History of Art From Picasso’s Prussian Blue to Red,
Colors have minds of their own, as they keep secrets and hide suspicious pasts.
Every color we encounter in a great work of art, starting with the hyperchromatic color that Johannes Vermeer wove into the turban of his novel Girl with a Pearl Earring,
To the flying crimson that blazes the blazing sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, it brings with it an extraordinary backstory.
These histories reveal amazing layers of masterpieces that we thought we knew by heart.
This fascinating and forgotten language that paintings and sculptures use to speak to us is the subject of my new book, The Art of Color: A History of Art in 39 Pigments. We discover that color is never what it seems.
It all started when German occultist Johann Conrad Dippel mistook a recipe for an illicit elixir that he believed could cure all human ailments.
Black: Boneless in John Singer Sargent’s novel Madame X (1883-4)
When John Singer Sargent unveiled his portrait of Virginie Amelie Avigno Gautreau, the wife of a French banker, at the Paris Salon in 1884, it sparked a scandal.
The artist’s decision to allow the right strap of her loose black satin dress to slide seductively down her shoulder (a detail she later removed) is said to have been more than contemporary eyes could bear.
But there’s more than just a serious wardrobe malfunction that destabilizes the painting.
Sargent has given Gautreau’s pale complexion a terrifying touch (which he extracted from a strange mixture of white lead, rose madder, cochineal, and fridian).
With a smattering of ancient black bone – historically derived from the crushed remains of cremated skeletons. The secret ingredient complicates Gautreau’s gorgeous, gangrenous skin, and the bone black transforms the image into a spiritual meditation on the transience of the body, blurring the line between desire and decay.
Orange: Chrome orange in Sir Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June (1895)
Sir Frederick Leighton’s famous portrait of the sleeping nymph, Flaming June, may seem, at first glance, to be the embodiment of a carefree summer snooze.
For some, the way she slips below the level of the horizon that shimmers behind her, seeing a sprig of deadly oleander within reach of her cradling hand, introduces themes of death and burial into the seemingly lazy scene. But Leighton cleverly covered her supple body in swathes of chrome orange, a relatively new pigment whose production only became possible in the 19th century.
Thanks to the discovery near Paris and Baltimore, Maryland, of vast underground deposits of the faint and elusive mineral chromite, which can be converted into transcendent radiation.
Covered in chrome orange, Flaming June is not a human being about to die or be buried, but a forever treasure about to be unearthed—an inextinguishable emblem of endlessly renewed beauty.