Polychrome Revolutions: The Collision of New Art Media with the Social and Environmental Justice Movements of the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw a revolution in the materials and technologies that were available to artists for their representation of the natural world. These innovations also facilitated artists’ experiments with deviation from representational modes of expression. Previously artists’ materials were predominately obtained from nature - pigments were prepared from mineral sources and dyes derived from plants and animals. The nineteenth century explosion in new materials and modes of expression for artists included photography and the development of an entirely new palette of inorganic and organic colorants. Examples of these new pigments include chrome yellow, cadmium yellow, uranium yellow, lead arsenate white, chromium oxide green, emerald green (a copper and arsenic-based pigment), cobalt blue, cobalt violet, barium white, and zinc white. These inorganic innovations in the artists’ palette were rapidly followed by a revolution in organic chemistry that was sparked by the first coal tar dye, mauveine, invented in 1856. The new materials led to a brilliant palette that expanded the possibilities for painting, ceramic glazes, wallpapers, glasses, textiles, photographs, and sculpture. However, the rapid implementation of these alluring new materials was followed by a growing understanding that they were highly toxic, unstable, and often formulated improperly. Arts and crafts icon William Morris, as part-owner of an arsenic mine, was a vocal advocate for the new pigments. At the same time the Staffordshire potteries were proving to be a critical front in the escalating fight for occupational health and safety protocols, starting with the regulation of arsenic-containing colorants and lead glazes. The growth of the photographic medium allowed photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to shine a new light onto the extreme poverty and unsafe working conditions of adult and child laborers, initiating the use of photography as an exceptionally powerful medium for social justice. This class will explore the technological innovations available to the nineteenth century artist, and their intimate relationship to the burgeoning environmental and social justice movements of the day. 3 credits.