Eye Candy for Today: Jules Bastien-Lepage genre painting

Le Pere Jacques (The Wood Gatherer)
Le Pere Jacques (The Wood Gatherer)

Le Père Jacques (The Wood Gatherer), Jules Bastien-Lepage, oil on canvas, roughly 77 x 71 inches (197 x 182 cm). Original is in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about 19th century French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage is his use of value relationships.

Notice how vibrantly the young girl, and in particular her blue dress, stand out in the original painting, and yet how, in the grayscale version of the image I’ve provided, she almost disappears into the background.

It accentuates the color in a different way than just applying bright colors.

I’ve seen Impressionist paintings in which a similar technique was used — objects made to stand out only with color, their values kept close to that of the background. See my previous post on Values in Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.


Values in Monet’s Impression, Sunrise

Values in Monet's Impression Sunrise
Values in Monet's Impression Sunrise

Originally exhibited in the April 1874 exhibit of the Societe’ Anonyme des Artistes, Peintires, Sculpters, Graveurs, Etc. (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.), now referred to as the First Impressionist Exhibition, this painting by Claude Monet appeared with the title: Impression, Sunrise.

The name was picked up by unsympathetic critics and used derisively to label the group “Impressionists”. The name stuck, and the Impressionists picked it up and ran with it.

The painting is, as Monet has suggests in his title, an impression, or quick representation, of a fleeting effect.

As part of their effort to portray the effects of light and atmosphere, the Impressionist painters, and Monet especially, were fascinated with new theories of color that were being investigated at the time. Perhaps one of the most important of these ideas was the concept of simultaneous contrast, as presented by French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in his book The Principles of Color Harmony and Contrast.

But simultaneous contrast was only one of the visual tools the Impressionist painters were adding to their methods of conveying the effects of light.

In more recent times, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard, Dr. Margaret Livingstone, noticed that if you reduce an image of Impression: Sunrise to grayscale — so that we see only value (luminance) — the sun almost disappears, save for the edges of the scant few brushstrokes with which it was painted.

She went on to point out this gave the painting a particular quality.

Our brain processes visual information in two different parts of our visual cortex, old and new. The older one senses light in a relatively primitive way — shared with other mammals, — in which it detects only luminance, but not color. The other, more evolutionarily recent area of the visual cortex — that we share only with other primates — sees color.

So, to one part of our brain, Monet’s sun, and the bright orange areas in the water and sky, are almost invisible. To the other, more sophisticated part, the sun is very much visible. In addition, against the muted blue of the background clouds, the effective brightness of the orange areas is accentuated by simultaneous contrast.


“Colour Wheels, Charts, and Tables Through History” on Public Domain Review

Colour Wheels, Charts, and Tables Through History on Public Domain Review

Colour Wheels, Charts, and Tables Through History on Public Domain Review

The Public Domain Review (a fascinating site, if you’re not familiar with it) has a nice short article on the history of the graphic organization of color over time.

Many of the images are drawn from an article by Sarah Lowengard (published on Gutenberg-e): The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe, that was also the centerpiece of my own 2008 post on the History of the Color Wheel.

[Via MetaFilter]


A few books on the history of pigments and colors

Books on the history of pigments and colors
First of all, this is not an end-of-year book list, or a series of reviews, or even recommendations.

I just realized there seems to be a kind of mini-genre of books about the history of various pigments and colors, many of which are of interest in terms of artist’s pigments.

I haven’t read these, I’ve simply noticed them and selected a few that seem potentially relevant to artists. I’m only presenting them as a kind of FYI that they exist.

The capsule descriptions and reviews on Amazon should provide clues to those you might find interesting. Some are out of print, but appear to be available used.

Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story Of An Ancient Color Lost To History And Rediscovered, 2012; Baruch Sterman

A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, 2015, edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, 2006, by Amy Butler Greenfield

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, 2002, Simon Garfield

The Brilliant History of Color in Art, 2014, by Victoria Finlay

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, 2002, by Victoria Finlay

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, 2003, by Phillip Ball


A Revolution of the Palette at Norton Simon

A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists:

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.)



Back in 2012, I wrote about a website called Pigments through the Ages; a resource about the history and nature of artist’s pigments. That site is 10 years old now, and as far as I know, is no longer being actively developed.

However, one of the original authors of that site, Juraj Lipscher, has created a new, more extensive and currently active site on the same subject, titled ColourLex.

The ColourLex site can be explored through multiple paths: by pigments, paintings, artists and periods, each with sub-paths. Pigments, for example, can be explored by type, color or first date of use.

Each pigment is then broken down by properties, sources, identification and history, and a gallery is provided of important paintings in which the pigment was prominently used.

Lipscher’s background is as a PhD in physical chemistry. He brings his experience in teaching and lecturing at the college level to the presentation of his fascination with the history of artists’ pigments.

New material is being added on an ongoing basis; the most recent additions of pigments and paintings are listed on the home page.

In addition, there are resources on paintings, painters, pigments and methods of scientific investigation of pigments used in historic paintings.

ColourLex is a fascinating resource, and a terrific crossover between art and science.