Polychrome Revolutions: Artists’ New Media, Conservation, and Environmental Justice

The nineteenth century saw a revolution in the materials and technologies 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 were derived from plants and animals. The 19th century explosion in new materials and modes of expression for artists included photography and 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 partowner 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 arseniccontaining colorants and lead glazes. This class will explore the technological innovations available to the nineteenth century artist and their intimate relationships to the burgeoning environmental justice movement and to the current practices we use in their conservation. 3 credits. MDP.