Prior to the 19th century, artists typically employed a palette composed primarily of earth-based pigments. But advances in the science of color and vision, discoveries in chemistry, and new methods of portable paint storage initiated changes in the 1900s that would forever affect the artist's palette.
The influx of new pigments during the 19th century was, of course, welcomed by many artists, but certainly not by all. Impressionists saw great potential in these new colors, and outfitted their palettes with the brightest, purest hues they could obtain. They believed, erroneously, that if they could match the seven colors of the spectrum with their pigments, they could mix any color seen in the light; the earth colors, including black, were deemed dull by the Impressionists, and were eschewed from the palette. On the other hand, the classicists, those who trained at the Académie and held the coloring of Jacques-Louis David in high regard, thought the new pigments were too fragile, and remained steadfast in their loyalty to a limited palette of earth colors; they felt that if earth colors were good enough for the Old Masters, then they were good enough for them as well. On occasion these painters might employ a bright color, but only sparingly, and only in draperies. Most artists, however, were not as polarized in their opinion of pigments, and adopted palettes which made the most of both approaches, maintaining neutral tones without shunning the brighter color options.
|The Death of Bara by Charles Moreau-Vauthier|
Early in the 20th century, Charles Moreau-Vauthier, a student of both Jean-Léon Gérôme and Paul Baudry, became curious about the effects the Impressionist palette had had on the classical palette. Seeking a method to quantitatively measure the influence the new colors from the past century had on painting, he decided to survey Monsieur M. Lefranc, proprietor of the famous Paris paint-making firm Lefranc et Cie, to see which of his colors were most popular. Based on sales, M. Lefranc, to the best of his ability, ranked his pigments in order of importance to artists, the results which Moreau-Vauthier published in his book Comment on Peint Aujourd'hui in 1922.
It was not surprising to Moreau-Vauthier that lead white was the most purchased pigment, but he was shocked to see so many pigments with bad reputations ranking so highly on the list. It seemed that artists, once fond of a color, were reluctant to remove it from their palette, and found excuses as to why previously observed problems would not affect their artwork. William Adolphe Bouguereau, for example, made use of several questionable pigments, including bitumen, the soundness of which he justified by telling detractors, "It makes sidewalks." (Though Bouguereau's paintings did not suffer the effects of bitumen as much as the works of some others, it is possible that the fine cracking in his paintings is the result of using the pigment).
Popularity of Pigments from Lefranc & Cie based on sales:
1. Blanc d'argent (lead white)
2. Jaune de chrome clair (chrome yellow light)
3. Vert émeraude (viridian)
4. Ocre jaune (yellow ochre)
5. Noir d'ivoire (ivory black)
6. Terre de Sienne brûlée (burnt sienna)
7. Vermillon français (French vermilion)
8. Vert Véronèse (Veronese green)
9. Jaune de chrome foncé (chrome yellow deep)
10. Terre de Sienne naturelle (raw sienna)
11. Laque carminée ordinaire (carmine lake)
12. Outremer n° 1 (ultramarine blue # 1)
13. Bleu de cobalt (cobalt blue)
14. Outremer n˚ 2 (ultramarine blue #2)
15. Jaune de Naples (Naples yellow)
16. Blanc de zinc (zinc white)
17. Bleu de Prusse ordinaire (Prussian blue)
18. Laque garance rose (madder lake, pink shade)
19. Laque garance foncée (madder lake deep)
20. Bleu de cobalt foncé (cobalt blue deep)
21. Carmin (carmine)
22. Terre d'ombre naturelle (raw umber)
23. Bitume (bitumen)
24. Bleu de Prusse fin (Prussian blue fine)
25. Terre d'ombre brûlée (burnt umber)
26. Jaune indien (Indian yellow)
27. Laque carminée fine (carmine lake fine)
28. Brun Van Dyck (Vandyke brown)
29. Blanc d'argent double (lead white in large quantity?)
30. Bleu minéral (mineral blue)
3i. Jaune cadmium clair (cadmium yellow light)
32. Vermillon de Chine (Chinese vermilion)
33. Jaune brillant (brilliant yellow)
34. Vert anglais I (English green)
35. Ocre rouge (red ochre)
36. Jaune citron (citron yellow or lemon yellow)
37. Jaune cadmium foncé (cadmium yellow deep)
38. Jaune cadmium citron (cadmium yellow lemon)
39. Laque garance rose dorée (rose madder gold lake)
40. Rouge de Venise (Venetian red)
41. Laque jaune (yellow lake)
42. Violet de cobalt (cobalt violet)
43. Laque géranium (geranium lake)
44. Jaune chrome orange (chrome yellow orange)
45. Rouge de Saturne (minimum/red lead)
46. Vert anglais III (English green III)
47. Laque garance ordinaire (madder lake)
48. Vermillon anglais (English vermilion)
49. Bleu céruléum (cerulean blue)
50. Cinabre vert foncé (Cinnabar green deep)
5i. Cinabre vert clair (Cinnabar green light)
52. Vert anglais II (English green II)
53. Jaune cadmium orange (cadmium yellow orange)
54. Ocre d'or (gold ochre)
55. Brun de Mars (Mars brown)
56. Laque de gaude (yellow lake)
Some Notes on the Pigments:
8. Veronese Green was originally the same as the English Emerald Green, a compound of copper and arsenic. By 1893, Veronese Green was identical to viridian (3. vert émeraude), and was probably only listed as a separate color as a matter of tradition.
11., 21., & 27. Carmine and carmine lakes referred to colors produced from tinctures of crushed female cochineal insects.
12. & 14. The designations of #1 and #2 after ultramarine blue may have referred to different color shifts (red/green) or different degrees of particulate size. These were likely artificial ultramarines, and not made from lapis lazuli.
18., 19., 39., & 47. These are reds made from a tincture of the madder root, though it is probable that by the time of this survey, these colors were actually being made from alizarin.
33. Jaune brilliant was an alternative to Naples yellow. It was prepared from chrome yellow and lead white.
34., 46., & 52. English Greens I, II, and III were mixtures of chrome yellow and Prussian Blue in varying proportions.
36. Citron yellow was made from zinc, while lemon yellow was chrome-based. The former was more durable.
43. Geranium lake was based on aniline dyes and was extremely fugitive.
56. Yellow lake was another fugitive color, prepared in several different ways. This version is possibly made by a tincture of quercitron bark, which was considered better than tinctures prepared from vegetable dyes.