Seeing History: Colour and class

Jules Breton (1827–1906), The Pardon of Kergoat in Quéménéven in 1891 (1891), oil on canvas, 122.6 x 233 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The first article in this series examined how human exposure to light, the lit environment, has changed over time. Until recently, the lit environment differed according to which class you were in, with poorer working people living much of their lives in dark interiors. When we consider exposure to colour, class divisions become even more apparent.

We experience colour in the buildings and landscapes within which we live and work, in the decor of the buildings which we frequent, in the objects such as paintings, prints, and books which we look at, and in the clothing of those around us. Each of these has changed considerably over the last six hundred years or so, and have varied according to where we live, what we do in life, and most of all which class we are in.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Potato Planters (c 1861), oil on canvas, 82.5 x 101.3 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

For the poorer working class people, until the late twentieth century there was only limited colour in their living environments. The best that they could hope for was outdoor work during the warmer months of the year, when they would at least be in the greens and earth colours of the countryside, with the prospect of added colour in the blossom of flowers.

Martín Rico (1833–1908), Washerwomen of Varenne (1865), oil on canvas, 85 x 160 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

With increasing industrialisation from the eighteenth century, the many who worked in factories did so in surroundings which were usually drab, and very limited in the range of colours.

Jean Béraud (1849–1935), The Absinthe Drinkers (1908), oil on panel, 45.7 × 36.8 cm , Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the twentieth century, this changed radically with the arrival of cheap, brightly-coloured clothing, and the use of bright pigments in cheap plastic goods – from brilliant red buckets to blue brooms.

William S Horton (1865–1936), Punch on the Beach at Broadstairs, England (1920), oil on canvas, 64.5 × 78.1 cm, Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN. Wikimedia Commons.

The rich could afford clothing and interior decor to chase the fashion of the day, whether that was monochrome or wildly polychromatic.

Jean Béraud (1849–1935), Soirée in the Hotel Caillebotte (c 1878), other details not known. The Athenaeum.
Jean Béraud (1849–1935), Symphony in Red and Gold (1895), other details not known. The Athenaeum.

Three paintings from the 1820s illustrate how richly colourful interiors could become.

Artist not known, The Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (c 1826), aquatint in John Nash’s ‘Views of the Royal Pavilion’ (1826). Wikimedia Commons.

This aquatint showing the Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton in about 1826 is an example of the splendour in which the rich of that time would dine.

William Henry Hunt (1790–1864), The Green Drawing Room of the Earl of Essex at Cassiobury (1823), brush and pencil and watercolor heightened with white gouache on white wove paper, dimensions not known, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

William Henry Hunt’s watercolour of The Green Drawing Room of the Earl of Essex at Cassiobury dates from 1823, and shows the little more modest surroundings in which the aristocracy lived.

Jean-François Garneray (1755–1837), The Duchess de Berry and her children in their apartment at the Tuileries Palace (1822), watercolour, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-François Garneray’s watercolour showing The Duchesse de Berry and her children in their apartment at the Tuileries Palace was painted in 1822, and reveals their sumptuous surroundings.

Harriet Backer (1845–1932) Gamlestua på Kolbotn (Old Living Room at Kolbotn) (1896), oil on canvas, 61.5 x 83.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

The middle classes inevitably were somewhere in between those two extremes. As they prospered, many accumulated large collections of clothing, and took to dressing up whenever they had the opportunity. But by and large, highly coloured clothing was reserved for the high points in life: major social occasions, churchgoing, ceremonial, and when acting in an official office.

Jules Breton (1827–1906), The Pardon of Kergoat in Quéménéven in 1891 (1891), oil on canvas, 122.6 x 233 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Breton’s late painting of The Pardon of Kergoat in Quéménéven in 1891 shows a very obvious difference between the working men in their dull or black clothing, the young women behind them with ceremonial roles, and the more muted colours of the older women at the right.

Colours in the interior decor of the middle classes were subtle rather than vivid, but generally avoided the drab as much as possible. One limitation to the exterior decor of houses until the twentieth century were exterior paints, which were expensive and difficult to apply until the advent of modern products based on acrylic polymers.

Harriet Backer (1845–1932), Uvdal Stave Church (1909), media not known, 115 x 135 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Some communal buildings were rich in colour. Norwegian stave churches, like many of the older churches throughout Europe, had colourful painted interiors: this from Uvdal was probably first painted when it was built in 1168. Such decorative interiors were destroyed in some regions, such as Britain, under later oppressive regimes.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris, a Rainy Day (study) (1877), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Musée Marmottan, Paris. WikiArt.
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris, a Rainy Day (study) (1877), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Musée Marmottan, Paris. WikiArt.

During the expansion of the cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, urban environments were much less richly coloured than they have become since. Those cities and zones incorporating trees and parks fared better than those which were unplanned, and were left to become dense overpopulated labyrinths of dilapidated apartments and industrial units. Inevitably, the higher social classes tended to live and work in the more open and colourful areas, and the lower classes in the dank and colour-deprived ones.

George Bellows (1882–1925), Cliff Dwellers (1913), oil on canvas, 102.1 × 106.8 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Owning paintings has not been the preserve of the upper class. Although patrons and those commissioning work from the best-known artists have always had to have plenty of money, owning lesser works has often been more popular among the middle classes. During the Dutch Golden Age, shopkeepers and tradesmen were often among the most avid collectors of paintings, for example.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Tulip Folly (1882), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 100 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

That period was also remarkable for The Tulip Folly, shown in this 1882 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Tulips had originally been imported from Turkey, and during the early 1600s became very popular in the Netherlands. There they were cultivated to develop varieties of many different colours, petal and leaf patterns, which in turn became assocated with wealth and status. Their prices thus rose with demand.

By about 1634, this artificial market had driven prices to absurd heights. The inevitable crash came, and many who on paper had become very rich from successful speculation lost everything that they didn’t really have anyway. This painting shows soldiers destroying beds of flowers to manipulate the market for a speculator.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, colour prints were generally rare and expensive. As mechanical printing techniques improved, mass market colour publications appeared, then became very popular during the twentieth century. By the advent of television in the middle of the century, even the poorest of homes would have far greater access to colour images in magazines and books than any had in the past. Colour movies were accessible to all after the Second World War, and colour television arrived for most during the 1960s and 1970s.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Child with Prints (c 1880-1884), pastel on canvas laid down on board, 55.9 x 44.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Now, our children grow up in a visual environment which is far richer in colour even than those of the richest members of society in the past. We can ride around in outrageously pink cars, wearing dazzlingly multicoloured clothes, with colour images being thrust at us everywhere we look. Our ancestors might quickly have become oversaturated.