French art from the 1800s onward uses a lot of blue tints. Cerulean, cobalt, ultramarine, Prussian blue and French blue are all abundant in paintings from then on. This revolution in art came about because of the invention of synthetic blues, which had a tremendous impact as shown in a new exhibit that opened today at the Norton Simon Museum in the Los Angeles area.
Entitled A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists, the Norton Simon exhibition traces the effects that the creative of three synthetic blue pigments had on painters in the period. An alchemist accidentally developed a Prussian blue in 1704 that opened minds to the possibility of new synthetic paint pigments versus the prior ones made from ground up insects, plants or gemstones.
A Revolution of the Palette explores the use of the blue pigment, as well as the introduction of cobalt blue and synthetic ultramarine. It looks at French artists from the Rococo period to early Impressionism.
Prussian blue gave artists new more colorful options than dark shades, reds, browns and yellows. Yes, there were blues in use but they were extremely expensive to produce, like ultramarine made from ground up lapis lazuli semi-precious stones mined in Afghanistan.
Artists of the era could now exploit sophisticated color relationships, which became a staple of Rococo painting or “peinture modern” as it was then called. Examples of the early use of Prussian blue by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (who is the subject of another current Norton Simon exhibit) and his peers show how painting became more sophisticated in its use of color during the period.
An explosion of available colors was brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the French government emerging from the Revolution. The new administrator of the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory oversaw the development of a synthetic brilliant cobalt blue by chemist Louis Jacques Thénard. The cobalt blue painting pigment was inspired by the cobalt oxide glazes on 18th-century Sèvres porcelain, as illustrated by a piece in the exhibition.
The next synthetic blue to emerge was the long-sought alternative to natural and expensive ultramarine. In 1824, the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale announced a competition with a 6,000-franc reward for chemists to develop an artificial ultramarine. The resulting recipe for a synthetic ultramarine was chemically identical but cheaper to produce than the real thing.
Soon, the new spectrum of paints available freed artists to create more realistic observations of nature, particularly the sky and water as seen in several pieces in the exhibition. Additionally, many oil portraits began to have the now classic blue background. Examples include Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thatched Cottage in Normandy by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin) by Edgar Degas.
A Revolution of the Palette ends by showing how the early Impressionists began to use the new blues and expanded range of paint colors to illustrate the light and natural features that would transform art in the coming decades. Those pieces are Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin’s The Seine at Charenton (formerly Daybreak) and Gustave Caillebotte’s Canoe on the Yerres River.
A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists will be shown at the Norton Simon Museum until January 4, 2016, as will the Fragonard art exhibit. The museum is located in the city of Pasadena, California. It is open daily except Tuesday. Parking is free and the museum is accessible by public transportation.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Norton Simon Museum: A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and their Impact on French Artists
The Economist: How artists’ paints are made
Pigments Through the Ages: History of Ultramarine
Photos of The Seine at Charenton (formerly Daybreak) by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin and Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres courtesy of The Norton Simon Foundation