True blue, royal blue, ultramarine: During the Renaissance, these were all names for the most prized of all pigments, lazurite, derived from the semiprecious mineral lapis lazuli. Mined and processed since the sixth century almost exclusively in Afghanistan, and imported under European marketplaces through Venice, it was worth more than five times its weight in gold. It was utilized sparingly, often reserved for the richest patrons by the most prosperous artists.
Look at this sumptuous still life, for example, painted in mid-1 7th-century Paris by Paul Liegeois, which features his signature royal blue drapery. He attained the effects with thin glazes of ultramarine petroleum paint applied over a layer that was highlighted with white result. When light penetrates the thin blue glaze, the white reflects it back, intensifying a deep blue hue.
We often take for awarded the dazzling scope of colorings in old oil paintings as we stroll through an art museum. Early Renaissance panels are full of jewel-like tints. Mannerists like Bronzino use shocking, acidic coloring combinings as they stretched the limits of naturalistic representation. Grand Baroque era artists, like Caravaggio, defined vivid hues against dramatic darknes darkness. In truth, these colorings were hard-won. Time-tested, layer-by-layer techniques were required to ensure that a limited scope of natural colorings would maximize their visual impact. Generating a colorful oil painting was not yet the spontaneous act we envisage the likes of Monet performing as he captured fleeting illumination and coloring effects.
That spontaneity required two remarkable advancementsa scientific understanding of the laws of illumination and coloring, and a new palette of colorings that could be used to exploit these laws. As luck would have it, both happened around the year 1704. Sir Isaac Newton published his revolutionary text Opticks , and a German chemist detected a vivid new blue pigment with amazing properties.
Im fascinated by how those two growths are working together. I am a museum curator , not a curator. I bring a scientific and technical perspective on the methods and materials of art to the preservation of the collections. I am also a painter, and it was my passion for deciphering the mysteries of old master paints that led me to art conservation.
In mounting the exhibition A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I confiscated the opportunity to share my investigative procedures with museum patrons. Devoted the opportunity to choose masterpieces from the collect and study them under the microscope, I looked for evidence of how painting in oils had changed between the end of the Baroque era and the mid-1 9th century, thanks to a single coloring: Prussian blue.
That blue was an accident. In 1704, a chemist and coloring maker named Heinrich Diesbach was rushing to fabricate a batch of Florentine lake, a red pigment derived from simmered cochineal bugs, alum, iron sulfate, and potash. Absence this last ingredient, he borrowed some from the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel , not knowing it had been polluted with so-called animal oila fouled concoction of blood and other animal-derived ingredients that Dippel sold as a cure-all. Diesbach returned in the morning to discover a deep blue substance, thanks to the presence of an iron-cyanide contaminant. The two men promptly realise the commercial potential of this new pigment, and independently began making batches of it to sell to painters at the Prussian court.
By 1710, the first samples of Prussian blue pigment arrived in Paris, where Antoine Watteau is known to have shared it with his fellow painters Jean-Honor Fragonard and Franois Boucher. Both were early and enthusiastic adopters of the new blue for their compositions. So was Canaletto in Venice, who found it indispensable in achieving his atmospheric effects.
This fte champtre ( scene of a garden party) by Bonaventure de Bar, an intimate of Bouchers circle, was painted in 1728. A glimpse under the microscope uncovers rough, irregular particles typical of early Prussian blue, scattered in a thin glaze over the sky and clothing.
Although Prussian blue lacked the clear, true blue hue of lazurite, Prussian blue had unique properties that allowed painters to work more spontaneously. Only a small amount was required to lend a strong tint to other colorings, including white. Painters could now mix a much wider spectrum of colorings on their palette.
Painters could also take advantage of new knowledge. Artists were keen to depart from the old conventions of representing space and sort, which depended more on metaphysical and philosophical arguments than scientific facts. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, had now begun.
In Opticks , Newton wrote about his findings about illumination and coloring. For example, he had divided a beam of sunlight into its component colorings with a prism. Word spread of Newtons work, thanks to highly vocal supporters like Voltaire and vehement opponents like Goethe.
Artists began to experiment with coloring harmonies to create illusions of depth in new ways. Color wheels and other diagrammatic representations of coloring theory exposed sophisticated relationships, and artists soon realized that colorings diametrically opposed on the coloring wheel, known as complementary colors, had a special harmonic relationship. Placing one next to the other, or partially covering one with the other, outcomes in optical effects simulating three-dimensional depth. One coloring tends to advanceor pop, as we sometimes say now. Thanks to the discovery of Prussian blue, painters had, for the first time, a palette of petroleum paints that could let them reproduction the full coloring wheel, and thereby experiment spontaneously on the canvas to achieve marvelous optical effects.
In France, these new potentials came to fruition in Rococo painting. With its playful subject matter, delicacy of coloring, and exuberant brushwork, this art movement became known in the early 18 th century as peinture moderne . Deceptively simple, these paints disclose a mastery of the new scientific principles of coloring theory. Boucher, Fragonard, and others experimented with advancing and receding complementary colors. Colouring harmonies were everywhere, in the deepest darkness and the most brilliant sunlight. Black was all but banished. Practises popularly credited to the French Impressionists have their origins more than a century earlier as Rococo artists took advantage of an expanded palette.
Look, for example, at a paint like Jupiter and Semele by Deshays de Colleville, Bouchers son-in-law. His masterful brushwork, characterized by deftly placing and blending strokes of varying colorings and hues directly into each other, juxtaposes complementary colors in carefully orchestrated differences. As a result, his figures project forward from the Prussian greens and blues of the forest backdrop.
The Norton Simon exhibit moves forward from the full blossoming of the Rococo era through the French Revolution, after which the new Republic urgently sought to develop new products and revive the shattered economy. A centerpiece of this effort was the nationally subsidized quest for new paint pigments inspired by the brilliant ceramic glazes ensure on French royal porcelain, resulting in the discovery of cobalt blue and its variants, and ultimately the attainment of the holy grail of an inexpensive true blue, a.k.a. French ultramarine. The exhibition concludes with the Impressionists, who ran even further with optical coloring manipulation and spontaneous brushwork. They enjoyed the advantage of myriad petroleum paint colorings now sold in convenient, re-closable metal tubings, easily taken outdoors for true plein air painting.
In helping viewers read the surfaces of paints from this remarkable period, I have rekindled my own desire to look, to experiment, to study for a new series of paints. But more than that, I have gained renewed optimism regarding the potential for an accidental discovery to occur at simply the precise moment when it can be best exploited to the benefit of all.
Prussian blue was attained in the laboratory of an alchemist at the right time to resonate with the spread of a grand scientific revelation and to catalyze a whole new direction in human expres. Serendipity happens, and sometimes the result is revolution.
John Griswold, a third generation Angeleno, has trained and worked as an art and architectural materials curator in Greece, England, Canada, Egypt and the U.S. He has been the curator on staff at the Norton Simon Museum since 2007.
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