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On the Artist’s Palette

Chemical physics in artistic creativity
Philippe Walter
p. 18
Cet article est une traduction de :
Sur la palette de l’artiste

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from the Inaugural Lecture 20 March 2014
Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

Texte intégral

Edward Burne-Jones, Pygmalion and Galatea III: The Godhead Fires, 1878, oil on canvas, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

© Birmingham, United Kingdom

1Chemistry and the history of art are two disciplines that few people would naturally associate. A new perspective on the subject is now possible, by emphasizing the material dimension of artistic creativity.

2I would like to show how technological innovation has led artists to invent new ways of painting and, conversely, how the current or future construction of scientific instruments profoundly changes our studying capacity and, for the last few years, has made highly innovative interdisciplinary research possible.

3From Antiquity to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, both in practice and in theory, the artistic projects imagined by painters were dominated by the concepts of the imitation of nature, or mimesis, and of sensitive expression of reality. The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses and depicted by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painters, transcends this desire for perfection and imitation of the world, which makes the artist dream of seeing his work come to life. Two paintings by Pre-Raphaelite British painter Edward Burne-Jones show how the sculptor, enamoured with the image he created in marble, sees his wish to marry such a woman granted with the arrival of Aphrodite, who brings to life the figure he shaped. In terms of pictorial representation, the rendering of the marmoreal aspect and of the delicate feminine incarnate creates a remarkably subtle chromatic transition. Through divine action, adding “a drop of life”, the statue comes to life by becoming polychromic, thanks to the fine use of vermillion pigments for the skin tones and the hair and eyes’ delicate colouring. Burne-Jones was thus able to recreate the shine of the marble, the softness of the skin and the silk weft of the fabrics through optical effects linked to the colours of the objects, the tonal relationships between shadows and light, and the more or less glossy or matte nature of the reflections.

4Over the following centuries, debate on drawing, shades, light and texture continued and painters worked using flat tints, glazes, and colour superimpositions and juxtapositions. The nature of the pigments and the composition of the paints, which were specially developed to retain the light more or less through layers, and to leave the trace of the paintbrush, played a major role in these trends. Chemical analyses inform us about Nicolas Poussin’s approach when he understood that there is an important distinction between a pigment and its appearance in different natural contexts, through diverse optical interactions and the conditions of observation. Around 1620, Matteo Zaccolini, a painter and colour theorist, wrote several books on shadows and perspectives that profoundly influenced Poussin. Analyses of the coat on Poussin’s painting Eliezer and Rebecca, kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, has served to demonstrate that the artist chose different yellow pigments for the light and dark creases of Eliezer’s garment, in other words either an antimony and lead yellow, or an iron oxide-rich ochre. Shadow is no longer created by adding a dark pigment on a uniformly applied colour; it is present in the artist’s mind and is prepared on his or her palette.

5Not all artists had the interdisciplinary approach of the great theorists of colour and pictorial practices. Ways of painting often evolved thanks to the links that developed between the arts and society’s other fundamental activities, particularly technical and scientific activities. The adaptation and then efficient insertion of a technique, chemical product or tool materialized in artistic practices through transmission that could be either theoretical or entirely experimental. Thanks to these innovations, artists were able to produce works of art that explored nature in a new way.

• A video of the Lecture is available at, on the professors page.

• Philippe Walter also organized a symposium
on the same subject (see p. 66).

• The Chair is funded by the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation.

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Légende Edward Burne-Jones, Pygmalion and Galatea III: The Godhead Fires, 1878, oil on canvas, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Crédits © Birmingham, United Kingdom
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Référence électronique

Philippe Walter, « On the Artist’s Palette », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 29 septembre 2015, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :

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Philippe Walter

CNRS Senior Researcher, Head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Structural Archaelogy at Perre and Marie Curie University

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