Books

Revisiting Emily Vanderpoel’s Color Theory Book 117 Years After Its First Release

In addition to being a watercolorist, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel was also the author of Color Problems, widely overlooked, yet staggering turn-of-the-century book on color theory.

Artist unknown, “Emily Noyes Vanderpoel in her home” (ca. 1920), (photograph courtesy Litchfield Historical Society)

Though her name is virtually unknown today, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel enjoyed a modest reputation as a watercolorist at the turn of the 20th century. She painted seascapes, country landscapes and the occasional industrial scene — perfectly competent works, but ultimately quite conventional. Nothing about them hints at the fact that Vanderpoel was also the author of a widely overlooked, yet staggering book on color theory, its pages bursting with a series of vibrant illustrations that seem to anticipate an abstract aesthetic decades before it emerged in full force.

Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, which Vanderpoel first published in 1901, sought to teach an audience of non-artists how to combine colors in ways pleasing to the eye. The 400-page book elegantly summarizes the ideas of eminent color theorists, before unleashing Vanderpoel’s wildly original approach to color analysis: 10 x 10 grids that break down the color proportions of real objects, most of which came from the author’s personal collection of antiques. Vanderpoel lovingly transforms a mummy case, a teacup, a Japanese silk brocade and dozens of other knick-knacks into series of geometric patterns. Her grids emerge as artworks reminiscent of Homage to the Square, the iconic abstract series that Bauhaus pioneer Josef Albers began creating in the 1950s.

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, Color Problems (all images courtesy Sacred Bones Records and The Circadian Press unless otherwise noted)

In spite of its stunning prescience, Color Problems has been largely forgotten in the 117 years since it was first released. Two Brooklyn-based publishing companies now hope to salvage the book from obscurity. On November 9, The Circadian Press and Sacred Bones Records will reissue Color Problems in both softcover and a hardcover facsimile, their efforts supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Circadian Press founder Keegan Mills Cooke was inspired to embark on the project after struggling to find a copy of Color Problems, which he had learned about through a friend. The book is now in the public domain, but the modern reproductions Cooke came across had been done “in the cheapest way possible,” he tells Hyperallergic. Even worse, they had been printed in black and white.

When Cooke was finally able to track down an original copy of Color Problems on eBay and hold the hulking text in his hand, he was  “aghast [at] how incredible the thing was.

“Primarily, I was struck by the modernity of the images,” he explains. “They looked like contemporary art.”

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, “Advancing and Retiring Colors” (1901), Color Problems 

The woman behind this surprising color opus was born Emily Noyes in New York City in 1842, to an affluent family with deep roots in the country’s history; Noyes’s maternal great-grandfather, Benjamin Tallmadge, was George Washington’s spymaster during the Revolutionary War.

Noyes spent winters in the city and summers in Litchfield, Connecticut, a town that she loved and painted often. In 1865, she married John Vanderpoel, who also descended from prominent stock. The union was short lived. One year into the marriage, while Vanderpoel was pregnant with their first child, her husband died. She never remarried.

As a wealthy woman at the head of her household, Vanderpoel had the resources and freedom to pursue her many passions. She amassed a trove of art and artifacts from across the globe, served as the first curator of the Litchfield Historical Society and wrote a two-volume history of a Litchfield girls’ school founded by her grandmother. Vanderpoel was not overtly political, but she was a staunch proponent of women’s education and involvement in the arts. She served, for example, as the president of the fledgling New York Watercolor Club, a splinter group that formed in part because the more established American Watercolor Society admitted relatively few women members.

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, “Color Analysis from a Mummy Cloth” (1901), Color Problems

Vanderpoel was immersed in New York’s creative scene. She never received a formal art degree, but studied under the painters William Sartain and Robert Swain Gifford, who taught at Cooper Union and the Arts Students League. Vanderpoel exhibited her artworks through the New York Watercolor Club, which frequently staged group shows, and her paintings occasionally cropped up in grander venues. In 1893, she won a bronze medal at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition for a painting of an industrial rail yard. Some years later, her painting “Ypres,” (no date) a memorial to World War I that is now lost, was displayed at the National Art Museum in Washington, DC (which was subsequently incorporated into the Smithsonian). In the late 1920s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an offsite exhibition of nine of her watercolors at the Connecticut Agricultural College.

