Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Rossi reviews Color in the Age of Impressionism

Laura Anne KalbaColor in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 2017. 288 pp.

Review by Michael Rossi

17 June 2019

As a student in the 1860s, philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote that the science of chemistry—the study of matter and its transformations—necessarily depended on the science of signification: the study of how beings come to perceive, know, and understand the world around them as meaningful. He called this science “semiotic,” and imagined it as the “chemistry of thought.” 

Laura Kalba’s Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art (2017is, in this sense, not precisely about Impressionism, though Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, and others serve as the book’s major dramatis personae. Nor is it, strictly speaking, about color, though reds, blue, greens, and yellows—to say nothing of vert olive, gris cendre, martin-pêcheur, eau-du-mer, and others––suffuse its richly illustrated pages. Rather, it is a study of how the chemistry of matter (of dyes, paints, inks, and illuminants) fundamentally transformed the chemistry of thought (aesthetics, perceptions, politics), as it related to color in fin de siècle France. 

To trace this transformed relationship between mind, matter, and color, Kalba resituates Impressionism as a response to the material circumstances of commercial color production. Beginning in 1856, chemists in Britain, France, and Germany began exploring the potential of “aniline” dyes—artificial colorants more brilliant than any previously available for commercial use (see chp. 1). From bright, new textiles (chp. 3), to artificial flowers in kaleidoscopic hues (chp. 2), to dazzling fireworks (chp. 4), to the proliferation of cheap, mass-produced posters and advertising cards (chp. 5), to the (eventual) development of commercially viable color photographs (chp. 6), Kalba demonstrates that Impressionists and their clients, subjects, and viewers lived in a world in which applied chemistry brought a seemingly endless parade of chromatic novelties to market and before the eye.

This efflorescence, argues Kalba, underwrote novel chemical––and semiotic––restructurings of the relationship between thought and things, perception and matter, production and consumption, and aesthesis and art-making. Of course, color chemistry meant a sudden profusion of new, colorful things for painters to depict, and new pigments with which to depict them. It also, however, supported an emergent and potentially radical social, economic, ethical, and aesthetic apparatus through which to approach the visual world as depicted in paintings. This apparatus included the increased authority of science and scientists in art-making and manufacturing; the imperative to embrace or oppose the evident artificiality and transience of modern, consumer life; and the political exigencies of representing a society in which labor, administration, and perception alike were seemingly abstracted with greater and greater thoroughness from the realm of the ostensibly (normatively) natural. 

As such, Color in the Age of Impressionism is as much a book about the chemistry of thought as it is about the chemistry of Impressionist painting. The “particularly ‘chemical’” approach to color (p. 101) evinced by Kalba’s actors was chemical not only in its material artifacts and modes of production and consumption, but in its methods, metaphors, and preoccupations. To see chemically was to understand the visual world as process and product. It was to understand vision itself as akin to analysis and synthesis of novel compounds. It was to understand color and nature alike as fugitive and immutable by turns. It was, moreover, a mode of seeing which, Kalba suggests, persists to the present. “We are still today,” she argues, “very much living in the Age of Impressionism” (p. 6).