Art and Science: Introduction to a new series

Claude Monet (1840–1926), The Artist's House at Argenteuil (1873), oil on canvas, 60.2 × 73.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Image by Rlbberlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last millennium or so, Art and Science have developed to mutual benefit. Whether it’s a synthetic pigment like Prussian Blue, colour theory, or modern oil and acrylic paints, there’s a great deal that painting has benefitted from chemistry, physics and physiology. In return, paintings of scientists at work have set their stories in our cultural history. This new series looks at these exchanges through time.

Although sciences such as chemistry and physiology developed much later, scientific and mathematical exploration of the world around us goes right back to the earliest civilisations.

One of the first great milestones in the development of modern painting, the discovery of linear perspective projection, is attributed to the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) in about 1420, although it may have been as early as 1414. Antonio Manetti, his biographer, wrote an account in which Brunelleschi constructed two paintings of churches in Florence according to geometrical optical principles, and made an arrangement using a small hole and a mirror so that a viewer could compare the 2D painted view with the observed view at the correct locations. Those who tried this out were apparently amazed at the similarities between the 2D and observed views.

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Holy Trinity (1426-8), fresco, 640 x 317 cm, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

The first substantial painting to have survived which employed Brunelleschi’s system is Masaccio’s magnificent Holy Trinity, painted in 1426-28 in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It relies completely on that development of optics and geometry.

Paintings rely not on dyes, which are relatively simple colourants which are too vulnerable and fugitive to survive the passage of time, but on particles of colourant, pigments. For a long period, painting was reliant on natural pigments, some of which, like the carbon blacks, remain in common use today. The first true synthetic pigment was in fact so ancient that it was forgotten completely in the Middle Ages: Egyptian Blue was first made before about 3000 BCE by heating together powdered limestone, malachite, and quartz sand, to form calcium copper silicate. But that was an exception. It wasn’t until the early years of the eighteenth century that a hydrated iron hexacyanoferrate complex known quickly as Prussian Blue was synthesized.

No one knows who first made Prussian Blue, nor exactly when they made it. It seems to have appeared initially around 1704, and its origins have been attributed variously to Diesbach in Berlin, or Mak in Leipzig. For once its name is appropriate, as it was a product of the Prussian Empire. Its potential as a colourant was recognised by 1710 when it went on sale in Berlin, and by about 1724 it was being manufactured in several countries across Europe.

Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722) and Henrik van Limborch (1681-1759), Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (before 1722-28), oil on panel, 61.1 x 47.5 cm, Allen Memorial Art Museum (Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1963), Oberlin, OH. . Courtesy of the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Among the very first surviving oil paintings to use Prussian Blue is that by Adriaen van der Werff and Henrik van Limborch, of Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph. This was started by van der Werff before he died in 1722, and the blue paint is thought to have been applied by him to the curtain at the upper left; it is that paint which has been shown to contain Prussian Blue. After van der Werff’s death, his pupil Henrik van Limborch finished the work between 1727-28.

During the eighteenth century, European civilisations underwent an Enlightenment in which reason became valued, and with it came a revolution in science and the arts. For the first time, painters made a theme of scientific experiments.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), oil on canvas, 182.9 x 243.9 cm, The National Gallery, London. By courtesy of the National Gallery, Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863.

Joseph Wright of Derby painted An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump in 1768, which epitomises this culture of enlightenment. Here the ‘philosopher’ (in a red gown) is seen at the climax of his lecture on pneumatics, inspired by the radical chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). A precious white cockatoo has been taken from its cage, at the left of the table, and placed inside the large glass jar at the top. A vacuum pump has then been used to evacuate the air from within the jar, and the cockatoo has collapsed near death.

Wright shows the moment the philosopher is about to open the tap at the top of the jar and restore the air to the bird, hopefully resulting in its revivification, and transformation of the anguish and horror being expressed by the two girls at the table.

Ultramarine Blue is another of the oldest pigments still used in painting, and its history could fill a book. Over a similar period, artists also used Smalt, made from powdered blue-coloured glass, in which the active pigment is cobalt oxide. Thénard discovered cobalt aluminate in 1803-04, and recognised its potential as a pigment. As this preceded the introduction of artificial Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue was quickly introduced into artists’ paints, becoming available in oil paints and watercolours from around 1806-08.

Goring Mill and Church c.1806-7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
JMW Turner (1775-1851), Goring Mill and Church (c 1806-07), oil on canvas, 85.7 x 116.2 cm, The Tate Gallery (Part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Possibly the earliest recorded use of Cobalt Blue is in the sky of JMW Turner’s oil sketch of Goring Mill and Church, thought to have been painted in 1806-07. This shows how similarly Turner started his oil and watercolour paintings. Once brought to this state, Turner could return to the sketch later and add foreground detail before completing it.

By the nineteenth century, alchemy had been replaced by the new science of chemistry, with a sound theoretical and experimental basis. Science and technology were also introduced into traditional crafts such as dyeing and tapestry manufacture, where they helped develop theories of colour.

Charles Blanc (1813-1882), Colour Star (c 1867), recreated by Al2. Image by Al2, via Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1867, the artist Charles Blanc (1813-1882) used this colour star in his educational books for artists. It differs little from the much older colour line of Aguilonius, but the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) advanced a more sophisticated colour hemisphere. Chevreul was the director of the dyeing department of the royal tapestry manufacturer of Gobelins, who daily wrestled with problems trying to achieve consistent dyeing of textiles for use in tapestry-making. Chevreul was an important influence on the Impressionists and their use of colour.

