In the middle of the 19th century, around 50 years after Romanticism came about, artists in Europe adopted a new style of art making. This was called Realism. It was characterized by an unprecedented attention to everyday subject matter and it is an art movement that transformed the western art world. Realism emerged in France in the 1850s on the heels of the 1848 French Revolution, which was an event that established the “right to work” in the country. It introduced the idea that the average, everyday working class person was considered a worthy artistic subject. As was the ordinary, day to day working scenes of the contemporary French lifestyle. Some artists associated with the movement were Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, John Sargent and Honore Daumier. The style was later taken up and adapted by French Impressionists like Edgar Degas.
Artists who worked in the Realist style rejected the standards that Romanticism put forth. Romanticism was a genre defined by emotion and drama and featured mythological figures and awe-inspiring scenes of nature. Either way, Romanticism glorified the subject matter, which is a trait that the Realists threw away. They valued the image as a whole, a representation of the real and the raw. There was no drama, no mysticism and the only emotion that was present was the gritty reality of the working class.
One of the key concepts to remember here is that Realism is all about class. It is important to remember that throughout history, the middle class didn’t always exist. There was the aristocracy (the rich landowners with powdered faces and fancy wigs) and then there was everyone else, usually the ones working their lives away on land owned by the aristocracy. The 19th century saw the rise of the middle class, thanks to industrialization, a peasant could, over time, become a wealthy merchant and start living a little more comfortably. Society was changing, social structures were being transformed and Realism reflected these changes.
Realism directly inspired prominent contemporary art movements like Photorealism and Hyper-realism. It was a revolution to painting and expanded the conceptions of what constituted art. Up until this point, art was about highlighting great and important things. Historic moments, kings and queens, biblical stories and the occasional merchant’s wife. The subject matter was portrayed as being worthy of reverence. The choice from the Realists to bring everyday life into their canvases was a desire to merge art and life, ordinary, everyday life. It is quite broadly considered the beginning of modern art and it is because of this urge to paint the ordinary and the conviction that it was worth something.
There was a larger, overreaching concern for Realism and it was more than laying the subject bare on the canvas. It concerned itself with how life was structured socially, economically, politically and culturally in the mid-19th century. This is what led to the unflinching, sometimes “ugly” portrayals of life’s unpleasant truths. They also tended to use dark, earthy palette tones that also confronted the ideals of high art and beauty.
The invention and subsequent explosion of newspaper printing and mass media that came with the Industrial Revolution brought with it a new mode of publicity for artists. Realism brought in a new conception of the artist as a self-publicist. Many artists purposefully danced along the line of controversy and used this new media to enhance their celebrity status. It is something that is still very much done today.
Art Realism in France was an outcome of a nationwide desire for democracy. Simultaneously, England’s version of art realism depicted the rebuttal of Victorian materialism and the classicism that came with it. Much like Romanticism, Realism was not subject to fine art alone. Many authors, particularly, but even some musicians, adopted the style as a means to portray their own art through a cleaner lens. Through both art and literature, there are still some core concepts that separate the movement from other genres of art. The language used was transparent and this was true for literature and painting. There was no attempt to hide behind hidden meanings and flowery words and imagery. There was a certain verisimilitude in Realism. Verisimilitude is just an over the top word for “truthfulness”. Realist literature and art were famous for the way it tried to create a world that seemed real or true. Realist artists and writers wanted us to believe we were watching real life unfold on the page or canvas. There was an emphasis on the individual or the “character”. Even through art, the characters were portrayed in extreme detail. In writing, this meant that there was an emphasis on describing, analyzing and dramatizing personality. Its good to remember that when Realism was emerging, psychology as a discipline was also emerging.
In many ways, Realism was almost a direct contradiction to Romanticism. As we spoke about in the previous post, the Romanticists had a particular interest in the mythological figure and the individual independent from society. The Realists chose to focus on social networks and the individuals place within these social networks as opposed to a single grand hero. This quote by Emile Zemo sums up the overarching themes of Realism very well. “It is not a question, here, of searching for an ‘absolute’ of beauty. The artist is neither painting history nor his soul… And it is because of this that he should neither be judged as a moralist nor as a literary man. He should be judged simply as a painter.”
