Many of the more traditional pigments have changed through the ages. Buy some Ultramarine Blue today, and it will have been made in a chemical plant rather than crushed from lapis lazuli won from a mine in Afghanistan. Buy some Naples Yellow, though, and you will get a colour mixed from Cadmium Yellow and Chinese White, in all probability – which should be named Naples Yellow Hue.
That is very different from the Naples Yellow used by Claude Lorrain in A Seaport at Sunrise from 1674. For Claude, it was the highly toxic Lead Antimonate Yellow, and nothing to do with Naples at all.
Naples Yellow occurs in nature, in the unusual mineral Bindheimite, which it seems has never been used as a pigment. Instead, ancient civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean, from about 1500 BCE, used it to colour glass and pottery, and it is one of the oldest synthetic pigments. By about 300 CE, it had been replaced by Lead Tin Yellow, and fell into disuse.
It start to reappear as a pigment in paintings after 1600, having been reintroduced initially in maiolica (glazed earthenware) about a century earlier.
By the early 1700s, when Herman van der Mijn painted these flowers, Naples Yellow was quite widely used in oil painting, although in watercolours it has a tendency to darken in polluted atmospheres.
It became the dominant yellow pigment used by landscape artists between 1750-1850, and has been found in Ferdinand Kobell’s Mountain Landscape (Path in a Gorge) from 1768.
As its chemical name reveals, Naples Yellow is a salt of two highly toxic metals, lead and antimony, and is therefore extremely poisonous, although less well absorbed through the skin. Despite this, it remained popular during the rise of plein air landscape painting, as in Johann Georg von Dillis’ delightful oil sketch of Triva Castle from 1797.
Ironically, this painting is also an early example of the use of Chinese White, which was starting to replace the toxic Lead White. Perhaps painters of the day were less concerned with their toxicity, and more appreciative of the fact that Naples Yellow absorbs relatively little oil, so dries quickly.
Look at the sandy, pale yellowish passages in most landscapes from 1750-1850, and chances are that you are seeing Naples Yellow at work, as in Ernst Fries’ undated View from Kleingemünd of Neckargemünd, completed before his untimely death in 1833, at the age of only 32; he apparently cut his wrists when suffering a delirium from scarlet fever.
When artists such as Heinrich Bürkel left the towns and cities of northern Europe to go and paint in the countryside around Rome, they took with them Naples Yellow, which he used in this view of Shepherds in the Roman Campagna from 1837. But Chrome Yellow was already starting to displace it from the palette, a trend which continued throughout the nineteenth century.
Some traditionalists, like Arnold Böcklin in The Shepherd’s Complaint (Amaryllis) from 1866, continued to use real Naples Yellow into the early years of the twentieth century, though.
Franz von Lenbach was still using it in landscape sketches such as The Vega de Granada in 1868. Here it’s only appropriate for depicting the ancient ruined fortifications erected on this plain, to separate Christians from the Moorish kingdom of Granada in Spain.
More surprising are the modern painters who continued to use real Naples Yellow, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir in this vase of abundant Chrysanthemums, painted in 1881-82, when new Cadmium Yellow was becoming more affordable.
Naples Yellow has also been reported in Gabriel von Max’s amusing Monkeys as Judges of Art from 1889. I have been unable to locate a suitable image of one of the last paintings to contain the pigment, made by Odilon Redon in about 1912, and sporadic occurrences continue until as late as 1933.
When suppliers reformulated their Naples Yellows in the twentieth century, all traces of its original lead antimonate had gone, in favour of a hue created from more modern, and less immediately toxic, substitutes. Although no pale substitute by any means, it just isn’t the same Naples Yellow of Claude and the great pioneers of plein air landscape painting.
Ian NM Wainwright, John M Taylor and Rosamond D Harley (1986) Artists’ Pigments, vol 1, ed Robert L Feller, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 74 6.