Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 4, 2018
Laura Anne Kalba Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 288 pp.; 108 color ills.; 11 b/w ills. Hardcover $84.95 (978-0-271-07700-0)

And then there was color. In short, this is the theme of Laura Kalba’s fascinating study, Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art, which chronicles the explosion of vivid (and often artificial) colors in everyday life in late nineteenth-century France. Explaining the science and technology behind the making of both new as well as more saturated traditional colors, the book traces the many experiential and epistemic shifts that attended consumers’ willing acceptance of a more colorful environment. In the process, the book shows that our modern assumptions surrounding color—including its vibrancy and ubiquity in daily life—owe their existence to the industrialization and commercialization of color in the years between roughly 1850–90.

Throughout her well-chosen case studies—fashion, horticulture, fireworks, color lithography, posters, and photography as well as the fine arts, including Impressionism, among others—a modern world emerges in which the addition of a new chemical palette was only one essential feature of a culture in thrall to eye-catching adventures in which color began to play a major role. As Kalba argues, the modern metropolis, which here means Paris, did not simply become a more colorful place to live, but also a place to live more colorfully. The new coloration of modernity had profound effects, so Kalba says, on our ways of seeing: conditioning us for a form of vision that seeks non-semantic, abstracted significations and pleasures from color.

Kalba makes her case in five concise chapters that unfold in a somewhat chronological manner, but are mostly focusing on one specific color technique or practice. The author is to be commended for not succumbing to what might have been an easier book to write, one that chronicles the specific chemical histories of new synthetic dyes, such as mauve, and their effects on visual culture. Instead, the reader is treated to a much broader inquiry about the rise of color in everyday life. In chapter 1, Kalba discusses the color theories of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and the multiplication and standardization of colors he promoted. Chapter 2 considers the rise of color in horticulture and artificial-flower making, while chapter 3 engages what Kalba nicely terms “Impressionism’s Chemical Aesthetic,” by which she means the style’s exuberant use of colors and the critics’ reaction to it. At times, this reviewer wished that Kalba had drawn more distinctions between color and paint, which sometimes become interchangeable in her account even when the critics distinguished them. Chapter 4 discusses the advent of color pyrotechnics and demonstrates the true reach of color into spectacular culture engineered by the fireworks industry. Chapter 5 addresses chromolithography and especially the rise of colorful posters in Paris, which came with its own class of poster collectors. Finally, a long epilogue discusses the relationship between the rise of color photography and Postimpressionism, before the author concludes with an interesting section that outlines how the nineteenth century’s proliferation of color was rationalized during the twentieth.

Kalba’s book is of an easily identifiable methodological bent, “visual culture studies,” now at least some three or four decades old and perhaps no longer in need of justification as a principal method of art history. Following that method’s anti-canonicity and democratization of the visual, the book brims not just with a surprising set of objects, spanning, as the above chapter list makes clear, the fine and the decorative arts, all sorts of paper cultures, and other even more ephemeral events such as fireworks and flowers in bloom, it also covers a surprisingly wide range of sources, from popular period literature to trade and scientific discourses of a more specialized kind. Kalba’s truly capacious forms of inquiry shine throughout her interpretations, and what is perhaps most refreshing about her approach—and marks a departure from previous applications of the method—is that she understands the fine arts, and especially avant-garde painting, as part of visual culture (and not a canon of modern painting to be actively avoided, as earlier formulations of the method tended to do). The back and forth between the colors of avant-gardism and the colors of commercial entertainment is often highly illuminating, demonstrating the degree to which groups like the Impressionists were not as much driving the color sense of their time, but following an industry hell-bent on making us want a more colorful life. The book is at its strongest, I think, when it argues that the rise of painterly abstraction in, and after, the generation of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists—in Gauguin’s vibrant monochromatic color-patch backgrounds for instance, or the Impressionists’ color-intensification of all shadows and surfaces—should be explained through the more “abstract” ways of seeing that pure color enabled in the process of its industrialization and commercialization.