Romanticism is an art movement that spread across Europe and the United States. It’s an art movement that challenged the ideals held onto so tightly during the Enlightenment era. The artists emphasized their sense of emotions, and these were just as important as reason and order. They honed in on emotion as a way of experiencing the world. It celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the everlasting search for individual rights and liberty and it fueled many avant-garde movements well into the 20th century. It originated in Germany then spread to England and the rest of Europe. The Enlightenment era or the “Age of Reason” was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. This was the time of true revolution in the industrial world with the first operational steam engine being built in 1712. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. The romanticists looked beyond reason and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork. It also borrowed heavily from religious imagery and stories and found inspiration in them in the same way that they found inspiration in mythology and folklore. Recurring themes of human vulnerability and isolation were often portrayed in the genre. Romanticism was, in a lot of senses, the direct opposite of rationality. It was about passion, intuition and the mysterious.
Romanticism found a home in many expressions of creative pursuits, including literature, music, art, and architecture. They valued originality, inspiration, and imagination which produced many different styles within the same genre. In many ways, it was a contrast to Neo-Classicism which was quite sober and grim. The genre rose up out of the Industrial Revolution as a means of combating the rise of machines and industry. Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual’s connection to nature and an idealized past. In part, gaining inspiration from the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality as well as the promotion of justice. Painters used current events and atrocities to shed light on these injustices in dramatic compositions and over the top scenes that played the drama out on canvas.
With this in mind, when thinking of Romanticism and Romantic art, don’t think of terms like love or romance itself. In the context of art, its a reference to the strength of emotions in general. Up until this moment in Art History, most artworks were created with beauty at its heart. Romantic art was “Gothic”. It was dark, macabre and grotesque. Fine art had been taught as a discipline while romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of their paintings were the most horrific to be seen in the West at the time. For example, Saturn Devours his Children by Francisco de Goya was an image that evoked real horror in the enlightened viewer. The artist’s deep troubles and personal struggles came out in his paintings. The stereotype in our popular culture of the artist or the intellectual as a self-tortured, lonely soul with a “nobody understands me” attitude very much originated out of the romantic period.
They embraced the individual and subjective to counteract the insistence for logic. They explored various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. As French poet, Charles Baudelaire, described it, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” The romantic artist was considered a ‘hero’ of art, unburdened by academic taste. In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and ‘plein air’ painting, much like the Impressionists. Works were usually based on close inspection of the landscape and the sky and when human figures were involved they were usually at one with nature. The unpredictability and power of nature were often emphasized and was meant to evoke a feeling of the sublime, which speaks about the feeling of awe that arises when one is faced with something greater than themselves. It emphasized local folklore, traditions, and landscapes and was closely bound up with the emergence of a new nationalism that was sweeping across many countries after the American Revolution.
There are some core concepts to keep in mind when trying to differentiate Romanticism from other art genres. The skies are typically quite dramatic with an imminent sense of danger or fear of the unknown. The focus on nature, as we have spoken about, but perhaps with a dark or mysterious ambiance in both a literal or a figurative sense. There will be a dramatic scene of man or nature with undertones of nature’s triumph over man. The brushstrokes are usually visible with an overall sense of softness to the quality of the edges. Sometimes the imagery can be quite Gothic and occasionally horrific where the faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear. Romanticism is a genre that still holds a place in our own world today. It embodied a disdain for a dehumanized and mechanical world and held onto the nostalgia of a simpler life, which we see in our lives today even. And people still make art about escaping technology, it’s just depicted in different ways.
