Spectral color

The Woman Who Theorized Color: An Introduction to Mary Gartside’s New Color Theory (1808)

“I will only say that those ladies who study the rules of the art, secure for themselves an incessant source of pleasure, which is always at their disposal…while those who pursue the practical part alone cannot make any progress each time. that their teacher or their paper is withdrawn.

The story of color theory is a story we tell based on available facts. Like many stories, it was above all a story by and about men. Isaac Newton’s experiments with optics inspired the larger investigation. 1810 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe The theory of Colors set a standard – visually and philosophically – for books on color in later centuries. A string of lesser-known names surround them, right down to the founders of color monopolist Pantone and beyond.

Maybe the story would be different if Mary GartsideThe work of was more easily accessible to his contemporaries and successors. Gartside, an English watercolor teacher and painter of botanical subjects, published An essay on light and shadow in 1805, and an enlarged edition, Essay on a new color theory in 1808. The obscure study constitutes “one of the rarest and most unusual books on color ever published”, said Alexandra Loskecurator at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and herself a color historian.

Loske found that Gartside is “one of the only nineteenth-century women to compose ‘theoretical treatises on color,'” as Public domain review writing“nearly a century before Emily Noyes Vanderpoel published it Color issues (1902). »

Gartside wrote in a conversation with Newton and in the critique of “eighteenth-century theories proposed by Gerard de Lairesse and William Herschel”. Gartside’s book anticipates 1809 by Goethe and James Sowerby A new color elucidation and draws “parallel conclusions” about “the eye of the beholder as the center and origin of color perception”.

Gartside has dressed its philosophy in this Ann Bermingham calls “the very modesty of the genre” of watercolor guides, whose writing was a respectable outlet for women, where critical thinking was not. The author gestures towards this state of affairs in her introduction, stating that she “does not offer my opinion without being asked”, and emphatically noting that she can only teach “at the to the best of my knowledge.” His knowledge is considerable. Besides, Public domain review writing, his “hand-colored illustrations for Writingunique to each volume, have been judged some of the earliest examples of abstraction in painting.

Indeed, Gartside’s detailed instructions on the practical application of the theory seem to presage the abstractions of Vasily Kandinsky, who contributed his personal metaphysics to the formulas in the 1923 book. About the spiritual in art. Unlike the Romantics of his day – and like the Modernists two hundred years later – Gartside downplayed individual genius while emphasizing the importance of theoretical understanding. Only through a knowledge of color theory and psychology, she boldly writes, can one come to “master” the art and make it their own, as she surely has. done in his illustrations. Joseph Litts points out in an essay for Material issues:

Gartside has used his watercolor painting medium to engage in contemporary debates about color. His understanding of color and color theory is the important contribution of his book. It recasts both Isaac Newton’s prismatic color theory and Sir William Herschel’s radial color theory by creating a “color ball” that envelops the chromatic prism in a continuous spectrum. Such a ball of color anticipates Goethe’s attempts to put color into the wheels, a departure from earlier grid representations.

Although Gartside wouldn’t claim the mantle of genius for herself or her readers (and she avoids fuzzy discussions of inspiration, muses, etc.), we can confidently place her in the company of great theorists and illustrators. of color. And we could also see how his work shows an approach that wasn’t taken, or wasn’t taken until centuries later.

“There is no other example of the representation of color systems,” writes Loske, “that is as inventive and radical as Gartside’s color patches.” Read more about Loske’s discovery of Gartside’s work in Kelly Grover’s BBC essay »The women who redefined color.” See more watercolors from Gartside at Public domain review.

Related Content:

A visionary 115-year-old color theory textbook returns to print: Color Problems by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel

The vibrant color wheels designed by Goethe, Newton and other color theorists (1665-1810)

Goethe’s colorful and abstract illustrations for his 1810 treatise, Theory of Colors: Scans of the first edition

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness