The women who redefined colour

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Gartside’s modestly entitled Essay (which was followed three years later, in 1808, by a revised edition that she boldly rechristened An Essay on a New Theory of Colours, and on Composition in General) predates by half a decade Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s celebrated treatise Theory of Colours, 1810, in which the renowned German poet and critic sought to correct what he believed were basic errors in Isaac Newton’s understanding of our experience of colour in the world. Like Goethe, who had been developing his ideas for decades, Gartside seemed quietly determined to recalibrate Newton’s conception of the spectrum of colours that comprise white light, which the English mathematician famously hit upon as a student during a much earlier lockdown in 1666, when the Great Plague triggered quarantines, and to inflect it with a painterly urgency and purpose it arguably lacked.

“Calling it a ‘theory’,” Loske tells me, “is really clever. She puts it into a more serious context, something beyond being a painting manual. She is most interesting in terms of picking up Newtonian ideas and adapting them to painting. Newton was all about immaterial colours – about splitting the rainbow and about coloured lights. Someone had to adapt all of that fantastic knowledge to material colour, and she does that beautifully.”

The spectrum of colours that Newton famously unweaved with his carefully angled prisms seemed to many more staged than natural – hues of an obsessive intellect under artificially controlled conditions rather than the dishevelled shades of messy reality. Newton’s insistence on bending the rainbow to accommodate a redundant seventh colour, indigo, to sit alongside blue, merely to ensure that there were as many colours as there are the planets in the heavens and notes on the musical scale, is often raised as proof that he shaped what his eyes actually saw to fit an airy ideal. The century between his eventual publication of Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light – in which Newton formally presents his ideas – and Gartside’s and Goethe’s volumes on colour theory in the first decade of the 18th Century, would witness a flurry of publications by writers and artists keen to reconcile Newton’s clinical notions of colour with the practicalities of actually mixing pigments on a palette.

Refashioning the colour wheel

Central to each of these efforts – undertaken by everyone from the French painter Claude Boutet in 1708 to the British entomologist Moses Harris in 1766 to the Austrian entomologist Ignaz Schiffermüller in 1772 – was a reimagining of Newton’s seminal, if curiously colourless, colour circle which he presented in his Opticks. For Goethe, it was Newton’s failure to acknowledge the fundamental role that darkness plays in shaping the colours we see in everyday experience that motivated his own refashioning of the colour wheel. In 1798, Goethe and the playwright Friedrich Schiller collaborated on a complex diagram they called the “rose of temperaments”, in which the concentric orbits of a dozen colours and corresponding character traits revolve around a dark abyss yawning at the diagram’s centre. Eventually this elaborate wheel would give way to Goethe’s more famous, simplified colour circle which he devised in 1809 and included the following year in his own Theory of Colours.

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