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The Brilliant History of Color in Art
by Victoria Finlay
book review by Richard Rivera
Painters and poets have had a unique way of describing color. Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters On Cezanne speaks of a “densely quilted blue” or a “waxy blue,” while the painter Kandinsky, in his Reminiscences, describes a “juicy green.” Author Victoria Finlay takes us on an epochal journey to discover the origins of timeless “earth colors” and their applications in anthropological rituals, as well as how the language of color is used in modern media to stir up emotion.
Ms Finlay’s scope is international and spans thousands of years of human history. She vividly recounts the tale of how four impetuous French teenagers discovered the caves of Lascaux, and how the manganese black used in the paintings originated high in mountains 150 miles from the cave. But one of her more surprising stories tells of a 2008 archeological discovery in South Africa, of a paint box kit that still contained traces of pigments, abalone shell mixing bowls, stone tools for grinding pigments, and bone spatulas. The kit was carbon dated at 80,000 years old.
The Brilliant History of Color in Art is a fascinating combination of wide ranging scholarly information filled with insights regarding the origins of color, both natural and man-made—such as chemistry in color photography—and entertaining historical tidbits. It contains fun facts such as why Julius Caesar was overwhelmed with a desire to “own” the color purple after journeying to Egypt and seeing Cleopatra draped in it; or the chemical properties of different materials like the poisonous “red lead;” or the dye, litmus, which is blue in an alkali solution but turns red in an acidic one. Or what are the deadly qualities of Sheele's Green and did it contribute to the death of Napoleon? Or what was the saving grace of cobalt in Cobalt Blue for a forger? Why the history of graphite and the evolution of the pencil commands our attention, and why the name of “ultramarine” blue conjures up a mystery that is far “beyond the sea,” and how it originated in the mountains of Afghanistan but wound up in ancient Egypt nearly 2,000 miles away.
The Brilliant History of Color in Art is a rich story that is very well told, an enduring entertainment for the curious mind, and a wealth of information typically contained
in the best encyclopedias and episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. It covers topics that have stood the test of time but also remain relevant.
Although it is written in non-scholarly language, Finlay is expert in her knowledge and delves beneath the superficial to reveal why colors captivate our imaginations. The book is amply illustrated with many full-color images from museums, archeological collections, and masterworks of Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Anthony
Van Dyke, Tissot, Edvard Munch, Kandinsky, and many others. It is a wonderful revelation.
Richard Rivera's review also appeared in the New York Journal of Books website
July 2, 2015
“Finlay is expert in her knowledge and delves beneath the superficial to reveal why colors captivate our imaginations.”