by Laura Ann Kalba. Penn State University Press, May 2017. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9780271077000 (h/c), $84.95.
Reviewed November 2017
In Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art, Laura Ann Kalba, associate professor of art at Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts), presents the reader with an interdisciplinary and fresh look at the history of, and fascination with, color in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. The author employs a broad range of primary source documents and contemporary French publications to build her analysis of the impact of color-making technologies on the visual culture of this time and place. She begins with the mid-century discovery of synthetic dyes and how they revolutionized not only the textile industry but also opened the door to allow color to enhance many other aspects of modern French life. Colorful and vibrant women’s fashion, flowers (both real and artificial), fireworks, and chromolithographic posters are presented as evidence of a public that enjoyed the novelty of color and had grown to expect it. The sketchbooks, letters, public statements, and art of Impressionists, namely Monet, Degas, and Renoir, are used to help the reader understand the phenomenon of color and to prove that these three influential men were active participants in the increasingly modern world around them. They pictured everyday life but were also a part of it.
Unique among books related to art, support for Kalba’s original historical approach comes primarily from science, business, and industry. For example, in chapter two, “From Blue Roses to Yellow Violets: Flowers and the Cultivation of Color,” the author uses catalogs and advertisements of seed sellers, gardening manuals, and articles in popular science journals to support her statements related to floriculture. In only a single chapter does the author devote extended space to consider how Monet, Degas, Renoir, and their art specifically influenced and were influenced by the color revolution happening in their country. New interpretations of Impressionist art coexist alongside previous ones and demonstrate how the author’s range of sources allow today’s viewers to see these works through a distinctly French nineteenth-century lens.
As one would expect, this book is richly illustrated in full color. Front matter includes a list of illustrations. At the back, an index, extensive endnotes, and a valuable bibliography round out the text. The interdisciplinary approach of this book will appeal to art historians and historians alike and may also be of interest to those studying French culture. It is recommended for all art libraries and main libraries at the college level.