Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2014
Andrea Feeser, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds. The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments, 1400–1800 The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 390 pp.; 45 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9781409429159)
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The editors of The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments, 1400–1800 state that in a world in which current technology has made color cheap and ever more available, they would like to restore a sense of wonder and appreciation for the experience of color. The very recent aspect of this technological revolution is vivid to this reviewer who remembers that in art history classrooms of the late 1950s and early 1960s the projected image of a (rare) color slide was startling. In my classroom I have for several years now found it useful to alert students that the image currently on the screen is black and white, now as rare as the color slide used to be.

These essays in The Materiality of Color explore the aesthetic, economic, and social value of color in a global context. The contributors hailing from history, English, rhetoric, and ethnography departments outnumber the art historians. Emphasis is on the process of procuring, transporting, and marketing the materials of pigments and dyes as well as on the various uses to which they were put and the meanings attributed to them. The book is divided into three sections: “Color’s Social and Cultural Meanings,” “Producing and Exchanging Pigments and Dyes,” and “Making Colored Objects.” The objects in the third section derive from locations ranging from Africa, to Brazil, to Brandenburg, but exclude those of the traditional fine arts; instead of paintings, frescoes, and sculpture, glass bracelets, costumes, featherwork, wallpaper, etc., are discussed. Because of its global perspective the focus is on the colonial period, concluding with the invention of aniline dyes and the production of synthetic pigments in the late nineteenth century, when a whole new era was inaugurated.

A kind of color symbolism not found in the European tradition is explored by Molly Harbour Bassett and Jeanette Favrot Peterson, a religion/art history team, in “Coloring the Sacred in Sixteenth-Century Central Mexico.” The material from which a pigment was derived remained part of its meaning, which would then be layered with other meanings. One red pigment signified the destructiveness of fire, another (re)generation. “A flower was at once a part of the natural world, a source for pigment, a metaphor for poetic and priestly speech, and a glyphic prompt in a synesthetic experience” (58).

Readers are asked to think about the meaning of color and the suppression of color. Jason LaFountain (“Colorizing New England’s Burying Grounds”) shows how New Englanders in the eighteenth century quarried colored stones for grave markers in order to celebrate life by relating death to the natural landscape, and thereby to eternal life. In the nineteenth century, as social custom shifted to mourning, these colorful markers were replaced by cold, pure white limestone and marble. Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding (“Luscious Colors and Glossy Paint: The Taste for China and the Consumption of Color in Eighteenth-Century England”) studies the reception of Chinese taste on English society (81). She shows how the reversal in taste transformed the meaning of color in eighteenth-century England, where the bright colors of chinoiserie meant gaiety, joy, sensuousness; in the Neoclassical reaction, the meaning of these colors shifted to represent hedonism and became subversive of the desired effect of paintings of “raising the soul” (93). When fantasy and nonsense came to be associated with bright color, the very word “gaudy” changed its connotation from “joyful” (gaudere, to rejoice) to tastelessly showy (83).

Nevertheless, the majority of the essays are not concerned with shifts of taste in the Western world, but engage more with its politics and economic history. Indigo is the subject of two very different essays. Padmini Tolat Balaram (“Indian Indigo”) shows how blue dye indigo, which had been produced in India for millennia, but was little used in Europe, came to replace woad after sixteenth-century dyers recognized how much superior it was. It was not an easy transition because woad producers, who depended on it for their livelihood, instituted a successful smear campaign, calling indigo everything from ”fugitive” to “corrosive” (143). As a result it was prohibited in Europe throughout much of the seventeenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century these laws were finally withdrawn. To answer increased demand, indigo was then cultivated in their colonies by the British, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Spanish indigo from Guatemala and French from Santo Domingo (Haiti) surpassed Indian in quality and efficiency (144). When the British introduced the “Santo Domingo method” to India in the late eighteenth century, it dominated the market for a hundred years until the invention of synthetic indigo in the late nineteenth century. In this capsulated instance appears a larger history of colonialism, with its rivalries, successes, and failures.

Andrea Feeser also treats the problem of indigo production in colonial America. In “The Exceptional and the Expected: Red, White, and Black Made Blue in Colonial South Carolina” she retells the story of a British woman in South Carolina who was forced to take over the operation of her father’s plantation. Feeser emphasizes the indispensable role of slaves, both African and indigenous, in Eliza Luca Pinckney’s success in producing a product that was welcomed in the London market in competition with the French import from Santo Domingo.

The principal contribution of The Materiality of Color is to deepen our appreciation of colorants as commodities and the products of human labor. Through its focus on production, readers see the hardship and complexity of manufacturing dyes and getting them to market. Traditional and better-known pigments such as ultramarine and azurite are not discussed, presumably because they were either produced in Europe, their stories are already known, or the supply remained constant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the historical focus of this volume.

The red dye kermes, derived from insects, had long been highly valued in Europe. In “Seeking Red: The Production and Trade of Cochineal Dye in Oaxaca, Mexico, 1750–1821,” Jeremy Baskes describes the trade in a Mexican substitute, called cochineal, which became the second most valuable export, behind silver, from colonial Mexico (101). Far more potent and brilliant than red dyes previously known in Europe, it revolutionized the dye industry (102). For a brief period this cottage industry thrived: in 1793 it was estimated that one-third of the households in Oaxaca were engaged in it (103). Baskes presents a vivid picture of peasant life, the mutual distrust of Spanish government officials and peasant farmers, and the difficulties both encountered.

Running contrary to the book’s pattern of focusing on products imported from the New World into Europe, one essay explores the export to North America of the prized pigment vermilion. Jean François Lozier studies the trade in pigments for cosmetic use in “Red Ochre, Vermilion, and the Transatlantic Cosmetic Encounter.” Whereas European women used white lead for their skin and vermilion for their cheeks and lips, native North American Indians used red ochre, which was abundantly available, to paint their bodies and faces red. Once they discovered the brilliance of vermilion, however, they vastly preferred it. Beginning at least in the last decades of the seventeenth century, Europeans were trading small quantities of vermilion for heaps of furs. A new, more efficient process for synthesizing vermilion was discovered in 1687, and Amsterdam became the center of production. The French, and perhaps also British traders, were using the Dutch product (129), a trade that continued well into the nineteenth century when concerns about its damage to health finally curtailed its use as a cosmetic.

Typical of compilations of this sort, there is little common ground among the essays. One will be rich in social history (Feeser, Baskes), while another will lack detailed information about producers or consumers, as in Stéphanie Karine Boulogne’s contribution on glass bracelets. Her article informs us about the market distribution of these bracelets, thereby connecting tangentially with the volume’s other studies of markets, but not about how they were valued, economically or aesthetically. We learn in detail what colors the prince and princess of Transylvania wore in the 1620s (Éva Deák), but unfortunately the archives do not provide information on the dyes used for these fabrics, so this essay is not comparable to others analyzing dyes, their distribution, and cost. If the story of the distribution of a commodity is going to be made useful to the non-specialist, the authors and editors need to consider what its appeal will be. Less diversity, not of subject or methodology, but of applicability, is desirable.

After decades in which publishers resisted the genre of compiled papers, either derived from a conference or not, Ashgate has embraced it. Scholars should be grateful that collections like this one are made available and the essays not consigned to individual articles in scholarly journals where connections among the topics would be lost. But the editors of such volumes need to practice an almost unattainable rigor. The difficulty is that once a paper has been solicited it is impossible to control the result. It is a hard-hearted editor who can reject a solicited paper because it does not fit the collection, since it was impossible to foresee in advance the shape that collection would evolve into.

In a study of the world of colors it is worth pausing to notice a significant shift in taste, alluded to in passing in LaFountain’s essay and particularly in Alayrac-Fielding’s. As insatiable as our craving for color is today, equally resolute was the preference for pure white in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. When Winckelmann persuaded the cultured elites that Greek art was the true classicism and that Rome was a hyped-up imitation, he also persuaded them that “classical” meant pure white.

This is the cultural shift to Neoclassicism during which, incidentally, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance stone sculptures were scrubbed to remove all remnants of the original paint, a prejudice not yet dead. As recently as 1978, Bassett and Peterson narrate, the major find of a buried monumental relief sculpture in Mexico City was immediately “cleaned,” removing all the precious original paint (45).

Marcia B. Hall
Carnell Professor of Renaissance Art and Director of Graduate Studies, Art History Department, Temple University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.