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N°2 — 2018 Topic : Colour

Closed 30 April 2017

Société d’Études Anglo-Américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Annual conference (Paris 12-13 January 2018) ‒ Colour in the Anglophone World in the 17th and 18th centuries, 12-13 janvier 2018, Institut du monde anglophone, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Colour can be examined and discussed from aesthetic, poetic, historic and scientific perspectives. Since the language of colour — and its eloquence (to borrow the term used by Jacqueline Lichtenstein) — evolved historically, participants are invited to assess elements of philosophical, social and cultural changes in which the use of a given colour or a combination of colours played an important part. Colour can thus be explored from angles that underline not only its materiality but also the variety of discourses surrounding it. The aim is to identify what economic, political and social factors were at play in relation to colour from the seventeenth century up to the early nineteenth century. By reflecting on broader questions raised by colour, this conference seeks to evaluate the validity of epistemological and methodological approaches to colour which can help towards a better understanding of key issues in other areas.

In literature, many examples may be found in which a colour or several colours are given an important role. What are the semantic, symbolic and aesthetic consequences of references to colour in drama, fiction and poetry? Which colours have been especially significant for authors, readers and audiences? Beyond their individual symbolic meanings, some colours are endowed with an empowering aura as demonstrated in the recent disputes sparked by Anish Kapoor’s proprietorial decision not to share an absolutely perfect black named Vantablack. Tristram Shandy’s most famous pages equally exemplify a specific chromatic choice which in turn becomes a touchstone for a new aesthetic idiom. Dressing one’s characters in certain colours — whether on stage, on the page or on canvas — is both a visual and a narrative device. Exploring dress history in the eighteenth century reminds us of an overt taste for bright colours for both men and women. How do such trends develop over time? Textile, leather and porcelain were industries for which colour was central to commercial success, and long before Yves Klein’s IKB, Josiah Wedgwood’s iconic pale blue had helped to build the reputation of the Staffordshire company on a particular trademark hue.

In the English-speaking world, the long eighteenth century witnessed many technical breakthroughs. Multiple-block colour printing techniques were explored in seventeenth-century Chinese painting manuals which later resurfaced in Britain in the eighteenth century. It would be of much interest to trace the circulation and dissemination of such printed material. Colour and the rise of the print market were intimately connected. Unsurprisingly hand-coloured prints were more expensive than monochrome prints but the type of labour force related to this aspect of the print market has not so far been given much critical attention. Cartographic, anatomical, botanical and ornithological volumes were all lavishly illustrated and coloured. This decorative form of art mostly relied on the printing technique à la poupée but it also involved a degree of experimentation and collaborative work. What kind of division of labour did such volumes represent? And how did hand-colouring fare as opposed to print colour or monochrome?

How did the senses interact with colour? And what rationale was there behind the reception and perception of colour (the influence of Goethe’s Treaty of Colours, Waller, Newton’s circle, Thomas Young’s theory of RGB)? Jacqueline Lichtenstein discusses de Piles and his analogy whereby « the painter must persuade (our) eyes just as an eloquent man must touch our heart » (Lichtenstein 160). Colour not only conveys a specific rhetorical mode but is both a signifier and a means of communication underpinned by compliance with or deviance from social norms. By way of codification, colour functions as « a part of a social system of signs » (Hugues 2006). In Austen’s Northanger Abbey white or black clothes symbolise the codified values of the author and her society. When Defoe’s Roxana conceives of a plan to seduce her landlord she wears a white dress to signify gentility. However dress is but one way to examine colour and the body. Whether in the British Isles or colonial America, debates revolving around racial issues cannot be ignored. Therefore the conference organisers also encourage submissions that engage with issues around skin-colour, issues which may be informed by consideration of anatomical iconography as well as the production of and trade in cosmetics.

Colour can prove an essential element in political, religious, philosophical and medical discourses. What popular beliefs and superstitions were associated with a given colour? What arguments were put forward in favour of or in opposition to the use of certain colours? What names were given to colours during a given period and to what extent did such naming reflect broader issues? Theories revolving around the colour spectrum emerged in the wake of Newton, but, as noted by Sophie Chiari, such theories were part and parcel of larger issues in the seventeenth century. In France Le Brun could claim that ‘pigment grinders would have the same rank as painters if drawing did not differentiate them’. Philosophical debates about colour classification and the relative merits of painting and drawing contribute towards defining a larger epistemological frame that encompasses optics, natural sciences and medicine. Nowadays spectrometry is used to analyse colours but is worth considering what instruments and devices were used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  And how do the period’s conceptual frameworks of what colour was and meant resonate with our contemporary perceptions?

This international conference is designed to become an opportunity to explore fruitful intersections and connections across disciplinary boundaries between literary and cultural studies, art, history, philosophy, sociology, and chemistry — to name but these. Scholars will convene and exchange on how colour was apprehended and perceived in every corner of the English-speaking world from Early Modern times to the dawn of the Victorian era.

Possible topics may include but are not limited to:

·colour and material culture (pigments, dyes, tinctures) as a mode of cultural and commercial exchange
·the economic strategies of production networks (Garthwaite, Spitalfields) and their impact on developments in other industries
·colour and the print market (issues specific to colour printing)
· the connections between art and science in relation to colour
·tensions and oppositions generated by colour in philosophy, aesthetics, optics, mathematics, medicine, natural history
·colour and changes in the fine arts (use, production, opposition with drawing)
·colour in politics and religion (emblems, national identities, pamphlets, liturgical dress, sermons)
· colour and literary production (drama, fiction, poetry)
·colour and music (in practice and in theory)
·colour and the body (racial issues, cosmetics, clothes)
· colour and gender

Keynote speaker: Professor Jacqueline Lichtenstein (Université Paris Sorbonne)



Ball, Philip. “The Invention of Colour,” Frédéric Ogée and Maurice Géracht (eds) Definitions of Color/de la Couleur. Interfaces – image, texte, langage – vol. 33, 2013. 1-32.

E-rea 2015. Sophie Chiari (ed.), « The Dyer’s Hand »: Colours in Early Modern England, 12.2, 2015.

Gage, John. Colour and Culture. Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. London: Thames & Hudson, (1993), 2012.

Hannah 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.

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

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

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Berlekey: University of California Press, 1993.

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

Pastoureau Michel et Dominique Simonnet. Couleurs: le grand livre. Paris: Panama, 2008.

Pastoureau, Michel. Green: The History of a Color. Trans. Jody Gladding. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Pastoureau, Michel. Noir: histoire d’une couleur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2008.

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

Pigeaud, Jackie (dir.). La couleur, les couleurs: XIes Entretiens de La Garenne-Lemot. Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007.

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