Linda M. Shires, “On Color Theory, 1835: George Field’s Chromatography


George Field’s Chromatography, or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting, &c. (January 1835) examines the properties of pigments, relations among colors, and color as a symbolic and moral force. While the color theories of Chromatography dated quickly, this seminal book’s importance to a material history of color and oil painting remains undisputed.

Whether we delight in Eugène Delacroix’s elaborate palettes and chiaroscuro or prefer veils of shimmering light in J. M. W. Turner’s late paintings, we respond to such artists’ vast ingenuity with color. These and other nineteenth-century painters dramatically increased the range of what and how we see, both perceptually and symbolically. Unless we are conservators, painters, art historians, or materials historians, however, we routinely do not attend closely to technological developments affecting the craft of painting. Yet the nineteenth century offers us a key moment in the history of color theory.  Broadly defined, color theory studies qualities and relations of color and—under specific conditions—changes of hue. The industrial revolution and an increasing knowledge of chemistry allowed early nineteenth-century painters to benefit from the most dramatic increase in the number of new natural and synthetic pigments and refined color processing developments in two millenia (“Traditional” 1). Artists experimented with the newly available pigments by contrasting them, mixing them, and combining them with different binding media to vary hue and intensity. They layered colors with glazes or under-painting and explored variations in how to depict shadings, tints, and tones. Increasingly aware of the fragility of art, some artists were concerned to find ways to make paintings last.[1]

Frontispiece of Chromatography

Figure 1: 1835 Frontispiece of _Chromatography_

George Field’s Chromatography, or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting &c., (London, January 1835), a seminal nineteenth-century text in color theory, helped alter the course of British painting aesthetically and practically. (See Fig. 1.) Chromatography, in which Field shares his fullest knowledge about available colors, is less important for its theory of primaries than for its technological basis and advice. At a time of great expansion in the visual arts, painters had become easy prey to retail color sellers who did not purvey pigments of superior quality. Field, however, was determined to buttress his theories with reliable information about light-fast, durable pigments, based on his own scientific experiments and manufacturing processes. While he certainly wished to sell his own pigments, he also sought to secure a lasting fame—through enduring materiality—for Britain’s art.

Chromatography was the culmination of Field’s many years of color experiments and manufacture. Between 1804 and 1825 he recorded, in ten octavo notebooks, results of experiments concerning the stability of pigments, upon which he later drew for key sections of the 1835 volume. An instant success, helped perhaps by a highly favorable review in The Literary Gazette (Jerden 21), the book went through five editions by 1885. No subscriptions were needed for an enlarged second edition within six years. In other words, publishing the first edition had been paid for by the ready capital of would-be readers, listed in the front of the book as subscribers, through a method of publishing going back to the seventeenth century. Yet the second edition was popular enough not to need such pre-publication financing. In 1850 an abridged version appeared under the title Rudiments of the Painter’s Art, or a Grammar of Colouring, a copy of which William Holman Hunt, already having borrowed an earlier edition, acquired from Charles Roberson in 1856 (Gage, George Field 33).[2] This version was reissued two years later with notes on color symbolism, edited by John Weale. A third edition was ready when Field died. Later editions of the book, edited by T. W. Salter and J. Scott Taylor in 1869 and 1885, updated information on pigments but dispensed with Field’s comments on the relations and symbolism of colors (Gage, George Field 33). While this publication history confirms Field’s major impact in the area of color for over forty years, the later editing shows that his practical knowledge greatly outweighed his theories.

