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Design History Illustration Science

Nature's Palette: A New Book Expands the Landmark Guide to Color for Artists and Naturalists with 800 Rich Illustrations

April 8, 2021

Grace Ebert

All images © Thames & Hudson, shared with permission

Prior to the proliferation of photography-based reference guides, naturalists and scientists relied on elaborate taxonomic descriptions to identify flora and fauna. One of those invaluable materials was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a universal catalog originally arranged by German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1814 and updated with more detail by Patrick Syme just a few years later.

The rich volume, which was the preeminent guide for artists, zoologists, botanists, and others working with pigments and the natural world throughout the 19th Century, is filled with hundreds of simple swatches and notes on where the various shades can be found around the globe. The head of a golden pheasant, for example, is King’s Yellow, while Hepatica flowers are Berlin Blue and some speckles in iron ore are Greyish Blue.

A forthcoming volume published by Princeton University Press celebrates the 200th anniversary of the chromatic catalog with a 288-page expanded edition. Introduced by Patrick Baty, Nature’s Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World pairs Syme’s 110 simple swatches with more than 800 illustrations of the animals, plants, and minerals detailed in the descriptions. The resulting book is a comprehensive visual compendium that ranges from large renderings of red coral to full-page charts spanning fine-grained marble to smoky quartz.

Nature’s Palette is currently available for pre-order on Bookshop. (via Creative Boom)

 

Deliciae naturae selectae, Vol. 1, Georg Wolfgang Knorr, 1766. Red coral

Johann Gottlob Kurr, The Mineral Kingdom, 1859. Greyish Blue is visible on the iron ore (bottom row, right)

 

 



Art History

A Van Gogh Painting Has Been Unveiled for the First Time Since It Was Painted in 1887

March 8, 2021

Grace Ebert

“Street scene in Montmartre (Impasse des Deux Frères and the Pepper Mill)” (1887), oil on canvas,  46.1 x 61.3 centimeters. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

After spending more than a century in a private collection, one of Vincent van Gogh’s artworks has been shown to the public for the first time since the Dutch artist painted it in the spring of 1887. “Street scene in Montmartre (Impasse des Deux Frères and the Pepper Mill)” depicts a couple walking on a windy day in front of an entertainment hub in Paris. Full of color and vitality, the landscape marks van Gogh’s turn to his distinctive Impressionist style.

Prior to being put up for auction, only a small, black-and-white photograph taken in 1972 existed of the painting that’s reminiscent of some of the artist’s other works. The lively street is thought to be the same as that in “Impasse des Deux Frères,” which currently hangs at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and similarly depicts a mill and flags promoting the cabaret and bar through the gates. According to The Art Newspaper, there’s speculation about how the family obtained “Street scene in Montmartre,” considering many of van Gogh’s artworks at the time were gifted to his brother, Theo.

Pending COVID-19 precautions, the work is slated for short exhibitions in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and Paris throughout March.

 

 



History Science

Researchers Digitally Unfold a Renaissance-Era Letter Using X-Ray Technology

March 4, 2021

Grace Ebert

A 3D rendering of the letter as it unfolds. All images via Unlocking History Research Group archive

Three centuries after it was penned, the contents hidden inside a Renaissance-era letter plucked from a trunk at The Hague are finally readable. The correspondence, which we now know was likely spurred by questions about an inheritance, was part of a larger collection of nearly 600 letterlocked notes, a complex method that involves meticulously folding, rolling, tucking, and adhering the paper into its own envelope. Prior to the advent of other sealing practices, this security measure ensured that no one transporting the note became privy to its contents.

According to an article in Nature, a group of MIT researchers, who work as Unlocking History, digitally unraveled the letter, which otherwise would have to be opened by cutting through the paper, damaging the object and potentially leaving it unreadable. Instead, they employed a particularly sensitive X‐ray microtomography scanner designed for dental practices, including mapping the exact mineral content of teeth. After scanning the paper, researchers constructed 3D models alongside an algorithm built to determine specific folding patterns, allowing them to open the note without physically altering the artifact.

Dated July 31, 1697, the letter contained a request for a death certificate from a man named Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, who lived at The Hague. “His request issued, Sennacques then spends the rest of the letter asking for news of the family and commending his cousin to the graces of God,” researchers said. “We do not know exactly why Le Pers did not receive Sennacques’ letter, but given the itinerancy of merchants, it is likely that Le Pers had moved on.” It’s unclear why this letter or the hundreds of others, which are written in Dutch, English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, never reached their recipients.

Head to Vimeo to watch Unlocking History unfold replicas of infamous and fictional correspondence—the collection spans from Mary Queen of Scots to Harry Potter to Beethoven—and dive further into the practice on the group’s site, where you’ll find folding guides, a lengthy history, and an entire archive of discreet missives. (via Science Alert)

Update: This article originally stated that the letter was written six centuries ago, not three.

