View from Capital in Nashville, TN during the Civil War, 1864

Black & Brown.  In our study of Victoria Finlay’s book Color: Travels Through the Paintbox, these are the only colors which are combined into a single chapter.  Finlay combines them because black and brown are used to complement images similarly, ultimately causing a lighter focus to come into play...always.  I find it interesting that even in nature, the effect of dark brings attention to the light.  

Nineteenth-century Impressionists were of the belief that “there is no black in nature.  Monet seldom used dark colors in his work, but did so in his painting of a train station entitled Gare Saint-Lazare.  Here, a light smoky fog is framed by the hard black lines of the train station’s roof-top, and the shadows of dark trains and unknown crowds of people below; the artist completes his purpose of his rarely-used black in setting a backboard for light: out of the dark framework, the eye is drawn to not only the lighter aspects of the picture, but to a skylight, as well.  And as if rebelling against black, Monet reportedly used almost no actual black color at all, but rather blends of “bright vermilion red, French ultramarine blue and emerald green,” as the writer states.  And so Monet presents through color his philosophy that the world is made of color, not darkness, by using “black” to accentuate the light.  

In a Western Classical legend, the first color was black and the first artist female.  The storyteller, Pliny the Elder, “told a story of the how the origin of art was found in epic love,” says Finlay.  She continues on with, “According to Pliny one of the first artists was a young woman in the town of Corinth in Greece who one evening was weepily saying goodbye to her lover before he set out on a long journey.  Suddenly, between impassioned embraces, she noticed his shadow on the wall, cast by the light of a candle.  So spontaneously, she reached out for a piece of charcoal from the fire and filled in the pattern.”  Finlay implies that this legend may have inspired the Georgians and Victorians fascination with “cut-paper silhouettes and stories of desperate love.”

Charcoal has been a staple of black and white paintings.  One very interesting source for charcoal is roasted willow branch, discovered by accident when P.H. Coate’s, whose successful wicker business was declining, fell (literally) and fell ill, as well, for two months. Once, as he lay before the fireplace, he looked into the ashes and noticed “a piece of burned willow, slim and perfect.”   Willow had been used for kindling, and a good thing it was, for Mr. Coates soon discovered a new line of business.  Today, the company he started is still Britain’s main supplier of charcoal.   

Blacks and browns didn’t always have respectable sources, though.  Following charcoal, graphite, lead and kohl (from the metal antimony), a more controversial material was found to be effective in color: ground mummies.  Mommia or “mummy” was made of dead egyptians, parts usually gathered by the hands of English travelers visiting mass Egyptian graves.  Mummia was a very popular source of black beginning in 1586.  What possessed a person to grind up ancient body parts in favor of a better painting, I could never guess, though it was in great demand for some time.  In Paris in 1712 an artist’s store called “A la Momie” opened shop.  In 1691 William Salmon who was a “Professor of Physick” presented the public with a substitute recipe for “mummia” should anyone ever run out, though the source for this method of replacement seems even darker, and suggests using the freshly dead body, not killed by disease. thank you!  We’ll stick to coal, graphite and the like.

The chapter ends on a note of cheer with a story from Rudyard Kipling, one of our favorite writers, which can also be found in his autobiography Something of Myself.  As a child, he spent Decembers with his Aunt Georgy and her Pre-Raphaelite artist husband, Sir Edward Burne-Jones in London.  It was a magical place for the children, filled with “wonderful smells of paints and turpentine whiffing down from the big studio on the first floor,” and “pictures finished or half finished of lovely colours.”  Kipling describes one day in December when his uncle descended the steps of his studio with “Mummy Brown” in hand, “saying he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs and we must bury it accordingly.  So we all went out and helped - according to the rites of Mizaim and Memphis, I hope - and to this day I could drive a spade within a food of where that tube lies.”  Choose your friends wisely...yes, and choose your paints wisely because some are really gross!        

We, no doubt, had quite a good talk about dark bringing out the light as we discussed the God of Light.  Throughout the Bible, with much darkness surrounding at times, light is the ultimate beauty.  From the beginning of time God separated the light and the dark (Gen. 1:4), as darkness had been covering the surfaces.  That was his second act in creating the world; “Let there be light,” (Gen 1:3) was His first.  And ever since He has been showing us out of the darkness with his light.    


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