Watch out for the realgar - it's poisonous, a notorious source of arsenic. In the Renaissance and baroque ages it was also about the only known source of pure orange pigment. When the Dutch painter
For this exhibition reveals how incredibly difficult it is to reproduce anything like the colours of nature in a painting, and how art has striven to find means to mirror life's chromatic plenitude. Where it gets complicated - and what makes colour such a difficult theme to understand - is that colour is an illusion. We concoct it in our minds from light's different wavelengths.
The exhibition shows how Newton's revelation of the spectrum within "white" light transformed thinking about colour. From the 17th century, artists and scientists made "colour wheels" that claimed to show all known shades of every known colour. With this knowledge they were able to theorise "complementary" colours. Yet as the exhibition reveals, painters had understood centuries earlier how to get a vivid effect by setting red next to green.
Yet even these powerful effects work in our brains, not in the exterior world. The show includes a film that demonstrates how subjective the experience of colour is. Look at this bright infrared-like image of a castle in a landscape, it asks. Stare at the black dot. Keep staring. Now here is another picture of the castle - what do you see?
I saw a natural-looking colour photograph of a castle, with green grass and blue sky - only to be told I was looking at a black-and-white photograph. My mind had supplied the "right" colours. Colour involves our memories and assumptions, which fill in the blanks to create phenomena that are not objectively "there" in the outer world.
At least lapis lazuli is something to hold on to. Before Newton, artists had no theory of colour - they thought light emanated from our eyes and bounced back off objects; even
In a beautiful section of the show, the curators reveal how lapis lazuli is still mined in
The exhibition's rarest and most bizarre object is a painting by Orazio Gentileschi from about 1613 of David Contemplating the Head of Goliath. It is painted on a panel of lapis lazuli that creates a spectacular sky behind David.
The most dazzling revelation in this feast of sensations and ideas concerns the origins of modern art. Impressionism was made possible by the discovery in the 19th century of new, cheap colours, including cobalt blue. Squeezing blue from a tube without having to pay a fortune for it meant Monet, for example, could dapple it freely. Without that, modern art would look totally different. It might not have happened at all.
The 19th century saw a fantastic sunburst, helped along by the development of modern chemistry. Mauve was invented. Artists suddenly had access not just to natural greens but totally unnatural, lurid ones. That new universe of green is spangled through Cezanne's landscapes. Degas lost himself in a universe of reds.
Making Colour's revelatory insight into modern art climaxes in strangeness worthy of legend. The exhibition takes a scientific look at
That crystal cavern - now in the
Clockwise from left: Degas' La Coiffure, a detail of
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