Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros75La CouleurPrisms, Palettes and Panoramas: C...

La Couleur

Prisms, Palettes and Panoramas: Colouring the World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Brigitte Friant-Kessler

Texte intégral

The conclusions of men are very different according to the mode in which they approach a science or branch of knowledge; from which side, through which door they enter. (Goethe, The Theory of Colours xlvii)

I walked up gravely to the window in my dusty black coat, and looking through the glass saw all the world in yellow, blue, and green, running at the ring of pleasure. (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey “Paris”)

Prisms and palettes

  • 1 Le Blon’s 1711 Coloritto, or the Harmony of Colours was a bilingual (French-English) treaty. The au (...)

1As 2018 draws to an end, so does a year of celebration to commemorate the literary anniversary of A Sentimental Journey, from which the second epigraph to this introduction is taken, as well the death of Laurence Sterne in London, in March 1768. Vision and perception are writ large in Sternean fiction while sensorial experience often hinges on sight and touch combined. Born in 1713, Sterne was, however, in many ways closer to the age of Newton, and possibly of Locke, than to Turner’s time. In 1711, Jacob Christopher Le Blon invented a ground-breaking three-to-four colour printing technique that made coloured prints more readily available.1 This reproducibility factor was to operate major changes in Europe, and in the history of colour print at large.

2The scene from A Sentimental Journey is a vignette which depicts Yorick, an English clergyman in the latter part of the eighteenth century, temporarily staying in Paris and pensively looking out onto the street, with his mind wandering off into a colourful fantasy. Mixed with the sensuous overtones implied by the ring of pleasure which harks back to the medieval age of chivalry, Yorick’s vision through the glass is simultaneously transitional between past and present, and transient. It gestures toward a degree of distortion in how the world is conceived and perceived, for what the narrator is actually able to observe, or not, remains nonetheless a total mystery. Clear-cut answers to the query of which colours eighteenth-century Europeans or Americans saw equally elude us, on a variety of counts. For the purpose of exploring colour(s), Yorick’s character provides us with a prism through which core questions regarding colour and/or colours are raised. Had colours, both in perception and application, changed in any significant manner from what one would have observed and perceived in the early modern period? How can we, if at all, as readers and viewers in the twenty-first century perceive and apprehend what colours meant in the Enlightenment or how they impacted people, when we see cultural objects as diverse as books, artworks, furniture or dress?

  • 2 See for instance, Ruth Mack’s essay on Hogarth’s Practical Aesthetics.

3Further questions arise when we focus on theoretical frameworks. Cultural studies as well as material culture investigations have recently shown that symbolic perspectives proved lacking in historicism and contextual appraisal. Conversely, history as a field has taken an iconic turn, that is to say, it has gradually embraced an approach whereby images, in particular, are both supports and evidence. Colour historians like Michel Pastoureau opened up seminal avenues when the discourse on colour moved from heraldry to social and cultural history. For Pastoureau retains its symbolic values, while his approach is informed by historical, anthropological and social studies. In its wake others have paved the way to a more global viewing and towards crossover methodologies. Philosophical enquiries can be buttressed much in the same manner as, for instance, when practical aesthetics illuminate Hogarth’s treatise on the beauty of the serpentine line and to a larger extent of colours.2 In the Analysis of Beauty (1753) a whole chapter is entirely devoted to colour-related problems. Hogarth mentions colour(s) on 64 different occasions, often in connection with dress, plants, to show how it can emphasise beauty, which for him was present as much in nature as in art: “The shapes and colours of plants, flowers, leaves, the paintings in butterflies wings, shells, &c. seem of little other intended use, than that of entertaining the eye with the pleasure of variety” (16).

  • 3 Lowenthal’s title is from the opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. In 201 (...)

4In many respects, the reader of this issue of xvii-xviii on colour(s) will find him or herself in the same position as Sterne’s fictional Yorick who stares through a glass and intends to gaze at a world set in the past. For, as David Loewenthal aptly notes, “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”3 Marie-Madeleine Martinet to whom I am most grateful for guidance, precious collaboration and proof-reading offers in the following “Blue-sky Thinking section” a range of responses to the crucial problems related to seeing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colours with our contemporary eyes, a process that is actually underpinned by a series of obstacles and requires adjustments.

  • 4 Museums that have made use of this technology are, among others, Musée George de la Tour (Vic sur S (...)