Color theories and practices assumed an increasing importance among nineteenth-century art critics, theorists, and scientists. A damning Athenaeum review of Chromatography, which disagrees with Field’s claims for the importance of color, illustrates the poles of the debate in the 1830s: “We consider the whole of Mr. F’s harangue upon this subject, as a most unwise pandering to the public taste for that gay lady—Colour. Instead of the first, colouring is the very last among the great requisites. Expression, design, invention, are all before it” (Darley 638). As the century continued, however, an art critic such as John Ruskin, who initially stressed the primacy of form over color in Modern Painters (1843), expanded his views. His comments on Turner, Fra Angelico, the Pre-Raphaelites, and his handbook on drawing document his developing ideas about the importance of color.[3]

The number of commercially available pigments dramatically increased during the century. By processing heavy metal ores into a wider range of colors and working with lake pigments by extracting dyes and fixing them onto an insoluble base such as hydrate of aluminum or sulphate of calcium, color-makers gradually introduced, over the century, such new colors as cobalt blue (1806-07), French ultramarine (1827), viridian (blue-green) (1830s), cadmium yellows (1851), and alizarin crimson (1868) (“History” 1; Harley, Artists 57; Church 194).[4] Yet pigments were still often unstable, and artists could not be sure of degrees of purity. For colormen could unscrupulously adulterate pigments with cheaper matter. Manufacturing methods, therefore, critically affected how useful a pigment might be to painters; only the finest methods, like George Field’s, based in the wisdom learned from chemical experiments, produced superior colors.

Art-lover, Technologist, Inventor, Color-maker, Theorist

portrait of George Field

Figure 2: George Field by David Lucas, 1845; after Richard Rothwell mezzotint (1839) © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission

When George Field (1777-1854) arrived in London from map iconHertfordshire at eighteen, the art world was in a state of ferment and expansion (“Mr. George Field” 343). (See Fig. 2.) The profusion of amateur as well as professional painters, especially in the area of watercolors, had led to the financial security of artist suppliers. New pigments, more efficient and sophisticated machines for extracting dyes, scientific theories of vision, optical devices, and refined theories of color (psychological, moral, chemical, physical) had emerged dramatically—and often co-temporaneously—at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Field was poised to take advantage of this historical moment by wedding science and technology with commercial transactions, a religious vision, and artistic expression.

Founder and one of three Directors of the British School (1802-04), a commercial exhibiting society for British art, and author of Chromatics (1817), a book on the harmony of colors based on the Christian Trinity, Field’s prominence had become indisputable. By the time he published Chromatography in 1835, Field was recognized by professional painters as London’s most important color-maker and supplier. A color-maker, as opposed to a colorman, is the person who actually manufactures pigments to sell to a colorman, one who prepares the pigments and binding media for artists. Field’s early interactions with painters and his knowledge of their concerns about how quickly paints could fade instigated his experiments with the chemistry of dyes and pigments. In turn, those experiments informed his treatise writing and led to his commitment to improve available colors by altering the way they were manufactured. While, as Joyce Townsend notes, “the manufactured painting materials of the nineteenth century were complex and ever-changing, and do not show any clear lines of development towards improved stability” (“Materials” 5), Field countered this tendency by producing many durable colors and advising on quality. He was remembered in the art world at his death in 1854 for producing “colouring matter surpassing everything of the kind that had before been seen” (“Mr. George Field” 343).

As an anti-Newtonian, Field believed that colors emerged from the polar opposites of black and white.  That is, blue will occur if darkness is strongest; yellow will occur if light is strongest; red will occur if darkness and light are balanced. Throughout all his writings, Field held to a theory of triads in nature—of which the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue were earthly manifestations of the Divine Trinity. Due to his Christian vision, Field devoted himself largely to the development of the colors he considered sacred: madders, lemon yellow, and ultramarine.[5] Moreover, Field attended closely to how pigments reflect light, and he favored pure colors. Since blending pigments subtracts wavelengths from white light, each time another color pigment is added to a mix, more of the spectrum is subtracted from the reflected light, with a result of less transparency, less brilliance. “Now the more pigments are mixed,” writes Field, “the more they are deteriorated in colour, attenuated, and chemically set at variance” (qtd. in Ball 41).[6] Field’s concern with color, harmony, and purity as universals included his attempt to link them analogically with the musical harmony system in Chromatography, as well as in his earlier Chromatics.