The scanned letter from July 31, 1697

Digital rendering of the letter as it unfolds

The trunk at The Hague that contains hundreds of letterlocked notes

 

 



History

Archaeologists Uncover a Lavish Marble Floor from Ancient Rome in Southern France

March 3, 2021

Grace Ebert

Image © Bertrand Houix, Inrap . All images courtesy of Inrap, shared with permission

Developers of an apartment building in Nîmes, France, had to halt construction last month when archaeologists discovered an opulent tiled floor that once blanketed a Roman villa, or domu. Dating back to 1-2 A.D., the checkered design is comprised of marble from multiple empirical provinces that’s inlaid into the foundation, a style called opus sectile that was prevalent during ancient times. Spanning multiple feet, the multi-colored pattern is thought to occupy what once was a reception area.

During their dig, archaeologists also uncovered plaster sheets that had caved in on the impeccably preserved tiles featuring classic frescoes on red and black panels. Lines score the back of the decorative pieces, which would have helped them adhere to the earthen walls. Other findings indicate that this domu, along with another nearby, were particularly lavish and featured a private bath, a concrete floor speckled with decorative gemstones, and a large central fountain made from Carrara white marble. One room even had remains of hypocaust heating, an inventive system that sent hot air underneath the flooring to warm the home. (via The History Blog)

 

Image © Charlotte Gleize, Inrap

Sheets of decorative plaster covering the tile floor. Image © Pascal Druelle, Inrap

Image © Pascal Druelle, Inrap

Two rooms of the domu, with evidence of the heating system on the left. Image © Charlotte Gleize, Inrap

Marble gemstones decorate the concrete floor. Image © Bertrand Houix, Inrap

 

 



Art Documentary History

'Black Art: In the Absence of Light,' a New Documentary, Celebrates the Rich Legacy of Black Art

February 17, 2021

Grace Ebert

“I saw the need to build cultural awareness by helping to revise and redefine American art,” says the renowned professor, artist, and curator David Driskell in Black Art: In the Absence of Light. His words echo throughout the new HBO documentary—which was directed by Sam Pollard, with executive producers Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jacqueline Glover—that uncovers the rich and underappreciated lineage of Black art.

Structured chronologically, the feature-length film was released earlier this month and stems from Driskell’s revolutionary exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened in 1979 at LACMA and surveyed more than 200 works dating back to 1750 from 63 artists. The formative show went on to major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, breaking attendance records despite its unenthusiastic response from some critics and institutions, including two in Chicago and Detroit that rejected its visit entirely.

 

David Driskell in his studio

Two Centuries of Black American Art, though, had a widespread and profound impact, which the documentary explores through interviews with artists working today. Many conversations begin with Driskell, who died last April from the coronavirus before Black Art‘s release. The film probes a vast archive from Chicago artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Theaster Gates (previously), alongside Amy Sherald (previously), Kehinde Wiley (previously), and Jordan Casteel, among others.

Through a multi-generational lens, the documentary examines the nuanced effects of these figures’ contributions to the broader field of contemporary American art as it shares footage of their practices and reactions to their works. For example, Fred Wilson unveils what’s hidden within museum collections, while Wiley and Sherald both comment on the profound experience of painting the Obamas’ official portraits. Additional insights from Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who also is a consulting producer, are woven throughout the film.

 

Amy Sherald working on Michelle Obama’s portrait

Beyond galleries and museums, much of Black Art centers on the value of representation and unearthing a narrative that’s been obscured or outright dismissed. In particular, it considers the role of collectives like Sprial, which was founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis in order to highlight the work generated by Black artists in the Civil Rights Movement. While Sprial drew attention to otherwise ignored projects, it was largely dominated by men, a problem Faith Ringgold speaks to as she describes being rejected from the group. Sprial only admitted one woman, Emma Amos.

The final segment focuses on the importance of collectors investing in Black artists, in addition to the long history of spaces like Studio Museum and historically Black colleges and universities. These institutions continue to foster communities that honor the legacy of those who’ve come before while backing those forging new ground, prompting questions like this one from Theaster Gates: “We are part of a continued renaissance—it’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is, do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light?”

Black Art is streaming on HBO Max through March 17. Educators also can download a coinciding curriculum with research tools and discussion prompts, in addition to another filled with activities designed to spur creativity.

 

Kerry James Marshall in his studio

 

 



Art History

This Warty Pig Painting Is Thought To Be the Oldest Cave Art in the World

January 14, 2021

Grace Ebert

Deep within Leang Tedongnge, a cave tucked away on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, archaeologists discovered this mulberry-hued painting of a warty pig and two hand silhouettes potentially belonging to the artist, which is now believed to be the oldest figurative work in the world. A study published in Science Advances this week says the impeccably preserved rendering is at least 45,500 years old, which predates previously discovered depictions of mythical creatures in the region. Those prior findings date back about 43,900 years.

Questions remain about the exact age of the work and who made it. Archaeologists from Griffith University, who helmed the mission, utilized uranium-series dating to determine how old the speleothem, or mineral deposits, of the cave is rather than the actual painting. There’s also debate about whether modern humans are responsible for the renderings, a question that’s complicated by the fact that the only skeletal remains that date back at least 45,500 years in Sulawesi belong to early hominins.

Dr. Adam Brumm, who co-authored the study, told The New York Times that researchers expect to discover similar artworks in the region, although the cave paintings are deteriorating at a rapid rate and could fade before they’re ever uncovered. “It is very worrying, and given the current situation the end result is likely to be the eventual destruction of this ice age Indonesian art, perhaps even within our lifetime,” Brumm said.