By its nature, a broad, ambitious, and multilayered study of this kind, in which the concrete “object” of inquiry is hardly fixed, cannot deliver everything it promises. The internal logic of the text can at times feel a bit arbitrary, and the order of topics can seem contrived rather than told in an argumentatively cohesive manner. Why these six themes were chosen and not others (make-up, for instance, or interior decor and other decorative items, like wallpaper, stained glass, or ceramic glazes, all of which no doubt benefitted from the industrialization of color) is not justified much, and it seems strange to see a whole culture become more colorful in these six ways only.

Be that as it may, perhaps more consequential outcomes emerge from Kalba’s choice of structure. In electing not to tell a more straightforward history of modern synthetic chromaticization, Kalba at times plays fast and loose with chronology and any sense of historic progression. This becomes immediately clear when one compares the book’s title—and the general historic framing it takes, namely “the Age of Impressionism (ca. 1860s to World War I)—to the fact that the chapters often start around the decades of the 1830s. It struck this reviewer especially how often Kalba’s histories did not start in the age of Impressionism but in the age of Romanticism, not in that of Monet but Delacroix. This is when Chevreul’s writing and experimentation were at their height, as we learn; color photography was first discussed, color lithographs first produced, fireworks first truly colored, and so on. Kalba frequently counters what seems to be her own realization of the Romantic (and First, not Second, Industrial Revolution) origins of her problem by pointing out that color was not fully commercialized and widely consumed until after the 1850 and 1860s, but how precisely this occurs and why is not explained fully.

As a consequence, the reader is at times left to wonder about the nature and role of color before the age of Impressionism. How “colorless” was it at the end of the day? What colors existed and where, which were favored and to what degree before the mid-nineteenth century? Whenever this reviewer is confronted, for instance, with reconstructions of the saturated colors one finds in Empire and Biedermeier interiors or the pastels of the Rococo period, the image of an earlier world largely lived in muted tones of grey hardly seems to apply. A clearer sense of the impact that color had before Kalba’s chosen era would have helped dispel the lingering sense that she fell a bit for the advertising slogans and commercial acumen of those promoting the consumption of colors later, who—like all great sales folks—tend to downplay what came before in order to nurture a desire for the new.

Finally, the reason for the study to center on France is more assumed than defined. Obviously, Paris was the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” as Walter Benjamin famously had it, but the book more often than not repeats the truisms that Paris was the center of fashion, luxury, and modern entertainment in the period, setting new (color) standards for everyone else. This is well and good were it not for the fact, frequently mentioned and simultaneously downplayed by Kalba, that the industrialization of color in her period was really driven by German companies (BASF, AGFA) and often German scientists, not French ones, or that one of her major painting examples—James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s The Falling Rocket of 1875—is a British Victorian picture through and through. Yet Kalba, in an analytic move more in line with the world wars and the Cold War anti-German and pro-French allegiances that Anglo-American scholarship has so often demonstrated in the past, pays little attention to how her narrative might have played out in that other culture, the German Empire, where the technical side of the color revolution was actually taking place. How might her account be different if we took seriously the paintings of a Max Liebermann instead, or the colorful sea creatures of an Arnold Böcklin? What is more, some minor mistakes have crept into the text when German references are concerned: “Österreichische” is misspelled (x, 64) and the Neue Pinakothek relocated from Munich to Berlin (xi, 92). Moreover, the plethora of concerns that stretch between color, skin color, and complexion, especially in the imagery associated with the French Empire, as Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and others have persuasively detailed, are hardly broached here either.

None of the above is meant to downplay a major scholarly achievement, however, and a truly fascinating read. The ambition and the broad coverage of the book will be unsurpassed for a long time when it comes to analyzing the unstoppable march of color into every facet of modern existence.

André Dombrowski
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Please send comments about this review to