5Martinet posits that the ability to see and assess colours from the past should not be taken for granted. For purely anatomical reasons to start with, colours can and will not be perceived the way they were in their original context. Our eyesight has evolved and if it proves faulty, we have gathered sufficient scientific knowledge in ophthalmology to remediate the impairment. Spatial and cultural changes have deeply affected our world in the course of the last centuries, such as the use of electric artificial light as opposed to candle light or simply day light. As Roger de Piles explained (Dialogue sur le coloris, 1672), the exaggeration of the colours of a painting was determined by the place for which it was intended (Lavezzi). Thus, the habit of presenting pictures in a certain manner or hanging them on walls next to windows, or, on the contrary in dark rooms would also modify a viewer’s perception. VR (Virtual Reality) experiments undertaken in museums in order to immerse visitors provide information about the discrepancy that can be experienced between what we see today and what Austen, Sterne, Dr Johnson, Swift, Defoe, Addison, Locke, Newton or even Shakespeare saw.4

6Whether paintings were viewed in a private home or in galleries, such as the Shakespeare Gallery, is something that alters not only the perception of those images but also that of the colours chosen by artists, who, in turn, worked in different lighting conditions.5 The frames would be hung in different ways, now very close, now at a distance, and they would be exhibited at varying heights in any given room, as shown for instance in the display of paintings at Woburn Abbey.6

7Martinet’s enquiry thus provides us with a stimulating insight into the limits of perception and offers a number of caveats we should mind prior to formulating aesthetic or scientific judgments on artworks from the past.


Blue-sky thinking: can we see seventeenth- and eighteenth- century colours? 7

Colours have changed and cannot be restored

8An exhibition took place in 2012 at the Musée Cognacq-Jay “La Patine du temps,” arguing that it is impossible to restore paintings to their original state. One of the most telling examples was a comparison of two portraits of a child by Greuze (1775), where the unrestored painting, though crackled, had depth, whereas the relined painting, though it had a faultless surface in an attempt to restore it to its original state, gave a very flat effect and had lost its depth. It must be noted that the exhibition was contemporary with the controversial restoration of Leonardo’s Saint Anne in the Louvre, and remembered that Cognacq-Jay is a museum of the City of Paris whereas the Louvre is a national museum; they may have different approaches.

9Seventeenth and eighteenth-century writers knew that colours change; they knew that in addition varnish darkens, and therefore a dark picture was an asset – a proof that it was an Old Master painting, so much so that forgers sold deliberately darkened pictures. Hogarth makes fun of the taste for dark paintings in his Time Smoking a Picture (1761). Experimenting on pigments sometimes had a disastrous result, as some of Reynolds’s paintings show. He experimented on various mixtures, which in the course of time proved to be unstable and darkened. As part of the debate on the relative merits of drawing and colour initiated in the academies of the seventeenth century, and on the relative merits of painting and of literature, colour was an image of transience, a view put forward by Pope:

The treach’rous colours the fair art betray,
And all the bright creation fades away!
(An Essay on Criticism II, 492-93)

So perhaps we are closest to our seventeenth and eighteenth-century forbears when we recognise that we cannot see the colours of their paintings?

We should historicise colours and our perception of them

  • 8 For details on this invention and its reception, see the contribution of Zoriana Lotut in this issu (...)

10The period we study is characterised by the coexistence of traditional natural colours and the first synthetic chemical colours. The first of them, Prussian blue, a cyanide, was invented in the first decade of the eighteenth century by a Prussian colourman.8 It was soon adopted by painters, frequently in a light form to paint the skies, as it opened new possibilities to them. Among those who most widely used it for their skies was Canaletto, and we should bear in mind that our mental image of Venice, largely influenced by the vedutisti with its light bluish-greenish sky, is the result of a then recent chemical discovery.

11But can we see Canaletto’s paintings as British collectors of the eighteenth century saw them? A major collection is to be found in the Canaletto room at Woburn Abbey, where they were placed in 1800 coming from Bedford House in London for which they had been commissioned in the 1730s. The room has windows opening into the grounds and is very bright. This is not the original lighting; when the paintings arrived in Woburn Abbey the Duke of Beford had the windows blocked so that all the paintings could be hung in one room, and the windows were reopened only in 1955, with three paintings removed to other rooms.9 The guests in 1800 would see them in a dark room, and in addition with the flickering light of candles, not with our stable lighting. Can we really reconstruct their experience? We can attempt to do so with modern media, as long as we are aware that it is only an approximation.

How far does nineteenth- and twentieth-century research on colours separate us from earlier centuries?

12Among the discoveries on colours in the nineteenth century was the reason why the sky seems to be blue, an experiment (1868) that can be seen at the Royal Institution in London in the section on Tyndall – the reason being that the sky (like so-called blue eyes) is transparent, but blue light having a shorter wavelength is more easily scattered.10

13However, even in cases such as this, where a breakthrough in our understanding of colour dates from a period later than the eighteenth century, our forbears had an intuitive grasp of the question, even if they lacked the scientific explanation: it was known that blue is the colour of distance since it was advocated in painting as such, in contrast to bright colours giving relief to the foreground. Again, concerning shadows, Leonardo had noticed that they are characterized by fuzzy outlines, before the phenomenon was explored in recent scientific studies of perception showing that sharp dark outlines are not identified as shadows but as objects.