Cubism was one of the most influential visual art styles of the early twentieth century. It was created by Pablo Piccaso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1907 and 1914. The French art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Cubism after seeing the landscapes that Braque had painted in 1908. The work itself was highly abstracted and he called the geometric forms in the work “cubes”. It drew influences from many non-Western sources like African art and Primitivism, which is an art style that draws heavily on idealizing or emulating the “primitive” experience. Beginning around the 19th century, the influx of tribal arts of Africa, Oceania and Native Americans into Europe offered artists a new visual vocabulary to explore. Primitive art’s use of simpler shapes and more abstract figures differ significantly from traditional styles of European representation and it’s easy to see how the Cubists drew on these styles in their work. The stylization and distortion of Picasso’s ground-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1907 came heavily inspired by African Art, for example, and served as one of the leading paintings of the Cubist movement.
The Cubist painters rejected the concept that art should somehow copy nature, or that an artists aim was to represent their subject matter as beautifully as possible. They wanted instead to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas and in that, rejected traditional techniques of perspective, modelling and foreshortening. They reduced their subject matter into flat, geometric forms, fracturing them then realigning them on a shallow, relief-like space. They often also used multiple and contradictory viewpoints. By breaking down objects and figures into distinct areas, or planes, the artist’s intention was to show these varying viewpoints at the same time to suggest three-dimensional form. This often resulted more in an emphasis on the flat surface than it did with creating the illusion of depth, but it did serve the Cubists well. Cubism was partly influenced by the late work of artist Paul Cezanne, in which he can be seen to be painting things from slightly different points of view. Picasso was also inspired by African tribal masks which are highly stylized and somewhat unrealistic, with strong, bold forms and lines.
Cubism was highly influential and presented a very new reality in paintings. It was also divided up into two distinct eras. The movement’s development from 1910 to 1912 is often referred to as Analytical Cubism. During this period, the work of Picasso and Braque became so similar that their paintings were almost indistinguishable. The mode of Analytical paintings shows how the form was broken down and analyzed by both artists. They simplified their colour schemes to a nearly monochromatic scale in order not to distract the viewer from the primary goal, which was the structure of form itself. The monochromatic colour scheme suited the complexity of the subject, which had now been reduced to overlapping opaque and transparent planes. Forms are usually quite compact and dense in the middle of an Analytical painting, getting bigger as they move toward the edges of the canvas. In their work from this period, Picasso and Braque frequently combined representational designs with letters; their favourite designs were made with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers and the human face and figure.
Interest in this subject matter continued after 1912, during the phase generally known as Synthetic Cubism. Artworks in this phase aimed to emphasize the combination or synthesis of forms in the painting. Colour played a strong role in these works and shapes that remain fragmented and flat are larger and more decorative. This was in comparison to areas where smooth and rough surfaces would be contrasted with one another. Materials like newspaper and tobacco wrappers are pasted on the canvas in combination with painted areas. This technique, known as collage, further emphasized the differences in texture and, at the same time, asked the question of what is real and what is an illusion.
While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this new visual language, it was adopted and further developed by many painters, from Marcel Duchamp to Jean Metzinger. Though primarily associated with painting, Cubism also had a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture and architecture. Cubism opened up almost infinite new possibilities on how the real world could be represented and was the starting point for many later abstract styles.
Picasso once said, “A head is a matter of eyes, nose and mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.” And this particularly emphasizes his lack of interest in showing things as they are, but how they could be, which is easily the most important aspect of abstract art.
Impressionism was a French art movement that started in the 19th century, from around 1860. It marked a momentous break from traditional European painting. The Impressionists incorporated new scientific research into the physics of colour to achieve a more natural representation of colour and tone. In the past, art and painting focused on pure representation and less on how the light played off of the subject matter. The Impressionists were more interested in this and looked at the way that colour changed and shifted as the light did.
Impressionist art is a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. They painted the pictures with a lot of colour and most of their paintings were outdoor scenes. Their pictures were often quite bright and vibrant yet still captured a quality of subtlety to the colour. The artists aim would be to capture their images without detail but rather with bold colours and loose brushstrokes.