As a researcher, Field set out to test the pigments he bought from colormen, and, as a manufacturer, he supplied them better pigments. Field’s notebooks (1804-25) indicate detailed knowledge of the properties of pigments, from madder to orange vermilion to ultramarine, derived from numerous chemical experiments concerning their qualities and permanence.[7] In one of the most important sections of Chromatography, chapter twenty-two “Tables of Pigments,” Field classifies pigments in terms of their properties and effects under certain circumstances (such as what ground is chosen or by what varnish they may be covered).

Shortly after Field began experiments with color, he based his manufacturing activities on the scientific knowledge he had acquired. He built factories (which he called “elaboratories”) to make lake pigments; lake does not refer to a body of water but derives from lac, which refers to a resinous secretion.  He invented machinery to refine the processes of extraction and drying. Historically, lake pigments have typically included reds and browns from the madder root (Rubia tinctorum), indigo from the plant woad (Isatis tinctoria), and carmine from the cochineal insect (“Lake pigment” 1; Chenciner 68, 154). Field’s first factory was 1808 Conham in East map iconBristol, his second 1813 at map iconHounslow Heath, and his third 1826 at map iconSyon Hill Park in map iconIsleworth (Gage, George Field 28; Chenciner 161). From these sites he supplied several of the finest colormen in England, including Charles Roberson and Rudolph Ackermann, and later William Winsor and his partner the artist Henry Newton, who founded together in 1832 the (still) world-famous firm of artists’ supplies Winsor & Newton (Chenciner 161). In fact, the notebooks were acquired by Winsor & Newton after Field’s death, so that his production methods and commitment to purity would not pass into oblivion. To this day, the firm relies upon the Field method of extracting rose madder (Chenciner 161, 167; “History” 1). A technical innovator as well as a chemical researcher and manufacturer, Field invented a percolator that relied on steam pressure to extract pigments efficiently, and a drying stove and press. For these inventions, which improved the durability of lake pigment, Field received the Society of Arts gold Isis medal in 1816 (Pierce 37).

Unlike other color makers, Field, whom John Gage describes fittingly as an “eminently practical theorist and an eminently theoretical practitioner” (George Field 8), had a long and close relationship with leading British and American painters (Harley, Artists 27, 224n24). He had met many when he exhibited their art in London; he met others through sales of his pigments. Although his contact with leading chemists was slight (Gage, Color 215), Field was fully aware of the information painters needed about their materials. The review of Chromatography in The Literary Gazette, in fact, cites Field’s reputation among not only oil painters but also water colorists who praised him for the “brilliance, transparency, depth, and durability” of many of his colors (Jerden 21). Not only was his madder excellent, but also his white lac varnish was “of unrivalled purity, splendor and firmness” (21). Field discussed color with painters, directly supplied colors and varnish to specific artists, and tested samples given to him by artists. For instance, Turner brought for testing a sample of Roman white, “whiter than Blanc d’Argent, lead white. . . much prized by Turner” (qtd. in Gage, Turner 92, 248n42).[8] From her close analysis of Field’s notebooks, R. D. Harley reports that Field mentions eighteen artists by name, some in terms of conversations or purchases and others in terms of their having given him pigments to test. In addition to Turner, we find Sir Thomas Lawrence, David Wilkie, William Collins, and Benjamin West (“Field’s Manuscripts” 82). Artists’ account books, such as those of John Linnell, also indicate purchases from Field. Moreover, subscribers to Chromatography include some of the key artists of the day: John Lawrence, Turner, David Wilkie, John Constable, and William Mulready, as well as the artist, soon-to-be English translator of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810; tr. English 1840), Charles Lock Eastlake.

In Chromatography Field does not forget these notable subscribers or the many professional artists with whom he closely worked during his years of experiments, whether named or unnamed in his notebooks. He dedicates the book to them: “To Sir Martin Archer Shee, President of the map iconRoyal Academy and to The Artists of Britain.” Paying further homage to subscribers, Chromatography announces itself as written with the deepest respect for the artists whom Field hopes to help “consummate a school of colouring which is already celebrated and followed throughout Europe” (dedication). He promises that as the Greeks bequeathed a perfection of form “you will bequeath to posterity standards of perfection in colour” (dedication).

