Seeing Blue: John Griswold Curates “A Revolution of the Palette”

Blue is the world's most popular color. But there was a time when it was expensive and hard to create for artists wishing to capture it in painting -- until the discovery of synthetic blue.

That story and its effect on oil painting is the subject of “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists," an exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum, curated by John Griswold.

Guillaumin_The Seine at Charenton
The Seine at Charenton (formerly Daybreak), 1874, Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin (French, 1841–1927), Oil on canvas 21-1/4 x 25-3/8 in. (53.3 x 63.5 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation.

It’s official. Blue is the world’s most popular color. A YouGov survey conducted earlier this year, in ten countries from England to Indonesia, found that blue always came out on top.

Theories as to why included the likeness to the natural blue of the sea and sky, the calming effect relative to its opposite — red — and its associations with strength. One expert said the blue power suit is a favorite because it “projects an image of dependability and trustworthiness.”

Now baby blue, aka Serenity 15-3919, has been picked by Pantone (along with its opposite, pastel pink, aka Rose Quartz 13-1520) as the go-to color for 2016.

But there was a time when legions of blue paint choices were out of the question. The color used to be expensive and hard to create for artists — until the discovery of synthetic blue.

That story and its effect on oil painting is the subject of “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists,” a quietly fascinating exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum, curated by conservator and painter John Griswold.

John Griswold_Norton Simon Museum (1)
John Griswold, conservator, painter and curator; photo courtesy Norton Simon Museum

Revolution of the Palette, now entering its final week, explores how the “accidental discovery of Prussian blue in an alchemist’s laboratory around 1704 helped to open up new possibilities for artistic expression at the dawn of the Enlightenment.”

It takes some of the most recognizable and sumptuous works by French artists in the Norton Simon collection, from the Rococo period to the threshold of Impressionism, and situates them in terms of their evolution in use of blue paint, from their origins in natural, true blue, made from expensive lapis lazuli, through the discovery of Prussian Blue and then the introduction of cobalt blue and synthetic ultramarine.

Griswold told DnA: “I told the story from the perspective of a conservator, who’s used to looking at works of art from the point of view of the raw materials that went into them — and then showed how the artist or the maker manipulated those materials to create the work of art or object.”

“So this show ended up being an opportunity to take familiar masterpieces — old friends of visitors to the Norton Simon — and look at them with a fresh perspective. It’s resulted in, I think, a really fun journey for people to learn how to look at these paintings from the perspective of a painter.”

Tubes of oil paint created by John Griswold
Tubes of oil paint created by John Griswold

Griswold trained and worked as an art and architectural materials conservator in Greece, England, Canada and Egypt before establishing his own conservation business.

He is also an artist, working in a California postmodern classicist tradition, and he applied his experience with various historical oil painting methods to the exhibition. He even created a display of seemingly antique tubes of oil paint that he fabricated from old paint tubes and coated with a patina of time.

DnA toured the show with Griswold and was reminded just how much technical innovations influence historical shifts in art.

Walking us past luscious Rococo paintings, Griswold noted the clues: “Here as you look at the brushstroke you should see a very fundamental difference. It almost still looks wet, it looks like these paintings were so fresh, meaning that the different colors were mixed one into the next directly, and it was thanks very much to Prussian Blue that that was possible.”

And when we reached the early Impressionists, he talks about how these works were enabled by a host of inventions that followed the creation of synthetic blue, “from putting oil paints into tubes and coming up with sturdy brushes that could be sold inexpensively at the local art supply stores that were springing up everywhere.”

“Painters could now go outside. They called that plein air painting. We still call it that and have that idea of a painter romantically taking the easel and palette outside and painting directly from nature and not having the paint dry.”

The exhibition runs through January 4, 2016, at the Norton Simon Museum. Read on for a tour through some of the wonderful paintings that were players in the revolution of the palette.

Liegeois_Still Life
Still Life, mid-17th century, Paul Liegeois (French, 17th century), Oil on canvas, 29 x 38-3/8 in. (73.7 x 97.5 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation.

DnA: The exhibition starts before the invention of Prussian Blue with the still-life above. Tell us about that.

John Griswold: This represents the starting point — the pre-Newtonian era. This is the 17th century. This sumptuous still life was by Paul Liegeois; he is someone that we’ve largely forgotten today, but he was at the height of fashion, and his artworks commanded a very high price.

In fact this painting has been in our storage vault for very many years and. . . I discovered this brilliant blue when I was shining my iPhone light back into some of the corners of the ranges and it jumped out. And I knew at that instant that this was a perfect example of what we call True Blue, the natural, ultramarine pigment (made from lapis lazuli) that has come since the eighth century from Afghanistan.

DnA: Then a “revolution” happens. Just what kind of revolution are we talking about?

John Griswold: [The discovery of Prussian Blue] coincided with a very real revolution in the way people approached science. It was really related to the beginning of the Enlightenment which like so many other things can be traced back to Sir Isaac Newton.

