Though it had been slowing expanding over the centuries, the range of paint colors available to artists increased most dramatically in the 19th century, when a number of new synthetic pigments began to come into production, partly as a result of the industrial revolution.
Prior to that, new color discoveries were few and scattered, and the development of a significant new color could change the course of painting.
“A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists” is an exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum in California that traces the development of one of the most important of these colors: Prussian Blue — a greenish blue addition to the palette that could be used more liberally than the artist’s other primary blues.
Smalt was a difficult to use blue pigment made from particles of glass containing cobalt, and Ultramarine Blue was an incredibly expensive color made from crushed semi-precious stone that could only be used sparingly. (The French Ultramarine we use today, beautiful though it may be, is an inexpensive synthetic version created in the 19th century.)
Conservator John Griswold, who curated the exhibit, tells the story of the discovery and impact of Prussian Blue in the beginning of the 18th century in an article on Zócalo: “The Accidental Color That Redirected Human Expression“.
There is also a podcast version of the story, accompanied by slides, on the museum’s site.
Unfortunately, the museum’s preview images gallery for the exhibit consists of an anemic little slideshow, not even bothering to link to the mentioned images in the museum’s online database.
I’ve taken the trouble to do that for you. Though I don’t see a comprehensive exhibition object list, here are the items shown in the preview (in the order shown above). Note that the images on the museum’s object pages are zoomable and the zooming window can be resized:
Canoe on the Yerres River, Gustave Caillebotte
Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky, Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Sappho Recalled to Life by the Charm of Music, Louis Ducis
The Abduction of Psyche by Zephyrus to the Palace of Eros, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The Seine at Charenton, Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin
“A Revolution of the Palette” will be on display at the Norton Simon Museum until January 4, 2016.
(For more on the history of pigments, see my article on the ColourLex website.)