While Field’s own love for a Romantic palette of tertiary colors precluded his full appreciation of a primary and secondary palette, he hoped to influence Victorian painters to think again about the quality of their colors and to learn to mix them with care. How much they took his advice is another matter. As a later art theorist and painter has noted, “it is no more possible to learn to paint from books than to learn to swim on a sofa” (Doerner 7). However, those artists who could afford to purchase Field’s colors, though costly, were glad they did. Both the purity of the pigments themselves and Chromatography influenced the Pre-Raphaelites, who persistently favored bold, bright primaries. In fact, in her 1844 translation of Cennino Cennini’s fourteenth century artist’s handbook Il libro dell’arte (The Book of Art), detailing the Renaissance technique of fresco and discussing in detail available pigments of the Old Masters, Mrs. Merrifield refers to Chromatography seven times, explaining where Field and Cennini overlap or disagree about colors and drying methods.

Hunt, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus

Figure 3: William Holman Hunt, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, 1851

Field’s manufacturing of pure pigments is in keeping with his advice about the best ways to preserve colors. That Pre-Raphaelite paintings, such as Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1850-51) (Fig. 3)—showing no sign of ever having been cleaned (Townsend, Pre-Raphaelite 117)—or John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (started 1851), lasted into the twenty-first century, without even greater fading, discoloring, or cracking than they do show, pays tribute to the existence of Field’s colors, supplied by the colorman Roberson, and to a growing consciousness about the relationship of science to painting.

Accounts kept by Roberson confirm that Hunt purchased orange vermilion and extract of vermilion from Field between 1842-54 and that Millais purchased Field’s chrome green in 1850 (Townsend, Pre-Raphaelite 42-43). Hunt, who chose supplies very carefully, went so far as to write down the colors, media, and varnishes used, on some of his painting spandrels, in order to familiarize future restorers with his original materials. For example, on The Awakening Conscience (1853) Hunt wrote in the left spandrel: “Painted with Copal (oil) weak originally, diluted in use with R. [? for ‘rectified’] S[pirit] of Turps/for drawing out parts/E[merald] Green & Gamboge in transparent/part of foliage. picture retouched/with same Vehicle in 1864/W Holman Hunt/Please copy the above/Note before/obliterating it.” Millais wrote later to Hunt that they were fortunate to have had “the choicest of our colours prepared for us by George Field” (qtd. in Gage, George Field 76).[9] Hunt’s and Millais’ own selections of ground, pigment, and varnish, therefore, contributed to the staying power of some of the colors, but so did Field’s influence as a chemist, technologist, and advocate  of pure, brilliant, unmixed colors.

Art Treatises: Form or Color?

One might wonder why a handbook on color such as Chromatography would be necessary in 1835. For centuries, the knowledge of painting was transferred, not by books primarily, but through long-term training from master to pupil and from workshop to workshop, where apprentices had, until the eighteenth century, spent many years learning how to prepare the materials for painting. From time to time, of course, painters would write down their ideas in treatises. Such handbooks, some emphasizing the practical and some the theoretical, are of great historical importance. Still, those that emerged from highly specific historical moments and available art materials had a more limited influence than watershed texts such as Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435-36 Della pittura (On Painting), which introduced single-point perspective and ideas about color, light, and space, or Leonardo da Vinci’s later writings on chiaroscuro. Yet by the nineteenth century, when art reached thousands more viewers and was practiced by amateurs as well as professionals, techniques were less and less passed on from master to pupil. Even at the Royal Academy in the nineteenth century, training in “studio secrets” remained weak, as opposed to a strong emphasis on composition and theory, so much so that Hunt complained about his lack of knowledge of Old Master techniques (Townsend, Pre-Raphaelite 10).