It just so happened that the year 1704 was when Newton published his study on optics and famously he took a prism and divided light — daylight — into its component parts and proved that that’s exactly what they were, that they were the component parts of light and color. That may not seem revolutionary to us but [this was the] day when there was still more of an almost metaphysical approach to science –inherited from the ancient Greeks. . . and it wasn’t very far removed from the idea of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water.

So that publication happened to coincide with the accidental discovery of the first synthetic blue pigment…  that could be mixed into oil and painted with: Prussian blue.

Bar_Fete Champetre
Fete Champetre, c. 1725Bonaventure de Bar (French, 1700–1729), Oil on panel, 7-7/8 x 10-3/4 in. (20.0 x 27.3 cm), The Norton Simon Foundation.

Above is a painting that illustrates the use of Prussian Blue. Why is it significant?

JG: This little jewel of a painting that we have here in the collection actually unlocks the secret of the first years Prussian blue was used in France. Why is that so important a color?

When it was discovered it was found to have incredibly strong tinting strength, meaning that you could mix it with any other color and it would impart a little subtle change to that color or quite a bit of a change if you added more. Why that was important is that painters now had the ability to put into practice these new revolutionary theories, these revelations of Newton’s.

He was the one who first presented the idea of a color wheel. And a color wheel is simply taking a rainbow spectrum and you bend it around and you join the far ends — in fact you get a whole new color not found in nature so to speak: magenta.

And he used this color wheel to point out interesting relationships among the colors. The most salient to this exhibition — and the most familiar to all of us who struggle with colors in our own artwork — is the idea of complementary colors, and the optical effects that happen when blending or juxtaposing complementary colors. One seemingly pops forward while its complement tends to visually recede. So right there you’ve got this incredible optical trick, and painters grabbed on to that and they finally — being armed with this full palette that could replicate the color wheel, they could manipulate that directly to create the illusion of depth in their paintings in ways that never was achievable with traditional means.

At the heart of that is why this is revolutionary and it really feeds right up into the most modern ways of manipulating paint that we take for granted today.

Ingres_Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu
Baron Joseph-Pierre Vialetès de Mortarieu, 1805–1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867), Oil on canvas, 24-1/8 x 19-3/4 in. (61.2 x 50.2 cm), The Norton Simon Foundation

DnA: So how was synthetic, or Prussian Blue discovered?

JG: Well, this is the just wonderful story. In about 1704  there was a German chemist named Heinrich Diesbach, and he was a color man; he was someone who made batches of different colors. And he was actually renting space or borrowing space from — of all things — an alchemist. And this one Conrad Dippold was in the employ of Prussian royalty in Berlin. And he, having given up on the idea that one could transmute base materials to gold, had come up with sort of another means of making himself indispensable to the crown, with a kind of a snake oil–a foul concoction of blood and other animal-derived ingredients that Dippel sold as a “cure-all.”

Heinrich Diesbach was rushing to manufacture a batch of Florentine lake, a red pigment derived from boiled cochineal insects, alum, iron sulfate, and potash.

It so happened that lacking this last ingredient, he borrowed some from the alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel, not knowing it had been contaminated with this so-called “animal oil.”

Diesbach returned in the morning to discover a deep blue substance, thanks to the presence of an iron-cyanide contaminant. The two men quickly realized the commercial potential of this new pigment, and independently began producing batches of it to sell to painters at the Prussian court.

Vigee-LeBrun_Countess Kinsky
Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky, 1793, Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (French, 1755–1842), Oil on canvas 54-1/8 x 39-3/8 in. (137.5 x 100.0 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation.

DnA: Who is this beauty and why does she matter to the story?

JG: This is a portrait of a Madame Kinsky by one of my personal favorite painters of the the late eighteenth century, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. And in her day she was considered right up there with all of the luminaries of painting; she had a remarkable reputation.

Her particular problem at this moment in history was that most of her clientele were being eliminated thanks to the French Revolution.

And so she fled and painted this gorgeous portrait of this young lady. Her hair and saffron scarf fluttering in this breeze. But she’s standing here, wearing a dress of Prussian Blue fabric; it was actually dyed in Prussian Blue most likely, but in the painting it was executed with Prussian Blue pigment.

And when you look at it up close you can see that the beautiful reflective satin sheen on it was painted in a way we call wet-on-wet, or alla prima (in which layers of wet paint are overlaid). The white was mixed in with some Prussian Blue.

Now down in the darkest folds of the dress, down on the bottom left hand corner of the painting, it looks really almost black. But having had the luxury of bright examination lights one can actually see that this is Prussian Blue glaze going down to an under painting.

And so it’s really remarkable how she was really masterfully manipulating all the new technical possibilities of this broader palette of paints available at the time.

DnA: So I have to ask what is your favorite color. Could it possibly be blue?

JG: I think if you ask my kids they would definitely say that blue is my favorite color. Absolutely.

“A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists” runs through January 4, 2016, at the Norton Simon Museum. 

Degas_Rape of the Sabines
The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin), 1861–62Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Oil on canvas 59 x 81-1/2 in. (149.9 x 207.0 cm), The Norton Simon Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon.