#17 Color (Spring 2024)

Color has been at the center of artistic debates at least since the seventeenth century, and it has remained a key issue in the historiography of art. Recent research has largely pursued two directions. First, color has been studied as a material substance and a technology. Scholars have documented the relation between technological, industrial, and commercial developments and the quality, range, and availability of pigments and colorants available to artists, manufacturers, and consumers. A second approach has focused on the key role of color in the construction of social, racial, colonial, and gender hierarchies. Recent scholarship has revealed the intimate connection between aesthetic debates on chroma and the development of the modern discourse of race. The eighteenth century’s feminization of color, linked to make-up and artifice, has also been reexamined. Clearly, it is no longer viable to think of color or its materials, technologies, and processes in purely aesthetic, ideologically innocent terms. This issue of Journal18 considers what is at stake now in reconsidering color in its historical dimensions by bringing these two lines of research together.

The four articles and two notes in this issue explore how the current interest in materiality and the matter of art might be harnessed to alter—enrich, complicate, or challenge—our understanding of the historical functions and socio-cultural meanings of color in the long eighteenth century. Several of the authors explore how color, as both the physical product and sign of colonial and slave economies, expanding empires, and growing global trade networks, morphed and evolved to meet new needs. Andrea Feeser’s essay considers the origins and resonances of the materials used by Josiah Wedgwood to produce different versions of his 1787 Antislavery Medallion. Bringing to the fore the invisible histories and uses of unaker (Cherokee white clay), red clay, basalt, and jasper, and thereby revealing these materials’ layered cultural associations, Feeser complicates how the medallion conveyed abolitionist ideals.

Attending to color’s circulation in the space of empire, Caroline Culp’s essay on the portraits of John Singleton Copley explores how his peripheral position within the British empire shaped his relationship with pigments. Culp argues that, with only monochromatic prints and textual descriptions to guide his artistic education in America, Copley developed distinct methods of preparing and employing color in his portraits as he sought to overcome geographic distance. She proposes that the unusual qualities of his portraits—unblended colors, saturated hues, crisp outlines—stemmed from his position, which, by limiting his access to models and traditional training, fostered a unique desire to animate his sitters through color.

Exploring the issue of how colored materials­­ served as both tools of animation and a means to delineate cultural difference, Tong Su brings to life the complex use of color within taxidermy at the eighteenth-century Qing court. Drawing our attention to the fascinating and hitherto understudied preserved animal products in the Chinese imperial collection, she reveals color’s essential role in revitalizing these complex constructions, which merged artificial and natural components, domestic and imported materials, and traditional artisanal knowledge with European mechanical expertise. Su proposes that color helped transform these assemblages into manifestations of imperial power by bridging these distinct practices and thereby demonstrating the reach of the Qing court.

How the discussion of color as a substance may unearth its polyvalent ideological and discursive functions is also at issue in Melissa Hyde’s discussion of Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s pastel portrait of Oliver Journu (1756). Representing a member of a Bordelais family that made its fortune in the fabrication of sugar, Perronneau deploys a range of pink hues to render the sitter’s body and elegant attire. By bringing the Journu family’s involvement in colonial trade to bear on the portrait, Hyde breaks the spell of its seemingly innocent refinement. The pink satin suit is not simply a token of the sitter’s elite aspirations but becomes an involuntary sign of his entanglement in the colonial economy. Journu’s pink complexion is not merely a record of his appearance but a chromatic performance of a racialized “whiteness.” By addressing the implication of Journu’s portrayal as a male subject dressed in pink, a color associated at the time with femininity, Hyde’s essay problematizes the function of color as a sign of gender’s binary conception promoted in eighteenth-century discourse.

The issue of gender is also at the core of Tori Champion’s shorter essay about the 1686 treatise on the art of painting in miniature penned by Catherine Perrot. A technical manual written by a female author who was, moreover, a member of the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Les leçons royales was a significant—and unusual—work. By publishing it, Perrot reclaimed color, traditionally a subject of male writers, as a domain of a woman’s professional expertise. Writing as an académicienne, Perrot also suggested color to be a legitimate subject of reflection within an institutional context defined by an aesthetic investment in drawing, thereby offering an alternative perspective on the history of the French Academy and the role of women within it.

Lastly, Philippe Colomban expands on the topic of color’s role in cultural exchanges and demarcations. His note explores how color’s capacity for nuance offers modern art historians a lens onto the past and its own form of archive. Drawing on extensive technical analysis of Chinese enameled objects for both domestic and export markets, Colomban documents how new materials and processes brought from Europe expanded the traditional Chinese vitreous palette, while also ushering in new technical constraints and modes of working.

Attuned to color’s mobility, the contributions to this issue look beyond Western Europe to expand traditional Eurocentric narratives. Considering the broader methodological questions raised by color’s unique ability to blend materiality with ideologies, they point to the ways in which we may continue to challenge color’s neutrality within and beyond the art historical discipline.

Issue Editors
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Harvard University
Thea Goldring, Princeton University


When Blue and White Obscure Black and Red: Conditions of Wedgwood’s 1787 Antislavery Medallion
Andrea Feeser

Embalming in Color: John Singleton Copley’s Vital Portraits at the Edge of Empire
Caroline Culp

Color in Taxidermy at the Eighteenth-Century Qing Court
Tong Su

Men in Pink: The Petit-Maître, Refined Masculinity, and Whiteness
Melissa Hyde


Catherine Perrot: Color, Gender, and Medium in the Seventeenth-Century Académie
Tori Champion

The Quest for the Western Colors in China Under the Qing Emperors
Philippe Colomban

Cover image: Illustration (detail) from [Charles Boutet], Traité de la peinture en mignature, La Haye, 1708. Image in public domain. Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library/President and Fellows of Harvard University.