Color and Aesthetics

Color and Aesthetics in Eighteenth-century Mineralogy 

Allison Ksiazkiewicz

According to followers of René Haüy (1743–1822), minerals were classified according to basic crystallized shapes, and for mineralogical geologists the structure of the Earth was understood through the interpretation of these basic elements.  Mineralogists and geologists appropriated different forms of inquiry such as art and architecture to help them wrestle with the natural and artificial aspects that informed their scientific sensibilities. The relationship between humanity and Nature, as debated in philosophical and artistic circles, paralleled the conceptualization of relationships between parts and whole within the Earth sciences. The role of color in artistic and scientific theory that informed taxonomies for rocks and minerals in both artificial and natural systems of knowledge was a particular interest of this project. Two main questions shaped the project's objectives: how did aesthetic sensibilities circulate and affect the transmission of knowledge, and what aesthetics informed the classification and interpretation of mineralogical and geological specimens? By focusing on networks of communication and the exchange of ideas between art and mineralogical theories, the aims of this research are discussed in concrete and practical terms.

The mineral collections of Sir Charles Greville (1749–1809), Sir John St Aubyn (1758–1839), and Sir Abraham Hume (1749–1838) functioned as a case study for considering these larger research questions. Greville had many ties to artistic and scientific circles: he was a member of the Society of Dilettanti, a patron of the arts, and had an exceptional mineralogical collection at the time of his death. St Aubyn was likewise a patron of the arts—friend John Opie was a pallbearer at his funeral—and he actively promoted the sciences, in particular mineralogy. Hume was a member of several scientific societies in London, including the Royal Society. He was also a member of both the Society of Dilettanti and the Society of Antiquaries. Each of these gentlemen of taste was an influential figure in artistic and scientific communities and commissioned the mineralogist and French émigré Comte de Bournon (1751–1825) to catalog their respective mineral cabinets.  Using this group of individuals, this project investigated the affect of art, taste, and aesthetics in the organization of their mineral collections and the meaning of these aesthetic sensibilities within the Earth sciences.

Mineral cabinets present a new subject of investigation for my research, and it extended Allison Ksiazkiewicz' completed doctoral dissertation that examined how neoclassical aesthetics shaped geological inquiry in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. Architectural theory, linear styles of drawing, color theory, and philosophies of art and perception were topics that Ksiazkiewicz examined to demonstrate how art directly influenced the practice of geology. The historical actors studied were canonical figures in the history of the Geological Society of London: George Bellas Greenough, John MacCulloch (1773–1835), Thomas Webster (1772–1844), and Humphry Davy (1778–1829), for instance. As public figures, their cultural outputs were predominantly scientific in nature. The object of Ksiazkiewicz' dissertation focused on how this community visualized and articulated the structure of the earth and the geological landscape, and while she successfully located the historical actors within larger cultural debates about the meaning of pictorial representation, the dissertation on the whole remained broadly theoretical in argument. The examples of Greville, St Aubyn, and Hume provided new ground on which to apply her research questions because each were invested in both the arts and sciences. Each patronized the arts and had well-renowned mineral collections. That Bournon cataloged all three collections provided an excellent opportunity to examine the exchanges between art and science, with a particular focus on color, that affected the meaning of the mineral object and its classification.