At some point amidst this flurry of productivity, Vanderpoel began writing and illustrating Color Problems. No records of her process survive to the present day, but she likely worked on the book for several years, says Alan Bruton, a professor at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture and Design who has researched Vanderpoel’s life and work.

Color Problems is a guide for both hobbyists and people who work in the practical arts: florists, decorators, lithographers, salespeople who want to attractively display their wares. The book is not specifically catered to women, but Vanderpoel certainly had female readers on her mind. She writes that understanding the intricacies of color theory can be of value to milliners and dressmakers — occupations often held by women during the Victorian era — along with housewives who dabbled in home decor. “[W]omen,” she quips, “notice color more than do men.”

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, “Color Note from a Shadow on the White Ground” (1901), Color Problems

As she doles out advice for achieving aesthetic harmony at home and at work, Vanderpoel reveals herself to be well versed in color theories that proliferated throughout the 19th century, due in part to scientific advances that led to the development of new pigments. She frequently refers to major names in the field, among them Michel-Eugène Chevreul, whose ground-breaking 1839 book explored how adjacent colors influence one another; James Clerk Maxwell, who used spinning color discs to show how people perceive mixtures of color; and Ogden Rood, who, among his other contributions, suggested that colors differ from one another due to variations in purity, hue, and luminosity.

These men were scientists, and like them, Vanderpoel was interested in the technical aspects of color perception. She writes about how rods and cones in the retina are stimulated by light and “send messages of form and color to the brain.” She spends an entire chapter discussing the ways in which people with color blindness perceive the world differently than those with normal sight. But her work also exudes a personal, even poetic warmth. Color, Vanderpoel writes, is “the music of light.” Just as sound brings little pleasure until it is woven into music, “in light, our enjoyment culminates at the glories of color in a flower or a sunset, at the shadows that play over the hills, or at the varied hues of a salt marsh.”

Once she has synthesized the ideas of other thinkers, Vanderpoel uses 117 colored plates to demonstrate how colors interact when combined. Some of these plates are feathery, freeform watercolors representing natural scenes. She transforms a bluebird into a delicate swirl of cobalt and rust. A shadow on the ground becomes a swath of blue, mauve, and peach. Swishes of pink, orange, yellow and green dance across the page in a color note depicting a cluster of azaleas.

Even more striking are Vanderpoel’s 54 grids, or “Color Analyses, ” in which she reinterprets various objects as geometric designs made up of 100 squares. Vanderpoel’s analysis of a Celtic ornament, for instance, is rendered as 50 green squares, 18 red ones, 17 yellow, seven black, and eight white, all fitted together with Tetris-like precision. She wasn’t the first theorist to organize colors into grids, but rendering pixel-like representations of real objects to capture the optical effect of color — that was something new. “No one had seen these abstractions before,” says Bruton.

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, “Color Analysis from Celtic Ornament” (1901), Color Problems

Vanderpoel gives few details about her approach to creating the color analyses. She doesn’t seem to have viewed her grids as artworks, constrained, perhaps, by the attitudes of her time. Color Problems was released ten years before Wassily Kandinsky’s Komposition V sparked a widespread interest in abstract painting. It would be at least another decade before the Bauhaus made the grid a backbone of its design aesthetic, and collapsed the distinction between teaching and artistic practice.

Operating before these ideas came to light, Vanderpoel seems to see her grids primarily “as a didactic tool,” Bruton theorizes. Yet he acknowledges that at the same time, the color analyses “are loving creations, in the way that they are so carefully composed.”

“I don’t know,” he muses. “She’s hard to figure out.”

Color Problems went through two different printings — a second edition was published in 1903 — but it doesn’t appear to have been widely read. The book was expensive, for one thing, costing the equivalent of about $148 today. And perhaps, as a woman operating in what was seen as a scientific field, Vanderpoel was doomed to not be taken seriously.

With the upcoming reproduction of Color Problems, a new generation of readers will have the opportunity to experience and appreciate Vanderpoel’s innovative, confounding book. On the Kickstarter page that galvanized the reprint, a lovely photo provided by the Litchfield Historical Society shows the artist in her home. Her dress is long with billowing sleeves, her floor is blanketed with several rugs and her mantelpiece is crammed with an assortment of antiques. The image is in black and white, but one can imagine what the scene must have looked like: a rich, beautiful cornucopia of color.

Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, by  Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, originally published in 1901 will be reissued by the Circadian Press and Sacred Bones Records on November 9.

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