the art of cezanne, monet, and van gogh -- 7/25/16

Today's selection -- from Color by Victoria Finlay. Over the centuries, breakthroughs in technology have fueled bursts of new art. During that time, artists struggled to obtain certain colors because of expense and limited availability. Often the colors they obtained were of inferior quality and changed or faded quickly after the painting was complete. It is said that the magnificent outdoor paintings of Cezanne and Monet were possible only because an American invented a way to put oil paints in collapsible tin tubes:

"For 'artists' the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding [their paints] were simply time-consuming obstacles to the main business of creation. There were of course enough scare stories of charlatans adulterating colors to keep some artists mixing their own for several centuries. But slowly and irrevocably artists began to push their porphyry pestles and mortars to the backs of their workshops, while professional colormen (or rather, in some cases, the horses of professional colormen) did the grinding.

"As well as the alienation of artists, putting paint-making into the hands of a few commercial dealers had another radical effect on the art world: technical innovation. When Cennino wrote his Hand­book, artists were going through the all-important transition period between using tempera (egg) and oils (linseed or walnut or poppy were popular) as binders. Later Giorgio Vasari would ascribe this in­vention to Johannes and Hubert Van Eyck. Certainly the Flemish brothers' brilliantly translucent fifteenth-century oil paintings were the new medium's greatest early advertiser, but oils had been used for many years before that. In the late 1300s Cennino was already using oils to paint the top layer on a picture of a velvet gown, for ex­ample, and even in the sixth century a medical writer called Aetius was mentioning how artists used a 'drying oil,' which was probably linseed. ...

Reeves and Sons watercolor set 

"One discovery that changed the art world was made by a young man called William Reeves in the late eighteenth century. He was a workman employed by a colorman called Middleton, but he spent some of his spare time doing experiments of his own. Up until then watercolors­ -- which are basically pigments mixed with water-soluble gum -- had been sold in dry lumps that had to be grated. But Reeves found that honey mixed with gum arabic would not only stop the cakes from drying out, but also allow them to be molded into regular shapes. His brother, who was a metalworker, made the molds, and in 1766 Reeves & Son opened near St. Paul's, supplying the army and the East India Company with the first watercolor paintboxes. It would take the collaboration of artist Henry Newton with chemist William Winsor in 1832 before anyone would think to add glycerine -- meaning that watercolors no longer had to be rubbed and could be used straight from the pan. Suddenly it was easy -- in terms of materials at least -- to become an artist, and many en­thusiastic amateurs followed Queen Victoria's lead in ordering the new paintboxes and using them out of doors to sketch landscapes.

"Oil painting alfresco was naturally the next big change. For cen­turies, artists had stored their paints in pigs' bladders. It was a painstaking process: they, or their apprentices, would carefully cut the thin skin into squares. Then they would spoon a nugget of wet paint onto each square, and tie up the little parcels at the top with string. When they wanted to paint, they would pierce the skin with a tack, squeeze the color onto their palette and then mend the punc­ture. It was messy, especially when the bladders burst, but it was also wasteful, as the paint would dry out quickly. Then in 1841 a fash­ionable American portrait painter called John Goffe Rand devised the first collapsible tube -- which he made of tin and sealed with pli­ers. After he had improved it the following year and patented it, artists in both Europe and America really began to appreciate the wonder of the portable paintbox. Jean Renoir once told his son that without oil paints in tubes: 'There would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro: nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.'

"Impressionism, after all, was a move­ment that depended on recording nature in nature. Without being able to use colors outside it would have been hard for an artist like Monet to record the impressions that the movements of the light had made on him, and so create his atmospheric effects.

"One of the most popular colormen in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century was Julien Tanguy, affectionately nicknamed 'Pere.' This jovial dealer and art supplier was an ex-convict who had once served time on a prison ship for subversion -- a biographical detail that no doubt endeared him to some of the post­-Impressionists, who were his main customers. Paul Cezanne bought from him, as did Emile Bernard, who described going to Tanguy's shop at 14 rue Clauzel as being like 'visiting a museum.' Another famous (though impecunious) customer, Vincent van Gogh, painted three portraits of Pere Tanguy. The first, from 1886, is very brown -- the subject looking rather like a workman, with just a touch of red on his lips and a spot of green on his apron. Then, in the spring of 1887, van Gogh changed his palette -- ex­perimenting with color oppositions of red against green, orange against blue -- and his work was never the same again. The other two portraits of Tanguy (dated 1887 and 1888) are a raucous cele­bration of the dealer's paint products. They show him standing in front of Japanese prints, kabuki actors competing on the walls with soft-focus cherry-tree landscapes. Suddenly blues are striped with yellows, and on top of Tanguy's hat is Mount Fuji, giving him the conical look of a rice farmer, rather than the quizzical look of a French merchant. Both paintings were part of what van Gogh called his 'gymnastics' of experimenting with how to put intense colors rather than gray harmonies in his paintings."

Portrait of Père Tanguy, winter 1886-87 Portrait of Père Tanguy, The 2nd painting Portrait of Père Tanguy, final version


Victoria Finlay


Color: A Natural History of the Palette


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2002 by Victoria Finlay


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