14Digital colours are a late twentieth-century feature. They are based on arithmetic: 256 colours in the basic palette because 256=28 – eight bits each having two options, adding up to 256 combinations.

  • 11 Voronoi texture” is named after Voronoi, a Russian mathematician whose tessellated diagrams can be (...)

15An interesting point is that, in geometrical constructions of volumes with 3D programmes, colours and textures can create volumes, for instance as in a Voronoi diagram (or 3D print) which can be used to make surfaces rise so as to produce hills or waves on a river where changes of colour and texture occur.11 So colours are not always subordinate to form, they can create them, which is an old debate.

Present-day research: arts and sciences – returning to early-modern universality?

16Recent research in museums and galleries combines artistic and scientific skills: the National Gallery-Brighton exhibition on colour (2014) studied colours in an “artistic and scientific voyage of discovery” through the chemical nature of the pigments used for centuries, complemented by an interactive display studying how we perceive colour. The “Regency Colour” exhibition at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (2013) showed the scientific basis of this period’s approaches to colour.12 Numerous projects such as the interdisciplinary Sorbonne project hub Polyre (2016)13 combine arts and sciences and rest on partnerships between laboratories in several fields, in the same way medical tools of investigation are now used in archaeology. It is therefore essential that we give our students both an artistic and a scientific grounding if they are to make a significant contribution in present-day society by establishing partnerships with researchers or creative workers from several fields of study.

17An age-old question is the relationship between colours on the one hand, and light and dark effects on the other hand, ranging from Renaissance studies of shadows to definitions of colour “tone” or dark/light “value” by painters and their use of Claude Lorraine glasses to correct their paintings. A 1760 text, Johann Heinrich Lambert’s Photometria, sive De mensura et gradibus luminis, colorum et umbrae, is the basis for present-day studies and practice in information visualisation, including the algebraic and trigonometric formula used to create reflection on colours in computer graphics, which takes into account the Lambertian amount of light penetrating the pigment.

18Light/dark contrasts have been given a new lease of life by recent technologies in robotics developed over the last decade: some robots are programmed to follow paths indicated by dark lines on a white ground, which they can trace as they are equipped with sensors; this means among other things that in a competition all the competitors must operate in similar lighting.14 Contrasts of dark/light colour guide motion, depending on light. The issues of the relationship between how and why colours are perceived, to what extent darkness and shadow influence our perception, and what effect light has on our discourse on colours have been discussed for centuries. But they take on a new dimension: then and now, colours need to be studied in context.


19In the wake of those remarks on colour, arts and sciences, we must further explore what colour(s) meant and how they were perceived. Much of what is said or written about colours depends on language. More precisely, the fact that names were given to each of them had its importance. Scientific arguments around classification and nomenclature show what thin lines could ‒ or sometimes could not ‒ be drawn as Giulia Simonini explains in her essay on Patrick Syme’s nomenclature. Botanical plates and scientific fields such as geology were tightly linked to colours so much so that different nomenclatures emerged from the natural sciences. Interesting in Simonini’s argument is the impact of the reception of a German botanical treatise by Werner which became popular in Scotland and then served as a landmark in colour classification. Simonini’s essay shows the importance of scientific sociability when discussing the Wernerian Society, itself born from an interest in the research led by a German mineralogist. Colour was a matter of investigation across Europe at the time.

20Newton’s seminal work on colour and light in Opticks (1704) was critically questioned by Goethe in the German edition of The Theory of Colours (Zur Farbenlehre, 1810) translated into English in 1840. Goethe compares Newton’s theory to a castle built in haste that shows signs of immaturity and incompleteness. Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty also suggests that elements towards establishing firm nomenclatures had long been around but failed to be asserted and fixed. Colouring was described as a “kind of mystery”:

I am apt to believe, that the not knowing nature's artful, and intricate method of uniting colours for the production of the variegated composition, or prime tint of flesh, hath made colouring, in the art of painting, a kind of mystery in all ages; insomuch, that it may fairly be said, out of the many thousands who have labour'd to attain it, not above ten or twelve painters have happily succeeded therein, Corregio (who lived in a country-village, and had nothing but the life to study after) is said almost to have stood alone for this particular excellence. (Hogarth 120)

21Incidentally Hogarth takes advantage of these pages in “Chapter xiv. Of Colouring” to level an acerbic and gallophobic criticism at painters in France. As he compares Rubens, Corregio and Guido, he states that “Poussin scarce ever obtained a glimpse of [that mystery] as is manifest by his many different attempts: indeed France hath not produced one remarkable good colourist” (121).

22To shed more light on the colour debate we must recall that most arguments were rooted in the disegno/colore quarrel, which is what Hélène Ibata’s essay on William Blake explores and to which Catherine Bois refers when she looks at colour in rhetorical practices. The individual use of colours that came out more prominently in some artworks compared to others was also a matter of heated debate in a period when pigments were not available in tubes but were crushed, or hand-ground, usually by colour men who sold them to artists. Colour meant for many a source of economic power as well as the quest for a then challenging and fugitive stability.