Field came to London at a watershed moment, characterized by what Gage calls a “new set of circumstances” when professional painters were “driven increasingly to written handbooks and to retailers of artist’s materials (often their publishers), neither of them necessarily very reliable guides to their craft” (George Field 7). A growing number of art practitioners, served by a proliferating group of retail colormen, meant that professional painters were now being served by men who introduced pigments and media to the mass market that artists themselves had not had either the “capacity or opportunity” to test (7). The gaps in knowledge intensified for painters who were becoming alarmed at the rapid deterioration of work by predecessors such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose binding media yellowed or darkened and whose alleged use of bitumen resulted in cracking. Materials and chemistry became increasingly important for artists who, like the Pre-Raphaelites from 1848, sought to create a new school of British art, to rival European schools, based on specific techniques.[10]

Hunt, who corresponded with Field and bought his products, became, perhaps, the most vocal of Victorian artists regarding materials. He informed himself through reading and his own experiments from the 1840s onward, eventually arguing in public for artists’ oversight with regard to materials. He  read Eastlake’s Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847), an edition of Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre/Theory of Colors (1810, tr. Eastlake 1840), Mrs. Merrifield’s Original Treatises in the Arts of Painting (1849), Theophilus’s Essay Upon Various Arts (tr. R. Hendrie 1847), and Cennino Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook (1437, tr. Merrifield 1844) (Jacobi 119; Gage, George Field 77). Hunt corresponded, too, with Frederick Barff, Asst. Prof. of Chemistry at map iconUniversity College, London, who, in 1870-71, lectured to the Society of Arts on colors and pigments (Jacobi 119).

Hunt even seems to have kept track of adulteration in pigments he purchased. In a now significant letter of 1875, Hunt complained to Roberson about the failings of both an orange vermillion from 1873 and madders from 1875, which darkened prematurely and were not, according to his own chemical experiments, what Hunt had bought from the same source under the same name a quarter century previously (Jacobi 119; Hunt 2: 455). In April 1880, Hunt argued for consumer rights and the reform of mass production in a famous address to the Society of Arts—“The Present System of Obtaining Materials in Use by Artist Painters as Compared with that of the Old Masters,” a talk later summarized in Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelitism (2: 453-56) and reprinted in The Architect of 1880. He called for an artists’ society to look after the material interests of painting and to establish a library of works on artistic practice. He further endorsed a plan to purchase and put on display foreign samples of colors in a museum and urged the creation of a technical school to train artists. In June of the same year, Hunt shared his own paint experiments at the Grosvenor Gallery. Highlighting the superiority of Field’s colors and standards, Arthur West of Winsor & Newton displayed the color-fading samples from Field’s octavo notebooks, which were “as perfect in tint now as when first put in” (qtd. in Gage, George Field 35).[11] Hunt excitedly borrowed the notebooks.

The interdisciplinarity of science and art with regard to color meant that professional painters could turn to scientific treatises as well as art handbooks. Sir Isaac Newton’s magisterial Opticks, A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light (1704)—a study based in experiments of dispersion, the separation of white light into a spectrum of component colors—was available in English. In creating the field of physical optics, Newton had illustrated how colors arise from absorption, reflection, or transmission of parts of light. While Opticks was aimed at scientists, and few artists probably read it, it would be shortsighted to think it had no influence at all on artists or color theory.[12] At the same time, it is likely that nineteenth-century painters concerned with color and pigment preferred to read the more experientially based, anti-Newtonian Zur Farbenlehre by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German 1810, English tr. 1840). Newton’s and Goethe’s treatises were only two of those that spawned further scientific and quasi-scientific art treatises in the nineteenth century in Europe, among them J. F. L. Mérimée’s De la peinture a l’huile… (1830; tr. The Art of Painting in Oil. . . 1839), Michel Eugene Chevreul’s De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés (1839, tr. The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors,  and Their Applications to the Arts, 1854).

