by Allegra Baggio Corradi
In a culture characterized by the search for grand unified theories of everything, the urge to reconcile practical uses of color to theoretical order was irresistible.
One of the earliest explorations of colour theory came from Goethe, who in 1810 published Theory of Colours, a treatise on the nature, function and psychology of colours. Goethe’s scientific conclusions aside, his work is unique in its investigation of the psychological impact of colours on mood and emotion. Much of 19th-century colour theory lagged behind scientific understanding or was augmented by books intended for a lay public. Major advances came from the teaching emerging from the Bauhaus, and in particular Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers. Efforts to learn about, make, and improve color are found in the dyehouse, the color mill, print works, and glazing rooms, and in the discourse of the scientific and fine-arts academies. They are not confined by geography or limited by social roles, or even by success. Issues of consumerism—use, in its broadest sense, rather than usefulness—and corresponding questions of taste in all sectors of society are other forces in our image of European culture and its changes during the eighteenth century. A color classification system could be used to calculate or prove the number of colors in the world. The correct system would standardize nomenclature. The best presentation of the best system might resolve the differences between the colors of light and the colors in objects. Science could use art to aid the arts and commerce. Assessments of these concerns and their outcomes often connect the increasingly sophisticated eighteenth-century taste for novel tangible goods to presentations about such goods, and to more-abstract rationales for economic improvement. Pigment-making practices were affected by the same confluence of changing tastes and changes to production processes for the objects of which they were a part. Eighteenth-century literature about color and color production demonstrates the existence of strong links between practices and theories supplemented by acknowledgment of prevailing cultural or social goals. Color, when well produced and attractive, adds value. Consumer demands for novelty meant a persistent search for new colors and for improved methods to produce known ones. Throughout the century, as new materials were introduced or old materials were abandoned, and as tastes changed, the need to create colors for objects and colors on objects continued to be addressed in the workshop, as they were in public venues. Color was philosophical but not exclusively; it was technical but not merely. It had theories; it was traded. The color circle or wheel is another common form adopted for color systems. Circles have been used to demonstrate color associations in Western art since the Middle Ages and, in the sciences, even earlier. The form incorporates considerable symbolism, and its representational value is enhanced by religious, heraldic, and scientific affiliations. As the basis of a visual system for color, circles or wheels are a succinct form that suggests a finite if unidentifiable number of colors in the world.
Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s Colour Problems strives to make colour theory available to everybody, not just artists and people active in the graphic trades. In addition to color lessons and guides, the 400-page book features an extensive collection of her original and intently poetic methods of color analysis, from detailing the color relationships in quotidian objects like a found teacup and saucer, to color swatches of wool sorted by a color-blind man. There is also a watercolor series that poignantly observes the nuanced color of her private moments, such as the bruised colors found in a shadow on white ground or the inherent tones of woods that lay on the edge of a meadow. Vanderpoel was vice president of the New York Watercolor Club, an organization founded in response to the American Watercolor Society’s policy to not accept women as members.
James Sowerby (21 March 1757 – 25 October 1822) was an English naturalist and illustrator. His 1809 book ‘A new elucidation of colours, original, prismatic, and material showing their concordance in three primitives, yellow, red, and blue; and the means of producing, measuring, and mixing them. With some observations on the accuracy of Sir Isaac Newton‘ (entirely viewable online at Archive.org), was an homage to Isaac Newton and presented a theory of colour based on the importance of ‘light and dark’. The theory was based on three basic colours: red, yellow and blue. Yellow, or better, gamboge, was later replaced by green in modern colour systems.
Published in 1839 as The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (translated into English in 1854), is an artistic milestone, one of the first systematic studies of color perception and a compendium of color design principles that many 19th century French painters from Delacroix to Matisse attempted to apply in their art. After an illustrious academic career studying fats and waxes, the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) was appointed by royal decree to be director of dyes at the national Gobelins textile factory in Paris, where he worked for 28 years (1824-52) on chemical research and quality assurance in the dyes used for fine fabrics and textile designs. (He devoted much of his labor to developing more lightfast blue and violet dyes.) This middle position between organic chemistry, manufacturing technology and consumer response brought basic color problems to Chevreul's attention, in particular the apparent shift in the depth of black fabric depending on the colors surrounding it. Chevreul claimed to predict the visual effect of simultaneous contrast across all these situations with a single rule: if two color areas are seen close together in space or time, each will shift in hue and value as if the visual complementary colour of the neighboring or preceding color were mixed with it. Most of his demonstrations use sheets of painted or dyed paper — the method adopted by Joseph Albers - as papers can be cut to any convenient size or shape and switched around to test all possible color combinations. Chevreul summarised his work in terms of six colour harmonies (harmonies of scale, of hue, of a dominant colour light, of contrast of scale, of contrast of hues, of contrast of colours), which drew on the classical theories of Aristotle and the Renaissance counterpart of Leon Battista Alberti. Artists, however, rarely reached the final pages of Chevreul’s books where he explained his own point. His reputed wide influence on 19th century artists was actually channeled through the concise summary of Chevreul's work offered in the Grammar of the Graphic Arts (1867) by the French art critic Charles Blanc (1813-1882).
Joseph Lovibond’s Light and Colour Sensations illustrates and describes what he called a “tintometer”. The aim was to perfect the industrial production of reliable colour standards for manufacturing and scientific purposes. Also, he wanted to better the general understanding of colour perception and vision.