The sudden change in the look and feel of what were more traditional paintings came out of a change in methodology. Instead of focusing on pure blending and exact representation, the Impressionists applied paint in small touches of pure colour rather than broader strokes and painting outdoors was the mode of creation. Brushwork was done in a more rapid manner and broken into separate dabs in order to capture the fleeting quality of light. Although it has been noted that the process of painting ‘plein air’ or outdoors is said to have been pioneered in Britain by John Constable around 1813-17 through his desire to paint nature in a realistic way. Instead of painting in a studio, the Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working quickly. The intent was to catch a particular fleeting moment of colour and light, like when the sun touches the edges of the leaves at dawn or dances over water during a sunset. This resulted in a greater awareness of light and colour and the shifting pattern of the natural scene.
Some of the more prominent Impressionists were the artists like Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Manet greatly influenced the development of Impressionism. He was one of the first 19th century artists to paint modern life and was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Manet painted everyday objects whereas Pissaro and Sisley painted the French countryside and river scenes. Pissaro’s importance lies in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post Impressionism while Sisley was one of the most consistent Impressionist painters in his dedication to painting landscapes and in a plein air manner. Degas enjoyed painting ballet dancers and horse races. He is often identified with the subject of dance, more than half of his works depict dancers. However, despite being one of the founders of the Impressionist movement he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. Renoir loved to show the effects of sunlight on flowers and figures and particularly enjoyed feminine sensuality and beauty as a subject. Monet was one of the key founders of the Impressionist movement and one of the most prolific practitioners of the movement’s philosophy. He was interested in the subtle changes in the atmosphere but also how one expressed their own perceptions before nature.
While the term ‘Impressionist’ covers much of the art of this time, there were smaller movements within that, such as Pointillism, Art Nouveau and Fauvism, although all of these have as much leg to stand on as any other movement. The first group exhibition was in Paris in 1874 and included work by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. The work shown was greeted with derision with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise particularly singled out for ridicule. However, the artists persevered and seven further exhibitions were then held at intervals until 1886.
At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas. An Impression. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted the Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality. Compared to previous genres of art making it is understandable why this was originally rejected as a mode of art-making. However, despite all of this the Impressionists kept going and it continues to be one of the most well known and popular ways of viewing and making art. They aimed to be painters of the real. To extend the possible subjects of paintings and get away from the depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry. They instead saw the world for what it was. Imperfect in a myriad of ways.
Dadaism was an artistic and literary movement that began in Zurich, Switzerland. It arose as a reaction to World War 1 and the nationalism that many thought had led to the war. It was very much influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism. The content made out of that genre was highly varied and ranged from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. The movement fell away with the development of Surrealism but it gave rise to many of the various realms of modern and contemporary art.
Dada was the first conceptual art movement where the focus of the artists wasn’t on creating aesthetically pleasing objects but on making works that often upended bourgeois sensibilities and that asked difficult questions about society, the role of the artist and the purpose of art. In fact, the group were so intent on opposing all the norms of middle-class culture that they were often barely in favour of themselves, often crying “Dada is anti-Dada.” So the realm of dadaism could often be confusing, contradictory and in a constant state of flux. Artists like Hans Arp, for example, went against all norms of traditional forms of art making where a work was meticulously planned and completed. Arp used methods of chance in the creation of his works, an example being his artwork Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, which involved his signature technique of tearing paper into rough shapes and dropping them onto a larger sheet, pasting them down where they happened to fall. Dada artists are known for their use of readymade objects – everyday objects that could be bought and presented as art with little to no interference from the artist. The use of readymade art forced questions about artistic creativity and the very definition of art and its purpose in society. The term ‘readymade’ art was first used by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the works of art he made from already manufactured objects. For example, Duchamp’s earliest readymade art piece was titled Bicycle Wheel and was made in 1913. This was simply a wheel mounted on a wooden stool. Duchamp particularly chose ordinarily functional and rather dull objects.