Terra Pictoria: the stuff colours were made on

  • 15 Ariane Fennetaux, « L’Empire des sens: sensualité, significations et circulations de la nouvelle cu (...)
  • 16 Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding, « ‘The infusion of a China Plant […] sweetened with the Pith of an Indian (...)

23Robert Dossie’s treatise The Handmaid to the Arts, published in London in 1758, begins with a chapter entitled Terra Pictoria, and revolves around pigments, their fabrication and their use by painters. While colours may be perceived in a more or less subjective manner, it is essential to bear in mind that beside being seen and classified they had to be produced. Colours and pigments are thus inseparable yet two very different things. At the crossroads of cultural material studies and art history, pigments have a trajectory of their own and have attracted scholarly attention within a broader framework of colonial studies. A previous issue of this journal discussed the notion of Empire in which two essays explored colour in conjunction with colonial trade routes. Porcelain and furniture from the Far East influenced British manufacturing of commodities for which colour was essential: blue for ceramics15 and black for japanning.16 Sourcing pigments from all over the world was conditioned by political situations. In other words, where there was war, there was a shortage of raw material for colours as shown by Zoriana Lotut in her essay on blue, in which she discusses indigo vs. woad. Transatlantic slavery in conjunction with colour studies helps to chart the history of colour and its materiality. Pigments could either be sourced – ground lapis lazuli for ultramarine was the most common yet also the most expensive source for blue pigment – or chemically produced, which is what occurred with the somewhat accidental invention of Prussian blue.

24Inorganic colours were invented, that is chemically composed, and colours were named, or sometimes even misnamed. Sarah Gould aptly reminds us that the pigment “Turner Yellow” has no connection with the painter yet the well-known artist’s name appears to have been forever associated with a world painted in yellow. In a recent interview the French colour historian Michel Pastoureau, whose study of yellow is forthcoming, explains the overwhelming influence of colour symbolism, ideological beliefs and moral values in any given social network.17 Some colours are/were mythologised while others, such as yellow were, from the Middle Ages onward, deemed infamous.18 Quite the opposite of infamy, Turner’s case, as explained by Gould reminds us of how much the use of one specific colour represented, then and now, what one might call a “chromatic Kairos,” that precise moment in time when a colour crystallises mystical awe, forceful admiration, and sometimes proprietorial anxiety.19 Gould demonstrates how a colour becomes a trope for aesthetic criticism and how cultural and chromatic hybridity partake of a colour’s agency, whereby textures shift from subject to object.

How to do things with colours

  • 20 In How To Do Things with Words, Austin initiated a trend in linguistics that concentrates on the pe (...)
  • 21 See for instance Julie Melby’s Princeton’s Graphic Arts online blog for David Cox’s 1811 drawing ma (...)

25While Kairos may not always be achieved, some colours do follow a path similar to that of a persuasive argument. Modelled on John Austin’s well-known speech acts,20 one can posit a principle whereby colour becomes endowed with a performative power. A selection of contributors thus underscores the pragmatics and the rhetoric of colours. Mostly in contrast with black and white, or monochrome artworks, whether in print or paint, the use of colour highlights elements otherwise ignored. Red, for instance, makes lines and figures more vivid and therefore more significant as demonstrated in a case study of military maps by Bénédicte Miyamoto. Architectural and military drawings, Miyamoto explains, were designed in compliance with conventions that dominated not only the use of red military drawings but also prevented the art of watercolour from evolving and benefiting from its own chromatic Kairos. While red served to dramatise the position of troops on paper, signs of chromatic seduction were counteracted by the ethos of topographers whose influence generated an “artistic entente across Europe” as the author puts it. Coloured drawings, maps, charts, or prints all partake of a changing world in the eighteenth century. Of interest to this study are examples of publications that combine the didactic dimension of drawing lessons and the display of colour samples, much in the vein of Syme’s colour charts or Waller’s table.21

26Explored from another vantage point Aristotle’s ethos, logos and pathos are brought together in Catherine Bois’s essay in which she discusses rhetorical practices. The performative dimensions of speech and colours emphasise the power of colour words. To name is to colour thoughts, words and worlds. The last section of her essay on energeia chimes in with Hélène Ibata’s discussion of how Blake articulated a theory of art with colours. By reappraising Blake’s colour printing period she dwells on the long-standing disegno/colore debate in Blake’s art. As Miyamoto argues, scholarly investigations take more interest in changes than in continuity. Ibata’s essay clearly shows that Blake, the poet, the painter and the theorist form a performative and experimental continuum. Blake’s energetic combination of disegno and colore opened avenues for future theories in art.

