original’ or ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Old’ color are used for the most part interchangeably in the antiquarian map world to refer to color that was applied to a map immediately after or close to the time of its printing as part of the publication and selling process. Until the development of color printing (halftone, chromolithography, etc.), maps were colored by hand: sometimes by the publisher or people hired by the publisher, sometimes by independent colorists working for the map’s owner.
‘Modern color’ is used to describe color that was added long after initial production, even if the color is centuries old. Both in cases where original coloring faded or burned, and when maps were issued without color, it is not unusual to find 17th century maps colored (or re-colored) in the 18th and 19th centuries. This color is grouped with the work of present-day colorists under the term ‘modern,’ and when skillfully applied both can be quite visually pleasing.
For most of the history of mapmaking, color was uncommon but not unknown.The oldest known maps were incised into clay tablets in ancient Babylon and could obviously not be colored. But as the medium evolved, we see that for some of the earliest preserved maps, coloring played an important role in encoding or embedding concepts in schematic visual renditions of the world. Impressive charts like the Tabula Peutingeriana, early Arab or Ptolemaic maps, the 6th century mosaic map in Madaba, Jordan, and Medieval portolan charts all used color to distinguish individual features and enhance the visual impact.
From the late 15th to the late 16th century, a period that saw the invention of the printed map and the rise of map publishing as a business, color remained uncommon. Maps would often figure within the context of geographic books or itineraries and would rarely be subjected to coloring. However, some map publishers did begin to color maps in order to make them more sellable by enhancing appearance and readability, as well as to highlight specific features conveyed in the map’s composition.
Coloring would be applied to maps for decorative purposes, and the more competitive the map business became, the greater the need to enhance them visually. During the 17th century and the Dutch Golden Age of cartography, the hand coloring of maps grew increasingly common and popular, and many mapmakers started issuing formal polychrome sheets to meet the growing demand. A pioneer in this regard – in part due to his technical skill and strong sense of aesthetic – was Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who began issuing magnificent tomes of hand-colored maps.
The depth and splendor of early coloring was in part due to the way pigments were prepared and used. Some of the pigment initially used in the hand-coloring of maps became unavailable during the 18th century, making the original techniques a lost art. Coloring was used in different ways and for different purposes. Four main colors were usually used to highlight political subdivisions: green, pink, orange, and yellow. A stylized cathedral colored in bright red or gold often marked larger urban centers, whereas blue was commonly reserved for denoting bodies of water. Black was the color most used for toponyms.
Discerning old color
If skillfully applied with historical correctness, modern coloring can sometimes be very difficult to distinguish from contemporary or original color. Discerning between the two takes experience.
When evaluating maps for original color, there are a number of features that one might look for in order to confirm that the coloring is indeed original. The most common and simple technique is to examine the verso of the map, as old greens and browns in particular often show through the paper as a result of oxidation.
Another common, albeit more difficult, way of discerning original color from later coloring is holding it up to historical and stylistic scrutiny. Often, the original coloring of landmasses constituted a reflection of political subdivisions at the time of publication. Such realities would sometimes either be forgotten or disregarded when maps were subjected to later coloring. The reason for discrepancies of this sort was usually the changing nature of political realities. The later coloring of maps with different political subdivisions could thus be construed as an error in historicity, but is much more likely because the desire for original states is a modern collectors phenomenon. In the 18th and early 19th century, far more importance was lent to maps be usable, and thus the need for updated political divisions was considered paramount.
Showing all 18 results
Americae Nova Tabula.
Superlative old color example of Blaeu’s famous map of the Americas.Place/Date: Amsterdam / 1642$5,200 Add to cart
Undecima Asiae Tabula.
An early printed map of Southeast Asia from the first modern atlas.Cartographer(s): Martin WaldseemüllerPlace/Date: Strasbourg / 1513$7,000 Add to cart
Prima Asiae Tabula.
The first printed map of Turkey.Cartographer(s): Claudius PtolemyPlace/Date: Rome / ca. 1478$14,500 Add to cart
Nova totius Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae
Frederick de Wit’s large folio of the British Isles in old color.Cartographer(s): Frederick de WitPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1680$350 Add to cart
Regni Daniae, Novissima et Accuratissima Tabula
Visscher’s seminal map of the Kingdom of Denmark, borne out of the ashes of the Thirty-Year-War.Cartographer(s): Nicolas VisscherPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1680$350 Add to cart
Tabula Regnorum Sueciae et Norvegiae
Gorgeous old color 17th century De Wit map of Scandinavia.Cartographer(s): Frederick de WitPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1680$375 Add to cart
Asia Noviter Delineata
Excellent old color example of Willem Blaeu’s seminal map of Asia — one of the 17th century’s most influential depictions of this cartographically complicated continent.Place/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1630$4,300 Add to cart
Africae nova descriptio.