Marcel Duchamp was one of the pioneers of Dadaism. Dadaism was primarily about creating what many called ‘nonsense art’ but was, in reality, a movement that challenged ideas about what could be art and what art was. Duchamp particularly looked at turning mundane objects into sculptures. Despite working with a lot of the same themes as surrealists, he refused to actually align himself with any particular art movement. So even despite his significant contribution to the Dadaist movement, he refused to label himself as a Dadaist. This could be contributed to the idea that even Dadaism itself seemed to contradict itself and he did not want to label himself or his art for fear of falling into that. However, despite this, he is widely considered to be the father of Conceptual art. For that reason, I want to focus a little bit on who he was and what he did because it really highlights the Dada movement and what it stood for.
Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, and died on October 2, 1968. He was a French artist whose work broke down the boundaries between works of art and everyday objects. He was a painter, sculptor and chess player, and his disinterest in conventional ways of making art led him to create his most famous works, the ‘ready-mades’ that started the new artistic revolution. Few artists can boast about having changed the course of art history the way Duchamp did. His influence on later contemporary artists was monumental and many future art movements were influenced by him.
Duchamp was raised in Normandy, in a family of artists. He moved to Paris in 1904 to join his two brothers who were also there working as artists. Duchamp earned a living by working as a cartoonist and his early drawings show his interest in both visual and verbal puns. He became an American citizen in 1955 where he became a big influence on the New York art scene.
Duchamp began to work as an artist when he moved to Paris to pursue his career. When he eventually retired from the art scene he reportedly spent his time playing chess. In 1911 Duchamp met Francis Picabia and the following year attended a theatre adaptation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique, a play about the eccentric travelers of a vessel which has become shipwrecked. It had a profound effect on Duchamp. Duchamp noted that for the first time he felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.
Duchamp was constantly captivated by new approaches to art and he particularly enjoyed the Fauvists, Cubists, and Impressionist for that reason. He related especially to the Cubist way of working, which focused less on representing reality and rather on reordering it. His earlier paintings, such as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) show his interest in machinery and its connection to the body’s movement through space. His interest in crossing between genres of creativity and drawing in other disciplines for inspiration would later become one of the core ideas of Dadaism.
Dada artworks, in general, aim to present intriguing overlaps and paradoxes where the intent is to demystify artwork in a sense of accessibility. The main idea was that art did not have to be elite or cost a lot of money and this contradicted the world of art history before it, where art and being able to afford artworks was a sign of status. Even in a more modern time, seeing art meant that you had the luxury to visit a gallery and view and appreciate the work. At the same time, they tried to remain quite cryptic about the intention and concept of the works so that the viewer could interpret it in a variety of ways. The key to understanding Dada works lies in reconciling the seemingly silly, slapdash styles with the profound anti-bourgeois message.
Dada was easily the first conceptual art movement and is now considered a watershed moment in 20th-century art. Postmodernism as we know it would not exist without Dada. Almost every underlying postmodern theory in visual and written art as well as in music and drama was invented or at least utilized by Dada artists. Dada explored all the genres of art in this way, from art as performance, which overlapped with everyday life, the use of popular culture and audience participation and the act of embracing the absurd and the use of chance.
There has always been a huge amount of debate with regards to the definition of art. What is art? What makes art? And why does one person say something is art and another revile it? This topic of debate is also not something that is new to the artistic world. Throughout the centuries in Western culture from the 11th century on through to the end of the 17th century, the definition of art was anything done with skill as a result of knowledge and practice. Along with this, all throughout history people have been criticising others over the work they’re creating and denouncing it as ‘not real art’ or not even art at all. So we must ask, how do you define the creation or production of art?
Some say art is beauty but then what is beauty? Beauty is much more than cosmetic. It is not always about prettiness. There are plenty of opportunities to find artistic works of artistic expression that we could agree are not necessarily pretty but are beautiful. Beautiful art may be the artist successfully portraying their artists intended emotions, whether they’re pretty and bright or dark and sinister, or something in between. But neither the artist nor the observer can be certain of successful communication in the end, so beauty in art will always be subjective.