Prisms and panoramas, with a few grey zones

27Understanding and studying how colours were perceived, manufactured, used, traded and theorised contributes to a better appraisal of the English-speaking world across time. In order to gain more knowledge we need different prisms and angles, which is often the result of crossover approaches. Barbara Berrie corroborates this idea when she says that

Our understanding of the material world of color is founded on many sources including descriptions by artists themselves, merchants, treatises and commentaries. Each of these provides a single perspective, oftentimes individual and subjective. Adding chemical analysis of the colorants actually used in paintings helps to round out the picture and provide a concrete time for their use. (Berrie 334)

  • 22 On panorama designs and optical distortions, see for instance Otto.

28As noted by Gould, panorama was a fashionable device whereby viewers were invited to have new optical, cognitive, aesthetic and cultural experience.22 If we apply the panoramic metaphor to the essays collected here, several angles are covered yet some are missing in this critical survey. The previously mentioned examples of transatlantic trade and the fact, underscored by Miyamoto, that the conventions of military drawing applied to American territory proved a failure is but one of many ways to explore colour(s) outside the cultural and historic domain of Britain. Undoubtedly a fertile ground for such an investigation, studies on colour in Colonial America need to be considered.

29Other topics that have not been discussed in this volume are broached in the forthcoming Dix-huitième siècle section on “Couleurs des Lumières” (to be released in June 2019). Aspects such as colour words and translations are dealt with, and so is the relationship between colour and fiction, colour and medical discourse, as well as colour for skin and cosmetics. Catherine Lanoë, in collaboration with a literature scholar, Aurelia Gaillard, co-edited “Couleurs des Lumières” which promises to be a stimulating and complementary set of essays on colours in the Enlightenment. Lanoë’s innovative work La Poudre et le fard: Une histoire des cosmétiques de la Renaissance aux Lumières analyses a whole palette of whites used to describe facial uncolouring in women’s make up. Cosmetics and grooming form part of a field of studies that combines material culture, history of dress and commodities as well as colour. The latter is frequently subsumed in a contrastive approach, often to enhance a strong inclination for artificiality in French society: “English commentators attacked the French use of makeup and felt that it made all French women look the same, taking the individual face and turning it into a symbol of the nation” (Morag 14).

30Attention to corporeal details like grooming, make-up, down to fingernail maintenance involved monitoring, which were assessed by colour, tone as well as cleanliness. Skin was white and therefore pure. Teeth, when white, signified good health. Cosmetics, in Britain and in France, were perceived as artificial masks, and in narratives often used to suggest untrustworthiness and deliberate deceit. Although composed of highly toxic chemicals (lead white and ceruse) cosmetics were socially-required beauty-enhancers that entailed a whole range of consumers’ practices and commercial habits. There were various social arenas in which colour(s), such as red for facial “rouge” played important roles. From scientific societies to cultural events such as balls for women or coffee house gatherings for men, colour was meaningful and symbolically strong.

  • 23 See for instance The Woman of Colour which was published between Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Jane A (...)
  • 24 See for instance Ruth Mack “Paper Castle, Paper Collection. Walpole’s Extra-Extra Illustrated Copy (...)
  • 25 Also of interest, the collection at the wallpaper museum in Rixheim: https://www.museepapierpeint.o (...)

31One of the strongest symbols for colour, in seventeenth and eighteenth-century language and society, was that of the skin, and the highly divisive discourses on race derived from the colour black.23 It would be of interest to look into parallels but also points of departure in transatlantic colour theories for instance. Cultural approaches to colours comprehend religious and symbolic values associated with certain colours. After all “colours” is but another word for national emblems and flags, both made of fabric and colour. Textiles, ceramics, paper and even architecture constantly overlap.24 Wallpapers have been studied by Clare Taylor who shows that colours played an important role in the success of wall paper designs.25 This is yet another commodity under scrutiny in material culture studies and home furnishing history as it allows enlarging the network of trades involved in colour making and colour application, in various forms and techniques.

32The major social, economic and political changes that had taken place by the end of the long eighteenth century, reflected in the history of colours, range from the perception to the sourcing and the various ways colour could be made significant. At one end of the spectrum, to use a Newtonian metaphor, the nineteenth century was to witness another essential turn in visual arts, the invention of photography in the 1830s. Reproducibility was to gain unprecedented momentum with the increasing use of chromolithography and by the end of the Victorian era, vivid colours were fashionable in art and decoration as demonstrated in Ribeyrol’s 2016 interdisciplinary study of Victorian society and its relation to colours.

33At the other end of the spectrum, when looking back to discourses and uses of colours in the seventeenth century, more research is in progress. Studies such as the ones carried out by Ad Stinjman and Elizabeth Savage on colour printing indicate this is a field under current scrutiny. Works like Early Modern Color Worlds, or the collected essays of “‘The Dyer’s Hand’: Colours in Early Modern England” (Chiari) also rely on crossover approaches between material culture studies, optics and aesthetics in the Early Modern period to broaden the scope for a global panorama that looks at Britain, Europe and beyond.26

  • 27 See in particular Jessica Volz’s chapter on Austen’s vocabulary of aesthetics.

