Cultural Cocktail Hour
Top Pick: “Revolution of the Palette” at the Norton Simon Museum
A Touch of the Blues
By Leticia Marie Sanchez
This week two complementary exhibitions opened at the Norton Simon Museum of Art: Fragonard’s Enterprise: the Artist and the Literature of Travel and the Revolution of the Palette. Although both exhibitions proved stunning (and sublimely curated) this review will focus on the Revolution of the Palette, an exhibition that reveals the power of color, specifically the color blue.
This vivid exhibition sheds light on the nuances of different shades of blue paint, providing insight about their historical origins. Did you know that ultramarine was derived from Lapis Lazuli, a rare semiprecious gemstone mined almost exclusively in Afghanistan in the 6th century and imported to Europe through Venice?
The expensive true blue ultramarine can be viewed in the sumptuous cloth in Paul Liégeois’ Still Life, Mid 17th Century.
French, 17th century
Oil on canvas
29 x 38-3/8 in. (73.7 x 97.5 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation
© Norton Simon Art Foundation
Prussian Blue was discovered in an accidental experiment by Heinreich Diesbach in the 18th century.
In Edgar Degas’ The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin), one can observe not only Prussian Blue, but a plethora of shades in the robes of the crowd, including Cobalt Blue and Synthetic Ultramarine.
The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin), 1861-62; Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas 59 x 81-1/2 in. (149.9 x 207.0 cm) The Norton Simon Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon F.1983.06.P © The Norton Simon Foundation
Another facet to the exhibit included displays of palettes, color arranged spontaneously for Plein Air painting versus methodically organized on the palette for traditional painting. The display cases also contained tubes showcasing the different types of blue paint so one could view their strengths and weaknesses first hand.
More museums should follow suit of this illuminating exhibit, using exhibitions as a forum to uncover the techniques of painting, demystifying the process, unlocking the mystery of the finished product. How fast does the paint dry? How strong are the paints themselves? How expensive were they? All of these effect the outcome of the paintings we see hanging on the walls of august museums centuries later, and in, fact, often determine which paintings make it to posterity.
If you do attend the exhibit, make sure to read the placard describing the technique behind the stunning, transcendent work of Jules Dupre, Large Trees at Water’s Edge, the dexterous manipulation of various shades of blue: Prussian, Cerulean, Cobalt, and Synthetic Ultramarine. The placard next to the painting described in detail the skill that prevented this evocative atmospheric portrait of stillness from becoming “a dark, muddy mess.” How did the painter avoid a catastrophic crack in his work?
Large Trees at Water’s Edge, c.1865; Jules Dupré; Oil on canvas; 38 x 30 in. (96.5 x 76.2 cm); The Norton Simon Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon
© The Norton Simon Foundation
Now that I have visited the Revolution of the Palette, my eyes will be on the lookout for the Blues in whatever gallery I may find myself. As Marcel Proust observed, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Armed with new insights about color, one can see new paintings as well as old favorites in a whole new light.