Treatises on color offered ideas and/or scientific experiments, but the connection to artistic practice itself was not always spelled out, which meant artists did not find much use in them. Those handbooks that did offer technical advice did not always base it on experimentation and thus purveyed inconsistent or flawed advice. Field’s Chromatography, however, set forth ideas about color, pigments, drying, preserving, and viewing color through new optical instruments. Having conducted scores of tests, he offered a rare “account of virtually all the artists’ pigments commercially available at that time” (Harley, “Field’s Manuscripts” 76). In so doing, Field not only provided the most trustworthy handbook for practicing painters available in 1835 but also created the basis for revisions that informed artists for years to come. While it is true that some of Field’s subscribers did not all endorse his views on color harmony or share his estimate of specific pigments, key figures such as Owen Jones did rely on Field for decoration in the Crystal Palace (1851). Ultimately, the experiments of James Clerk Maxwell on kinds of colored light (red, blue, and green), Herbert von Helmholtz on color vision, and other scientists on color measurement, proved Field’s theories about light, primaries, and harmony to be ill-founded.[13] Nonetheless, the popularity of his book persisted for two decades and, in revised versions, almost until to the end of the century.

The Components of Color and the Psychology of Coloring

Chromatography weds science and art, but Field goes further to explore the psychological effects of coloring in painting with reference to the sister art of poetry. Drawing on a wide number of poetry quotations, Field links colors to specific emotions as expressed by key Greek and Latin writers, such as Homer and Horace, and by British writers from the Medieval to Romantic periods. As one might suspect, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton frequently appear, but mixed in with later writers such as Dryden, Pope, Swift, Charlotte Smith, and Lord Byron. Field’s notes on red might offer a good example of the sister-art dimension of his work with color.

Field first places red in terms of primary colors as “standing between yellow and blue” and in an “intermediate” relation to white and black (85). “Pre-eminent” among colors, red, he explains, is the most “positive”—forming with yellow the secondary color of orange and with blue the secondary color purple (85). One of the noteworthy aspects of red is that when it is combined with yellow its hue becomes hot, but with blue its hue becomes cool. Illustrating his ideas about color, light, and darkness, he states that red is closer to yellow in its relationship to light and distance and in its effect on the eye: “the power of vision is diminished upon viewing this colour in a strong light; while, on the other hand, red itself appears to deepen in color rapidly in a declining light as night comes on, or in shade” (85). Field warns that these properties make red difficult to manage rightly and mean that, no matter how tempting its beauty, red should be kept as subordinate in painting as it is in nature. He notes that nature uses far more green than red, but that one red object placed with due regard to light, shade, and distance can be striking.

Treating the cultural heritage of red symbolism, Field focuses on two poles: that of powerful feelings such as anger and that of the positive affections of joy, love, hope, and pleasure. As a peculiarly military color, he notes, red was worn by warrior-heroes in ancient times, is included on flags of defiance, is the emblem of blood, and thereby indicates fierceness and courage. This “most effective of colors” incites the bull to rage (87). Noting that red produces emotions in viewers of awe, fear, and veneration, he also links it to royalty and to martyrs.

Field documents that poets have often chosen to use the color red, or its offshoot colors such as “rose,” and sometimes have chosen the metonymy of purple for red, to decorate figures or as epithets. While he acknowledges that occasionally the words themselves, such as coral redden (Pope, Windsor Forest) or scarlet sin (Shakespeare, Henry VIII), might be chosen for their sounds and not their visual intensity, nevertheless, he opines that many writers illustrate the “refined taste, true judgment, and cultivated feeling of the painter” (87-88). Providing a catalogue of literary reds, Field offers eleven sets of poetry examples to illustrate the “relations, attributes, and uses of this colour” (88)—quoting passages that feature the color red as conveying beauty, dignity, love, and other emotions or qualities and—with analogy to his color theory—noting where poets use it in conjunction with white or black, in harmony with light, in contrast with other colors, and in contrast with black (91-92).