One of the initial reactions to this approach of breaking down what art is is that the categories seem overly broad. Within even just the confines of fine art, you are able to explore painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, performance art, photography, and video amongst many more. And one could say that you could make or do anything and if you call it art, then it is. Arguably, that has to be true. Art does not have to be beautiful and that’s the key idea here. Art is an expression and how we create that expression is important. So the fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who produced it whereas beauty depends on who’s looking. There is no one universal definition of visual art but there are ways of defining it! All throughout history these definitions have shifted and changed slightly. For example, a painting by Jean Basquiat that sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction in May 2017 would have had trouble finding an audience in Renaissance Italy. But art evolves and if it didn’t we would indeed live in a very bland world.
The definition of art has generally fallen into three categories: representation, expression, and form.
Art as Representation: Plato developed the first ideas into art. That is, he was one of the first to start thinking of it as something more. He developed the idea of art as “mimesis”, which in Greek means copying or imitation. For this reason, the primary meaning of art was for centuries defined as the representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful. Until roughly the 18th century, a work of art was valued on how faithfully it replicated its subject. The definition of “good art” has had a profound impact on modern and contemporary. If people place such high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters, it raises questions about the value of ‘modern’ art. While representational art definitely still exists today and it has value, it is no longer the only measure of value.
Art as Expression of Emotional Content: Art as expression became more important during the Romantic movement where artworks began expressing a definite feeling as in the dramatic or sublime or suspenseful. The response of the audience was important as the artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response. This definition still holds true today, as artists look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers.
Art as Form: Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential of the early philosophers and theorists toward the end of the 18th century. He believed that art should not have a concept but should be judged only and purely on its formal qualities because the content of the art is not of aesthetic interest. Formal qualities became particularly important when art became more abstract in the 20th century and the principles of art and design (balance, rhythm, harmony, and unity) were then used to define and assess the quality of art.
There are a number of quotes that in some sense shed a bit of light on the artists’ opinion on what art is. There are a few that we really like that we feel epitomises the sense of what we’re speaking about. Some of our favourites include:
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
– Thomas Merton
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
– Pablo Picasso
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
– Edgar Degas
Art is the signature of civilizations.
– Jean Sibelius
And then lastly, this one which reminds us that humans are the only creatures on earth (that we know of) who are capable of stepping outside of utilitarian needs to create something that expresses thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is something really amazing about that and in a way, it just puts aside all the debate and divisiveness we feel about art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
– Leo Tolstoy
Art is something we do. It is a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires but it is even more personal than that. It’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which many is an extension of personality. It’s the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be portrayed by words alone. It is a feeling. It’s seeing a loved one, its standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and realising how small and unimportant you are and finding the beauty of that. It is also rage and sorrow and joy and everything all wound up into one tight ball that art seeks to unravel.
The History Of Colour
The invention of paint as we know it began as early as 40,000 years ago and consisted of combinations of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal and chalk. This, in essence, created the basic pallete of red, yellow, brown, black and white. Since then, the history of colour has been one
long journey of discovery and exploration, some through chance and others through scientific advancement. The invention of new pigments often sparked new developments in art history, from Renaissance to Impressionism.
Because of the lack of technology and just general lack of access to pigments, paints started out as very neutral, natural toned colours. They were all made out of materials that could be found in nature. Things like natural clays, rocks as well as minerals and precious stones
would all be utilised but certain animal products could also be used as a pigment.
First used in prehistoric cave paintings, red ochre is one of the oldest pigments still used today. In the 16th century, a red pigment was discovered that came from a cochineal insect, a creature that was only found on the prickly pear cactus in Mexico. These little bugs produce
such a potent red dye that it quickly became the third greatest import out of the “New World”. Third only to gold and silver. Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens all used cochineal as a glaze, layering the pigment on top of other red to increase intensity. Because the pigment is
non-toxic it still used today to colour lipstick and blush.
