Considerations on Color

I teach what is commonly known as the “Scientific Revolution” in several of my courses, and I always endeavor to expose my students to the broad range of the “new science” in the seventeenth century as they tend to have a very narrow view of what this revolution entailed. We come to the topic from very different perspectives: for them, it’s all about the heliocentric universe (conception, proof, acceptance? I’m not sure which); for me, it’s about nothing less than a new conception of truth and a new methodology of inquiry. To demonstrate its truly revolutionary impact, I stress the universality of this methodology by exposing them to the range and variety of “ingenious pursuits”, encompassing everything from botany to medicine to chemistry to mechanics to navigation and from the theoretical to the practical. I’m a bit more interested in the latter–and that’s what I’m studying during this sabbatical–but sometimes it’s hard to separate the two approaches: a case in point is Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colourswhich was first published in 1664. Boyle is primarily known for his pioneering work in chemistry and physics, but his interests were varied: like his contemporary Isaac Newton, he also experimented with alchemy. As its title indicates, Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours consists of experiments and observations which “enquire seriously into the Nature of Colours, and assist in the investigation of it [them]”, and his empirical data consists of examples of craftsmen creating color, including the English dyers who had perfected the process of transforming a red acid extracted from the American cochineal insect into scarlet and crimson dyes: and voilà, Redcoats! (Well a bit later). It is these intersections of “science”, industry and art that really demonstrate the spirit of inquiry in the seventeenth century.

COnsiderations of Color

Wright, John Michael, 1617-1694; Mary Fairfax, Duchess of BuckinghamFirst edition of the Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour, 1664, Skinner Auctions; The Duchess of Buckingham with her crimson wrap, after 1659, York Museums Trust.

Just two years later, Robert Waller, another fellow of the Royal Society (which we should remember was very interested in technology as well as theoretical science) published a really cool color chart in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. As you can read below, Waller had seen a “table of simple colors” some years previous but was resolved to “give a more philosophical and useful one by the addition of some mixt colors”. The vocabulary is similar to that of medicines–simple and compound–and like materia medica, everything was composed from nature but man was starting to amplify the process of production—or creation.

Creating Colors Waller 2

Creating Color Waller

Color Chart 1686Robert Weller, Tabula colorum physiologica (Table of Physiological Colors), Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1666.

And then there is the remarkable Dutch manuscript brought to (internet) light by the book historian Erik Kwakkel a few years ago containing a “proto-Pantone” code of colors: the Treatise on Colors for Water Painting (1692) by A. Boogert. A single and singular copy forgotten and full of the most amazing colors and color compositions, this book set the design world on fire back in 2014—understandably so.


Color Chart 1690sA. Boogert, Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque municipale/Bibliothèque Méjanes, MS 1389 (1228). Photographs by Erik Kwakkel.

6 responses to “Considerations on Color

  • M.P.

    Oh!!!!! Another one of your excellent postings. Are you on top or what? I love your postings and work. While today I am dedicated to numbers (engineer) it brings back memories from high school when some teachers (like you) “made it all fly”. Just super!!!

  • Anton Christiansen

    Check out Werner’s nomenclature of colours by P. Syme. Published a bit later in 1821 but Darwin used it to discribe colours in nature while on his beagle voyage.

  • Carol J. Perry

    I have a file on ideas for a future book (when I have time from writing my mystery series) which involves the use of murex for creating purple in biblical days. Any suggestions for sources of information?

  • Brian Bixby

    One of the more interesting works I’ve read in recent years was “The Secrets of Alchemy” (2013) by Lawrence M. Principe, a chemist and historian of science, which attempts to trace how alchemy worked in both theoretical and practical terms, and the intellectual development in the Elnightenment that ultimately split the field into chemistry and alchemy. Some of your students might find it interesting, too.

    • daseger

      You know you’re right, Brian–that might be a good text for undergraduates. Thank you! Usually I teach early modern science merely as a topic in other courses, Ren. and Ref, early modern, witch trials, etc… but I have a new course which I have never taught before called Science and Society in EM Europe and I’m developing that syllabus over my sabbatical–sounds like this book might work well.

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