While it is no great surprise that Field would consider good pigments of red the most indispensable, given his belief in the universal importance of the primaries and red as the example of balance, he outlines eight principal red pigments from vermilion to red orpiment, discussing the origins, tones, qualities, and the effect of light, time, and air on them. This highly detailed and helpful summary for artists also delves into subtypes when he arrives at the lake pigments. In that section, for example, he also differentiates between carmine derived from cochineal and Madder, or Field’s carmine. Carmines from cochineal, varying from rose to warm red, work in water and oil but are destroyed in light. Carmines from madder, varying from rose to crimson, are superior as the only “durable carmines for painting either in water or oil” (Field 101, sic). Field also classifies some pigments as fugitive, such as French rouge, a species of carmine prepared from safflower, which is very expensive, if beautiful, and used to dye silks or produce cosmetics. Although, due to its richness of color and transparency, it is often used to heighten lake and carmine pigments, Field advises that it is not worthy of the artist’s attention.

Field’s love of the sister art of poetry, demonstrated throughout Chromatography, allows him to expand his study of color, driving it into realms both moral and psychological.[14] Although Field does not quote his Romantic contemporaries Wordsworth or Coleridge, he resembles them in that he wishes to ground his audience in the natural, pure world of God’s creation. Field’s philosophy of harmony in all parts of the universe, based on one unitary process in nature, which he applies analogically to painting, poetry, and music, was idealistic. Yet his deep understanding of colors and pigments in their chemical combinations proved crucial to the innovative strides of many oil paintings in the period and, even more importantly, to their color permanence. While his theory about primary colors was quickly disproved by scientific advances and while new colors have been invented, his importance to the Victorian art world and to the history of British painting remains undeniable.

published September 2012

Linda M. Shires is David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the author, most recently, of Perspectives: Modes of Viewing and Knowing in Nineteenth-Century England (Ohio State, 2009). Author, co-author, and editor of seven other books, including Rewriting the Victorians (Routledge, 1992, re-issue 2012), she is currently working on Thomas Hardy.


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—. Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques. London: Tate, 2004. Print.

“Traditional Pigments of the 19th Century.” Winsor & Newton. Web. 18 June 2012.


[1] As John Gage reports, by 1862 “when William Sandby published the first history of the Royal Academy,” he asked for “instruction in the chemistry of colours,” due to the “physical decay of many pictures” by Sir Joshua Reynolds, J. M. W. Turner, William Etty, and the late works of Sir David Wilkie (Color and Meaning 153).

[2] Listed in Roberson’s Ledgers (15 Sept. 1856).

[3]  See Modern Painters vol. 1. sect. 2. part 5.3.67; vol. 1. sect. 2. part 2.20.168; Stones of Venice 2: 144-45; Pre- Raphaelitism 37-52; The Elements of Drawing 107-75, 181n41.

[4] It is tricky to date pigments in some cases, and sometimes the dates offered do not agree. Cobalt blue had long been used in Chinese porcelain, but in 1802 Louis Jacques Thenard discovered it; in 1803 it went into production in map iconFrance; by 1806-07, it was a branch of commerce. As R. D. Harley says, “It is difficult to determine the date of introduction of cobalt blue to England, but it is unlikely to have been much later than in France” (57). Harley goes on to explain that despite the fact that France and England were at war, French scientific publications were translated and idea exchanges continued. She also notes that cobalt blue is listed in Field’s “Practical Journal 1809” notebook, in an entry she dates to 1815 (57).

[5] See Gage, Color and Culture 216.

[6] First discussed in Field, Chromatography 1869 ed.

[7] Field’s Notebooks (1804-25) are held by Winsor & Newton, London, with photographic records in the Cortauld Institute of Art, London.

[8] First discussed in Field, “Practical Journal” n375.

[9]  First discussed in Hunt, Pre Raphaelitism 2: 374-75.

[10] See Townsend, Pre-Raphaelite 10-11.

[11] First discussed in Journal of the Society of Arts, 28 (1880): 669-70.

[12] See Gage, “Signs of Disharmony” 360.

[13] See Menzies 610.

[14] Goethe had made similar connections in 1810 in Zur Farbenlehre, which was not available to Field in English until 1840, though he may have known about the book’s ideas from Turner.