Ever since the medieval era, painters have depicted the Virgin Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the colour both for its religious symbolism as well as its hefty price tag. Mary’s iconic hue, called Ultramarine blue, comes from lapis lazuli, a gemstone that could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. For hundreds of years, the cost of lapis lazuli rivalled even the price of gold. In the 1950s, Yves Klein collaborated with a Parisian paint
supplier to invent a synthetic version of ultramarine blue, Klein said, “Blue has no dimensions. It is beyond dimensions.”
Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though William Turner and Vincent van Gogh are the most notable exceptions. For his sun-lit seascapes, Turner used the experimental watercolour Indian Yellow—a fluorescent paint derived from the urine of mango-fed cows (banned less than a century later for its cruelty to animals). For brighter touches, Turner used a synthetic Chrome Yellow, a lead-based pigment known to cause
delirium. Vincent van Gogh also painted his starry nights and sunflowers using Chrome Yellow which, in part, contributing to his declining mental health.
While the colour green evokes nature and renewal, its pigments have actually been some of the most poisonous in history. In 1775, a deadly hue called Scheele’s Green was invented, a bright green pigment laced with arsenic. By the end of the 19th century, Paris Green—a
similar mixture of copper and arsenic—replaced Scheele’s Green, enabling artists like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to create vivid, emerald landscapes. However, it was still highly toxic and may have been responsible for Cézanne’s diabetes and even Monet’s blindness. Unsurprisingly, it was eventually banned in the 1960s.
For centuries, the colour purple has been associated with greatness: immense power, big personalities and artistic genius. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar covered themselves and their palaces with it. Impressionists like Clause Monet became so obsessed with the colour that they were accused of contracting “violettomania” The invention of collapsible tin tubes to store premixed paint was revolutionary for the fine art world. It led to the production of nuanced, pre-mixed paint shades, such as Manganese Violet, the first affordable mauve-coloured paint that meant artists no longer had to mix red and blue to make purple.
Black is technically an absence of light. Where reds, blues, greens are examples of chromatic colours, black is achromatic. It is without hue, like white. Black was one of the first pigments ever used and over the course of art history, there have been many different kinds of black
pigment. Charcoal, which was inexpensive but produced a gritty paint that was difficult to apply. Bone black, literally ground burnt animal bones tended to have a warmer, brown-black and lamp black (burnt vegetable oil) and vine black (charred grapevines or other vegetable products) gave cooler shades. Artists like Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Ad Reinhardt all created monochromatic black paintings, stripping the canvas of any subject matter other than the paint itself. Taken together, these painters prove that black is as nuanced a colour as any other, capable of many permutations, tones, and textures.
Of all the pigments that have been banned over the centuries, the colour most missed by painters is likely Lead White. This hue could capture and reflect a gleam of light like no other, though its production was anything but glamorous. The 17th-century Dutch method for manufacturing the pigment involved layering cow and horse manure over lead and vinegar. After three months in a sealed room, these materials would combine to create flakes of pure white. While scientists in the late 19th century identified lead as poisonous, it wasn’t until
1978 that the United States banned the production of lead white paint.
As we spoke about in our last post, the psychology of colour is a fascinating and diverse area of thought and in history, the act of using colour has often served as a way of representing something, usually within the realms of mystical, divine and royal. Colours in different cultures can also represent very different things. For example, white in Western culture represents purity and marriage whereas Asian cultures see white as the colour of mourning, grief and loss.
One must examine how colour has been used over time and how the development of technology has influenced the way we see and use colour. We are blessed to live in an age where we can walk into any old art store and find any colour under the rainbow in a tube on a shelf. And even now we have access to colours that are metallic, neon or even glow in the dark. It can be both very freeing and overwhelming at the same time. So just imagine you’re
one of the old masters, grinding up pigments made from rocks shipped from the centre of Africa. That’ll make things easier!