Colour Notes 9: Chroma, class and the modern

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.

We live in a very colourful world. Until the advent of modern synthetic dyes and pigments, and the social revolutions of the last couple of centuries, for the vast majority their immediate surroundings were just browns and greys. Common men and women were born, lived and died in a world in which the occasional rosy dawn or sunset, and fresh leaves of Spring, were the highest chroma they ever experienced. Everything else was drab, and for the winter months pretty dark much of the time as well.

Today 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 has varied according to where we live, what we do in life, and most of all which class we’re 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 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 browns of the countryside, with the prospect of added colour in the blossom of flowers.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), The Potato Eaters (1885), oil on canvas, 82 × 114 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent van Gogh’s early social realist painting of The Potato Eaters from 1885 shows the de Groot family eating inside their dark and almost monochrome cottage in Nuenen, in the Netherlands.

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Un Patron, or The Apprentice’s Lesson (1888), oil on canvas, 102 x 82 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Erik Cornelius, via Wikimedia Commons.

With increasing industrialisation from the eighteenth century, the many who worked in factories did so in surroundings which were usually drab.

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

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800-01), oil on canvas, 280 x 336 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

For King Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, painted here by Goya in 1800-01, there seemed no limit to the colours they could wear.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Parasol (August 1777), oil on canvas, 104 x 152 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya’s paintings of majas and majos show one of their aspirations was to break out of the drab clothes of the lower classes, into dazzling primary colours, as seen in The Parasol, which he painted in August 1777.

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

Even when the conventions of high society dictated a stricter dress code, the affluent found ways to surround themselves with colour.

Jean Béraud (1849–1935), Symphony in Red and Gold (1895), other details not known. The Athenaeum.

Given half a chance, they’d immerse themselves in the opulence of pure chroma.

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 a good example of the splendour in which the rich of that time would dine.

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, though. 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. These decorative interiors were destroyed in some regions, including Britain, under later oppressive regimes.

During the expansion of the cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, urban environments were much less richly coloured than they’ve 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, while the lower classes were left to 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.

George Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers from 1913 shows the largely immigrant population of tenements in Lower East Side, in the south-east part of New York City.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Boulevard Montmartre, Spring (1897), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, the city of Paris has many tree-lined streets, including the Boulevard Montmartre, painted in Spring by Pissarro in 1897.

In the twentieth century, exposure to colour 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.

By 1920, when William S Horton painted novellist Charles Dickens’ favourite seaside resort in Punch on the Beach at Broadstairs, England, clothing of younger people was bursting with colour.

Louise Upton Brumback (1867-1929), Good Harbor Beach (1915), oil on canvas, 59.7 x 70 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern scenes and dress painted by the American artist Louise Upton Brumback, here on the New England coast near Gloucester, Massachusetts, was rich with vibrant colour.

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.