34In addition, colour studies cannot do without looking at gender issues. This can be done from a representational view point as in fiction when a woman’s dress is attributed a symbolic colour as in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,27 or when female characters are recurrently described as blushing. But what of men’s cheeks suddenly going from pale to crimson? To what extent does colour help us to comprehend masculinity, as for instance, when the narrator relates:

My uncle Toby blushed as red as scarlet as Trim went on;—but it was not a blush of guilt,—of modesty,—or of anger;—it was a blush of joy;—he was fired with Corporal Trim’s project and description. (Sterne, Tristram Shandy 75)

35Equally of interest is Tristram described wearing an emblematic purple jerkin and yellow slippers, or for the matter, Corporal Trim donning a no less conspicuous Montero cap:

The Montero-cap was scarlet, of a superfine Spanish cloth, died in grain, and mounted all round with furr, except about four inches in the front, which was faced with a light blue, slightly embroidered. (Sterne, Tristram Shandy 359)

  • 28 About Hannah Humphrey and the way she operated her print shop, Hiley notes “These [the prints] woul (...)

36In art history, a number of grey zones also beg for attention. How did women fare, for instance, regarding the application of colours by hand in the print trade? We know, for instance, that Hannah Humphrey’s print shop which sold James Gillray’s satirical prints was run on the basis of hired colour women.28 Contrary to colour men whose trade consisted in fabricating and selling pigments, colour women represented a cheap labour force active behind the scenes. Their task was to embellish black and white plates that were sold at a higher price when hand-coloured. Hand-colouring has been discussed for maps for instance (Stillo), but little is known about the people who were involved as they did not leave much evidence to work from and it still proves difficult to establish a reliable workscape in the print trade. Stillo’s study interestingly intersects with Colonial studies when she explains that “as practitioners of hand-coloring illuminated the green palm leaves of Africa's cartouches or colored the feathers on headdresses in the Americas, they (for better or worse) became armchair travelers in the wider world” (27).

37Colours, drawing and pastimes are yet another angle to explore. Centuries before the kind of adult colouring books currently so fashionable, Robert Sayer, a London printseller, published in 1760 The Florist, with the aim to afford adult amateur artists the pleasures of colouring botanical plates, in a serious fashion according to the natural colours of each plant. Unlike the patterned books currently on offer in shops though, The Florist and similar colouring books were designed “for the use and the amusement of Gentlemen and Ladies” but also with an aim to develop drawing skills.29 More is undoubtedly to be made of this type of publication in connection with pastime activities during the eighteenth century.

38One can safely infer that customs and practices regarding colour perception, fabrication and uses can be traced across Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries so that to complete the endeavours of the present panorama, more prisms and more palettes need to be discussed and made visible.

Haut de page


Abrams, Alexandra. The Art of Appearance: The Concept and Implications of Cosmetics in the Eighteenth Century. Accessed 31 December, 2018.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Baker, Tawrin, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, & Karin Leonhard, eds. Early Modern Color Worlds. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Ball, Philip. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour. London: Viking, 2001.

Ball, Philip. “The Invention of Colour.” Definitions of Color/De la Couleur. Eds Frédéric Ogée and Maurice Géracht. Interface – image, texte, langage 33 (2013): 1-32.

Berrie, Barbara H. “Mining for Color: New Blues, Yellows, and Translucent Paint.” Early Science and Medicine 20 (2015): 308-34.

Bomford, David, Ashok Roy, and David Saunders. “Gainsboroughʼs Dr Ralph Schomberg.” National Gallery Technical Bulletin 12 (1988): 44-57. Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Bucklow, Spike. Red: The Art and Science of a Colour. London: Reaktion, 2016.

Bushart, Magdalena, & Friedrich Steinle, eds. Colour Histories: Science, Art, and Technology in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015.

Chiari, Sophie, ed. “‘The Dyer's Hand’: Colours in Early Modern England.” E-Rea 12.2 (2015). Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Delon, Michel. “Les Couleurs du corps: Roman pornographique et débats esthétiques au xviiie siècle.” La couleur, les couleurs. xies Entretiens de La Garenne-Lemot. Ed. Jackie Pigeaud. Rennes: PUR, 2007. 215-224. Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Dominique, Lyndon J., ed. The Woman of Colour: A Tale. 1810. Peterborough: Broadview, 2007.

Dossie, Robert. The Handmaid to the Arts. London: printed for Nourse, 1758. Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Feeser, Andrea, Maureen Daly Goggin, & Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds. The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments, 1400-1800. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

Festa, Lynn. “Cosmetic Differences: The Changing Faces of England and France.” SECC 34 (2005): 24-54.

Gage, John. Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Gage, John. Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Gascoigne, Bamber, Thomas Nelson & Sons. Milestones in Colour Printing 1457-1859: With a Bibliography of Nelson Prints. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Goethe’s Theory of Colors. Translated from the German with the notes by Charles Lock Eastlake. London: Murray, 1840.

Greig, Hannah. “Faction and Fashion: The Politics of Court Dress in Eighteenth-Century England.” Apparence(s) [Online], 6 | 2015.

Hayward, Maria. “Dressing Charles ii: The King’s Clothing Choices (1660-85).” Apparence(s) [Online], 6 | 2015.

Hiley, Nicholas. “Showing Politics to the People: Cartoons, Comics and Satirical Prints.” Using Visual Evidence. Eds. Richard Howells and Robert Matson. Maidenhead: Open UP, 2009. 24-41.

Hogarth, William. The Analysis of Beauty. 1753. Accessed 1 December, 2018.;view=fulltext.

Hugues, Clair. Dressed in Fiction. New York: Berg, 2006.

Interfaces 33 (2012).

Lanoë, Catherine. La Poudre et le fard: Une histoire des cosmétiques de la Renaissance aux Lumières. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008.

Lavezzi, Élisabeth. “Théorie coloriste et question du lieu.” Dix-huitième siècle 50 (2018/1): 189-204.

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. La Couleur éloquente. Paris: Flammarion 1989.

Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Website. Accessed 31 December 2018.

Mack, Ruth. “Paper Castle, Paper Collection: Walpole’s Extra-Extra Illustrated Copy of the Description of …. Strawberry-Hill.” Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill. Ed Michael Snodin. London: Yale UP, 2009. 107-15

Mack, Ruth. “Hogarth’s Practical Aesthetics.” Mind, Body, Motion, Matter: Eighteenth-Century British and French Literary Perspectives. Eds. Mary Helen McMuran & Alison Conway. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2016. 21-46.

Michel, Alain. “Les Couleurs de la rhétorique et la rhétorique des couleurs.” La couleur, les couleurs. xies Entretiens de La Garenne-Lemot. Ed. Jackie Pigeaud. Rennes: PUR, 2007. 17-28. Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Morag, Martin. Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750-1830. Baltimore : The John Hopkins UP, 2009.

Ogée, Frédéric, & Maurice Géracht, eds. Definitions of Color/de la Couleur. Interfaces: image, texte, langage 33 (2013).

Oliver, Kathleen M. Samuel Richardson, Dress, and Discourse. London: Palgrave, 2008.

Otto, Peter. “Between the Virtual and the Actual: Robert Barkerʼs Panorama of London and the Multiplication of the Real in Late Eighteenth-Century London.” Romantic Spectacle Romanticism on Net 46 (2007). Accessed 1 December, 2018.

Pastoureau, Michel, & Dominique Simonnet. Couleurs: Le Grand Livre. Paris: Panama, 2008.

Pastoureau, Michel. Noir: Histoire d'une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2008.

Pastoureau, Michel. Green: The History of a Color. Trans. Jody Gladding. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014.

Pastoureau, Michel. Red: The History of a Color. 2009. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2017.

Pigeaud, Jackie, ed. La couleur, les couleurs: xies Entretiens de La Garenne-Lemot. Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Rennes: PU de Rennes, 2007.

Polysèmes “Gold in/and Art” [En ligne], 15 | 2016.

Polysèmes “La couleur” [En ligne], 14 | 2015.

Pope, Alexander. Essay on Criticism. The Works of the British Poets. Volume 8. Ed. Robert Anderson. London: printed for John and Arthur Arch & Mundell, 1795.

Rodari, Florian, ed. Anatomie de la couleur: l'invention de l'estampe en couleurs. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1996.

Roque, Georges. Quand la lumière devient couleur. Paris: Gallimard, 2018.

Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey. 1768. London: Penguin, 2005.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1759-67. Ed. Robert Folkenflik. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. 

Stillo, Stephanie Elizabeth. “Putting the World in Its ‘Proper Colour’: Exploring Hand-Coloring in Early Modern Maps.” Journal of Map & Geography Libraries (2016) 12:2. 158-86.

Taylor, Clare. The Design, Production and Reception of Eighteenth-Century Wallpaper in Britain. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Volz, Jessica A. Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney. London: Anthem, 2017.

Voronoi, Georgy. “Nouvelles applications des paramètres continus à la théorie des formes quadratiques.” Journal für die Reine und Angewandte Mathematik 133 (1908): 97-178.

Haut de page


1 Le Blon’s 1711 Coloritto, or the Harmony of Colours was a bilingual (French-English) treaty. The augmented 1725 edition was dedicated to Walpole. Accessed 31 December, 2018. The French printer family d’Agoty capitalised on Le Blon’s process and they became famous for their anatomical colour prints. For details, see Gascoigne. More recent research on colour printing is carried out by Ad Stijnman and Elizabeth Savage: .