Excellent old color example of Willem Blaeu’s seminal map of Africa, the most influential depiction of the continent produced in the 17th century, and a cornerstone of any collection focussing on the cartography of Africa.Place/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1630$3,600 Add to cart
Moluccae Insulae Celeberrimae
Blaeu’s iconic map of the Spice Islands/Moluccas.Place/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1640$850 Add to cart
Americae Pars Borealis, Florida, Baccalaos, Canada, Corterealis. A Cornelio de Iudæis in luce edita.
The first printed folio map of North America and the most iconic American chart of the 16th century.Cartographer(s): Gerard & Cornelis de JodePlace/Date: Antwerp / 1593$48,000 Add to cart
Paskaerte Zynde t’Oosterdeel van Oost Indien, met Alle de Eylanden daer Ontrendt Geleegen van C. Comorin tot aen Japan
An accomplished work of design and engraving: 1666 chart of Southeast Asia by Abraham Goos with original color.Cartographer(s): Pieter GoosPlace/Date: Amsterdam / 1666$9,000 Add to cart
Siciliae Veteris Typus
Beautiful old color Ortelius map of Sicily.Place/Date: Antwerp / 1601$1,200 Add to cart
Typus Orbis Terrarum
Spectacular old color Ortelius world map showing the world as known in 1587.Place/Date: Antwerp / 1608$7,500 Add to cart
Decorative Dutch map of Iceland with original coloring.Place/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1640$800 Add to cart
Asia, Partium Orbis Maxima
Spectacular old color 1593 De Jode map of Asia, with important depiction of Taiwan and the Great Wall of China.Cartographer(s): Gerard & Cornelis de JodePlace/Date: Antwerp / 1593$14,000 Add to cart
Americae Sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio
The uncommon second plate of Ortelius’s famous map of the Western Hemisphere in original colors.Place/Date: Antwerp / 1579$3,900 Add to cart
Gorgeous original color bird’s-eye-view of Venice: among the finest examples we have seen.Cartographer(s): Georg Braun & Franz HogenbergPlace/Date: Cologne / 1577$4,000 Add to cart
Byzantium nunc Constantinopolis
Gorgeous original color 1582 bird’s-eye-view of Istanbul.Cartographer(s): Georg Braun & Franz HogenbergPlace/Date: Cologne / 1582$3,600 Add to cart
L’Amerique Septentrionale Dressee sur les Observations de Mrs. de l’Academie Royale des Sciences & quelques autres, & sur les Memoires les plus recens…
The Dutch edition of Guillaume de l’Isle’s seminal map of North America, which saw one of the first attempts at rectifying the erroneous notion that California was an island.Cartographer(s): Guillaume De l'Isle, Pieter SchenkPlace/Date: Amsterdam / 1708Read more
America Septentrionalis [First State, Original Color]
Henricus Hondius’ iconic 17th-century map of North America: an entirely new cartographic vision of the continent.Cartographer(s): Henricus Hondius, Jan JanssoniusPlace/Date: Amsterdam / 1636Read more
America Septentrionalis [Second State, Original Color]
Henricus Hondius’ iconic 17th-century map of North America: an entirely new cartographic vision of the continent.Cartographer(s): Henricus Hondius, Jan JanssoniusPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1647Read more
Novissima et accuratissima totius Americae descriptio; Accuratissima totius Asiae tabula recens emendata; Totius Africae accuratissima tabula; & Nova et accurata totius Europae descriptio. Per FREDERICUM DE WIT.
A spectacular set of four continental maps, likely colored by Dirk Janz van Santen, the finest cartographic colorist of the Dutch Golden Age.Cartographer(s): Dirck Jansz van Santen, Frederick de WitPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1680Read more
Totius Regni Hungariae, Maximae que Partis Danubii Fluminis.
Outstanding original color Visscher map of the Kingdom of Hungary, published at a time when the region hung in the balance.Cartographer(s): Nicolas VisscherPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1687Read more
Virginiae Item et Floridae Americae Provinciarum, nova Descriptio.
The most important and influential map of Virginia and Carolina to appear in the 17th century, in excellent original color.Cartographer(s): Jodocus HondiusPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1630Read more
Graeciae Antiquae Designatio Nova
Seutter’s Enlightenment-era celebration of Ancient Greece, in original colors.Cartographer(s): Matthäus SeutterPlace/Date: Nuremberg / 1740Read more
A New Map of Texas, Oregon and California with the Regions Adjoining. Compiled from the most recent authorities
Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s definitive chart of the American West: a quintessential guide for those drawn to the frontier.Cartographer(s): Samuel Augustus MitchellPlace/Date: Philadelphia / 1846Read more
Hemisphere Septentrional pour voir plus distinctement Les Terres Arctiques…
Detailed Northern Hemisphere map by Covens & Mortier with the Latest Voyages.Cartographer(s): Covens & MortierPlace/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1740Read more