The ‘softer’ human sciences trying to rationalise the functions of the body were slower to adopt the rigour of the physical sciences. The late nineteenth century saw major influence of the German physicist and physiologist Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894). Von Helmholtz awakened interest in the psycho- and neuro-physiology of colour, and the importance of perception as well as physics, although it was one of von Helmholtz’s scientific adversaries, Ewald Hering (1834-1918), who brought the most important and immediate improvements in colour ordering, by applying principles of colour perception.

The strange silver-white metal cadmium wasn’t discovered until 1817, and then only by a chance observation of abnormal yellow colouration of a sample of what should have been zinc carbonate. The brilliant yellow colour of its salt cadmium sulphide was noticed the following year, but it wasn’t exploited as a pigment until the 1840s, when it became possible to manufacture in quantity.

Nevertheless, it has been claimed that it was used as a pigment for oil paints as early as 1829, and by 1851 it was shown by Winsor & Newton at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London. But it remained extremely costly.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), The Artist’s House at Argenteuil (1873), oil on canvas, 60.2 × 73.3 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Image by Rlbberlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Few artists could afford to use Cadmium Yellow until its price fell late in the nineteenth century. Claude Monet was among its early users, in this painting of The Artist’s House at Argenteuil from 1873. Before this, William Holman Hunt and others had reported that its colour was “capricious”, sometimes fading rapidly to “the colour of dirty beeswax”. With the alternative of Chrome Yellow more readily available and much cheaper, most artists steered well clear of the new pigment until the twentieth century.

Nineteenth century painters were more strongly motivated to paint scientists and science in action. Although not a theme in Impressionism, many Naturalists were keen to depict scientific subjects.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925), Claude Bernard and His Pupils (1889), copy of original by unknown artist, oil on canvas, 86.5 x 112.5 cm, Wellcome Library no. 45530i, London. Courtesy of Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) was a pioneering physiologist whose writings were of great influence to Naturalists, including Émile Zola. Following Bernard’s death, the Sorbonne (where he had taught) commissioned Lhermitte to paint his portrait in 1886. This is a faithful anonymous copy of Claude Bernard and His Pupils, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1889.

Bernard stressed the importance of not just observational science, but the experimental too, which inspired Naturalist writers to pursue what they saw as an experimental approach. Zola watched people in life, filling notebooks with those observations. He then set characters up in the scenario for a novel, and they behaved according to his observations. He then documented this imaginary experiment, which became his next novel.

Lhermitte’s painting shows Bernard in the midst of performing an experiment on a rabbit, his students discussing its results, and one writing the experimental observations in the laboratory daybook.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Agnew Clinic (1889), oil on canvas, 214.2 x 300.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

In the USA, Thomas Eakins painted the retiring professor of surgery, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, at work in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The patient is unconscious thanks to a volatile liquid general anaesthetic administered via a mask, a technique which had been developed over the previous fifty years. Bright surgical lighting puts six figures literally in the limelight, including that of Agnew, who is holding a scalpel at the left.

A few who originally intended to become artists went on to become great scientists. The best-known of these was the founding father of modern neuroanatomy, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, from Navarre, in Basque Spain. It was he who discovered the fine structure of the human retina, crucial information for our understanding of the sense of sight. It seems very appropriate that a scientist who wanted to paint but ended up spending so much of his life drawing should have played such a key role in understanding this sense. And as always, it was his painstaking draughtsmanship which showed to others what he had seen under his microscope.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) (1906), oil on canvas, 91 x 127 cm, Museo de Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Joaquín Sorolla’s portrait of this scientist shows him in an academic gown rather than a cloak. On the wall behind is one of his neuroanatomical drawings, looking like a work of art.

The twentieth century brought the first completely new medium for painting since the development of oil paints before the Renaissance. In the nineteen-thirties, Otto Röhm invented a new synthetic resin formed from acrylate molecules, dubbed acrylic resin. This first became available dispersed in liquid during that decade, and was steadily developed into paints during the nineteen-forties. Their biggest market was in general-use commercial paints, particularly for external use on buildings.

In the late nineteen-forties, Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden developed and brought to market Magna paints, in which the acrylates were suspended in mineral spirits to form an emulsion. Golden later developed a paint based on water, which lives on in his company Golden Artist Colours. In the nineteen-fifties, they were joined by Liquitex, then in the sixties by Rowney’s Cryla paints. Acrylic paints started to rival oils.

Mrinal Kanty Das (dates not known), Apostles Discoursing Maternity (2015), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, location not known. By courtesy of the artist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oil paints remain to a degree rooted in the alchemy which was replaced by chemistry during the Age of Enlightenment; although modern commercially made oil paints are sophisticated combinations of natural and synthetic ingredients, using them and controlling their visual effects owes as much to tradition as it does to industrial chemistry. Acrylics are thoroughly modern in their formulation and use, carefully packaged blends of polymers with surfactants, plasticisers, dispersants, defoamers, stabilisers, and of course pigments – the ultimate fusion of art and science.

I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I explore this relationship in paintings.