Monet and Renoir drenched their canvases in colors that until that point had been prohibitively expensive for most artists, yet during their lifetimes became available synthetically in mass production. The organic and mineral colors used in the landscape paintings of their predecessors were absent from these celebrations of the pastoral. That the pigments which gave the Impressionists the ability to create vibrant tableaux of nature were Industrial Revolution–made is one of the oddities of art history.
A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery — Making Colour — looks at the development of color in art, from the Middle Ages to 1900. The exhibition opened earlier this month, masterminded by the museum’s scientific department. Concoctions of pigment represent an incredibly diverse scientific alchemy of material into color, from cochineal insects into red, soot into black, iris flowers into green, and even mummies into brown. Color in its physical essence is too often overlooked. Even if we don’t need to know that manufactured paint in tubes allowed Renoir to experiment with contrasting the sharp orange of a boat (a color difficult to come by prior to the 19th century) with a mottled lake in his 1875 “The Skiff (La Yole)”, it adds to the greater context of his work. As Ashok Roy, director of collections at the National Gallery, stated in a release: “By exploring the materials that make up the array of artists’ pigments, we can begin to comprehend some of the historic circumstances and difficulties in creating colours that we now take for granted.” Most of the paintings in Making Colour are from the National Gallery’s collection, and in this way center on Western art’s development. However, one of its most prized pigments came from the Sar-e-Sang mines in Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli, now practically obsolete, was ground from blue semi-precious stones and could cost more than its weight in gold. Because of this, it was used sparingly, particularly in religious works of the Virgin Mary. She would be draped in the stunning blue as a robe to reflect her rich spiritual status, such as in Sassoferrato’s 1640-50 “The Virgin in Prayer.”
Finding a more accessible substitute didn’t always go well. Included in the exhibition is the rather sad example of Jan Jansz. Treck’s “Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls” from 1651. Like many Dutch artists of his time, he tried out the glass-based smalt to detail those Ming bowls in iridescent blue. It didn’t last, and faded out to grey like the ashen color of a drained and sickly face. The same thing happened to his contemporaries who used smalt in their blue skies, making a whole stage of Dutch landscapes look like they were painted beneath the dreariest of weather.
Similarly, many of the egg-based temperas proved fugitive, leaving some stately figures like Masaccio’s “Saints Jerome and John the Baptist” from 1428-29 in pink robes instead of the original red-lake. Other experiments with color could even be hazardous. Rachel Ruysch in her 17th century “Flowers in a Vase” concocted realgar to make one bloom in the tangle of the bouquet orange. Realgar is an arsenic sulfide mineral, and when powdered can be toxic. Eventually, however, there was the mass produced Prussian blue, and then the synthetic cobalt blue so beloved by the Impressionists (although they weren’t totally home free, as the lead white they used was another toxic hazard). Artists now can go out and purchase a bottle of ultramarine paint (formerly made with lapis lazuli), and not have to pawn all their possessions.
Making Colour isn’t the first undertaking to examine art in this way — there have also been books like Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette and the Pigment Compendium. This Friday the National Gallery is hosting a discussion with science writer Philip Ball on “The Invention of Colour,” going deeper into these details. However, it is unfortunate how rare exhibitions in major museums that scientifically look at art on this physical level are. No movement of art is totally dislodged from from its materials, and tracing their sources and experimentation can reveal how intricately linked art is with the economics and industry of its time.
Making Colour continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through September 7.