2 See for instance, Ruth Mack’s essay on Hogarth’s Practical Aesthetics.

3 Lowenthal’s title is from the opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. In 2015 he published The Past is a Foreign Country. Revisited.

4 Museums that have made use of this technology are, among others, Musée George de la Tour (Vic sur Seille, France), Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the MoMA in New York. For an insight into how paintings could be viewed in Regency England, see Janine Barchas’s website What Jane Saw

5 One aspect of Gainsborough's studio that caused comment by sitters and friends alike was the dimness of the lighting. Humphry remarks that portraits ‘were often wrought by candle light [...] his painting room, even by day (a kind of darkened twilight) had scarcely any light. Sometimes, apparently, the subjects and their pictures were ‘scarcely discernible’” (Bomford 44).


7 This part of the essay is by Marie-Madeleine Martinet whose many interest in art are honoured in Palette pour Marie-Madeleine Martinet (Intégration Web Jean-Marie Deconinck, Édition Françoise Deconinck-Brossard & Liliane Gallet-Blanchard)

8 For details on this invention and its reception, see the contribution of Zoriana Lotut in this issue.



11 Voronoi texture” is named after Voronoi, a Russian mathematician whose tessellated diagrams can be used to generate texturised models or shapes, as in modern 3D prints. Voronoi theorised his mathematical model in 1908.

12 The exhibition is reviewed on the BSECS website by Caroline Cannon-Brookes: Accessed 1 December, 2018.

13 For details on the POLYRE Project see

14 An example of research about robots following double lines can be found at

15 Ariane Fennetaux, « L’Empire des sens: sensualité, significations et circulations de la nouvelle culture matérielle », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017.

16 Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding, « ‘The infusion of a China Plant […] sweetened with the Pith of an Indian Cane’: Consuming, Tasting and Visualising the Empire », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017. <>.

17 Accessed 31 December, 2018.

18 Pastoureau’s books are individually presented and made accessible in those short radio programmes

19 A recent example of such proprietorial restrictions could be witnessed in 2014 when Anish Kapoor denied other artists the right to use Vantablack, allegedly the most perfect black ever created so far. While Feeser uses the notion of “Kairos of color” more as an umbrella term for all the exigencies and parameters one has to take into account when looking at cultural and historical values ascribed to the materiality of colours (Feeser et al 1) I term “chromatic Kairos” the precise moment in time when a colour, or set of colours, are given unprecedented value and take on a new aesthetic and cultural meaning.

20 In How To Do Things with Words, Austin initiated a trend in linguistics that concentrates on the performative power of language. The analogy with colours relies on the same principles and intersects with approaches found in other works, such as Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s “eloquence of colour”, for instance.

21 See for instance Julie Melby’s Princeton’s Graphic Arts online blog for David Cox’s 1811 drawing manual and watercolour lessons with colour hues and samples. Complete reference : Cox, David. A Series of Progressive Lessons Intended to Elucidate the Art of Painting in Water Colours. London: T. Clay, 1811. Graphic Arts Collection GAX 2017. <>. Accessed 1 December, 2018.

22 On panorama designs and optical distortions, see for instance Otto.

23 See for instance The Woman of Colour which was published between Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). It exemplifies how the word “colour” referred to the skin colour and its pertaining political agenda.

24 See for instance Ruth Mack “Paper Castle, Paper Collection. Walpole’s Extra-Extra Illustrated Copy of the Description of …. Strawberry-Hill”.

25 Also of interest, the collection at the wallpaper museum in Rixheim: Accessed 30 December, 2018.

26 See Baker, Tawrin, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa and Karin Leonhard eds, Early Modern Color Worlds, and essays gathered in E-rea 2015, “The Dyer’s Hand”.

27 See in particular Jessica Volz’s chapter on Austen’s vocabulary of aesthetics.

28 About Hannah Humphrey and the way she operated her print shop, Hiley notes “These [the prints] would be offered for sale at a shilling each, or half-a-crown if colored, the coloring probably added by a team of women following a master-copy colored by Gillray” (Hiley 26).

29 A digitised copy of The Florist can be found online: Accessed 1 December, 2018

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Brigitte Friant-Kessler, « Prisms, Palettes and Panoramas: Colouring the World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 75 | 2018, mis en ligne le 03 janvier 2019, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Brigitte Friant-Kessler

Brigitte Friant-Kessler is Senior lecturer in English studies at UPHF (Université Polytechnique Hauts de France) in Valenciennes and a member of the research group Calhiste, EA 4343. She teaches visual culture in the English-speaking world from the Renaissance to modern times. Her research focuses on intermediality and adaptation. She has published on book illustration, graphic novels, and caricature. As a co-founder of Illustr4tio (a network of 4 universities) she has organised conferences and co-edited works in illustration studies. Her current project is a monograph on graphic adaptations of eighteenth-century classics in comic books. When time on her hands, she draws and curates small collaborative exhibitions. Email :

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search