Color in Nature and Color in Art

Color in Nature and Color in Art

Sven Dupre

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Cornelis de Heem, Still Life with Parrots, Basket of Fruits and Flowers, Oil on Canvas, ca. 1660/70. @courtesy De Jonckheere Gallery.

"For the causes and essences of color are as disputed, and obscure to the intellect, as they are themselves manifest to sight."
(Julius Caesar Scaliger, Exotericarum Exercitationum, 325.)

Within the seventeenth century a huge epistemic shift led to a revised understanding of color in nature and color in art. At the same time that radical changes occurred in theories of vision, matter, and the sensible qualities, artists and scientists shared an interest in colors as paint or natural phenomena. At the end of the sixteenth century, for example, natural philosophy and anatomy began to interact significantly on questions of color, vision, and the eye, while anatomists and artists worked together to produce anatomical engravings and paintings. Scientists, on the other hand, visited painters in their workshops and showed interest in their practical knowledge of color preparation and color mixture. 

This project centered around the varying conceptual framework of color theory, be it in natural philosophy, medicine, chymistry, or art. The title "Color and Nature and Color in Art" both refers to distinct groups of historical actors engaged with color theory—natural scientists and artists, among others—as well as to the distinction between art and nature made within these groups. Not only was there a disciplinary interpenetration of theories about natural and artificial color and color mixing along with an exchange of practical techniques and experiences, but a significant reconceptualization of the boundary between artificial and natural color itself.