Think of a color. Any tone you imagine can be found in the form of paint at your local art supply or hardware store, but this wasn’t always the case. It took the discovery of true blue to change things.
“Ancient Romans would have vied for the chance to dye their robes a certain color purple or to achieve a particular pure, sometimes called a true blue, the blue that we see in the ocean or the sky. To re-create that on a painting or any kind of object was so far out of reach that it’s something we can’t relate to now,” said John Griswold, Norton Simon Museumconservator.
Griswold is curator of “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists,” which opens at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena on July 17.
The story of true blue starts in Berlin in 1704 when a colorman (a person who made and sold colors to artists and textile dyers) was borrowing laboratory space from an alchemist in Berlin, Griswold said. The alchemist was creating “animal oil” for the king. His “cure-all” tonic was made with a mixture of ingredients, including blood and potash. The colorman borrowed some potash without knowing it had been contaminated with blood and added it to the blend, which he left overnight in his distiller. The next morning he returned to the lab expecting to see a red hue, but instead the mixture had made the vivid color we now call Prussian blue.
“Prussian blue was cheap. It was super strong in its ability to tint oil paint. If you added white to it or any other color it wasn’t just blue, you had a whole new range of greens available. You could modify whites or yellow to have a different kind of harmony. It opened up all these possibilities,” Griswold said.
Prussian blue allowed artists to also paint ala prima (wet on wet), using thicker paint, leaving their brushstrokes on the finished pieces.
“(‘A Revolution of the Palette’) all began with the paintings talking to me, certainly under the microscope, looking at the brushstrokes and recognizing the pigments and ‘Oh, this is the earliest, most crude version of Prussian blue, the homemade stuff,’ ” Griswold said.
“That’s what this exhibition does, it tells this story and it just gets more amazing because these two other blues (synthetic or French ultramarine and cobalt blue) appeared at the right time that really propelled things toward impressionism.”
Griswold’s favorite painting in the exhibit is the 1793 “Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky” by Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. In it, the countess poses in a flowing, deep blue satin dress with a soft blue sky behind her.
“That dress she is wearing and the sky behind her would have been impossible without Prussian blue,” Griswold said.
For even more perspective on Prussian blue’s importance, visitors can view a detail from the painting “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Vigee-LeBrun. It shows a close-up of the palette Vigee-LeBrun holds in the piece with the dabs of the paints she needed to begin her work. The paints are all earth tones, traditionally used by artists to create the base of their pictures, except next to her splotch of white is a large blob of Prussian blue.
“For that to be right there, so ready for her to use it, that really underscored to me how an artist at that time would have used a little tiny bit of Prussian blue to modify the tones of the greens in the background,” Griswold said.
Another part of the exhibit is the invention of oil paint in a tube in 1841. With a proper storage container, standards for colors could be set and artists could now request hues by name from their vendor. Plus, paint in a tube was easily portable.
“The Seine at Charenton” by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin is a plein air work with dashes of blues in the sky, water and even pathways, which wouldn’t have been possible prior to paint tubes, Griswold said.
And Prussian blue is still changing the world today, as the properties used to create it are currently used in medical research and as an antidote to certain types of radiation sickness, Griswold said.
The Huntington has also loaned the museum books to display by Isaac Newton and Voltaire that examine the changing theories on light and color.
“It’s an exciting exhibition and I think that it’s really great. As John said, these are old friends that we are examining from a scientific perspective,” said Leslie Denk, the museum’s director of public affairs.
“Fragonard’s Enterprise: The Artist and the Literature of Travel,” 60 drawings created by French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard during his first stay in Italy during the mid-18th century, also will be on exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum beginning July 17.
by Michelle Mills
Source: San Gabriel Valley Tribune