The Woman Who Theorized Color: An Introduction to Mary Gartside’s New Theory of Colours (1808)

“I shall only say that those ladies who study the rules of the art, secure a nev­er-ceas­ing source of plea­sure to them­selves, which is always at their own com­mand.… while those who pur­sue the prac­ti­cal part alone, can make no progress when­ev­er their teacher or copy is with­drawn.” 

The his­to­ry of col­or the­o­ry is a sto­ry we tell based on avail­able facts. Like many his­to­ries, it has most­ly been a sto­ry by and about men. Isaac New­ton’s exper­i­ments with optics inspired the broad­er inquiry. Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe’s 1810 The­o­ry of Col­ors set a stan­dard — visu­al­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly — for books about col­or in the fol­low­ing cen­turies. A series of less­er-known names sur­round them, to the founders of col­or monop­o­list Pan­tone and beyond.

Maybe the sto­ry would be dif­fer­ent if Mary Gart­side’s work had been more read­i­ly avail­able to her con­tem­po­raries and suc­ces­sors. Gart­side, an Eng­lish water­col­or teacher and painter of botan­i­cal sub­jects, pub­lished An Essay on Light and Shade in 1805, and an expand­ed edi­tion, An Essay on a New The­o­ry of Colours in 1808. The obscure study con­sti­tutes “one of the rarest and most unusu­al books about col­or ever pub­lished,” says Alexan­dra Loske, cura­tor at Brighton’s Roy­al Pavil­ion and her­self a his­to­ri­an of col­or.

Loske found that Gart­side is “one of the only nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry women to have com­posed ‘the­o­ret­i­cal trea­tis­es on colour,’ ” as Pub­lic Domain Review writes, “near­ly a cen­tu­ry before Emi­ly Noyes Van­der­poel pub­lished her Col­or Prob­lems (1902).”

Gart­side wrote in con­ver­sa­tion with New­ton and in cri­tique of “eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry the­o­ries pro­posed by Ger­ard de Lairesse and William Her­schel.” Gart­side’s book antic­i­pates Goethe and James Sower­by’s 1809 A New Elu­ci­da­tion of Colours and draws “par­al­lel con­clu­sions” about “the eye of the behold­er as the cen­tre and ori­gin of colour per­cep­tion.”

Gart­side dressed her phi­los­o­phy in what Ann Berming­ham calls “the very mod­esty of the genre” of water­col­or paint­ing guides, the writ­ing of which con­sti­tut­ed a respectable out­let for women, where crit­i­cal thought was not. The author ges­tures toward this state of affairs in her intro­duc­tion, stat­ing that she does not “offer my opin­ion unasked,” and not­ing emphat­i­cal­ly she can only teach “to the best of my knowl­edge.” Her knowl­edge turns out to be con­sid­er­able. More­over, Pub­lic Domain Review writes, her “hand col­ored illus­tra­tions for the Essay, unique to each vol­ume, have been deemed some of the ear­li­er exam­ples of abstrac­tion in paint­ing.”

Indeed, Gart­side’s detailed instruc­tions on the prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion of the­o­ry seem to presage the abstrac­tions of Vasi­ly Kandin­sky, who brought his per­son­al meta­physics to the for­mu­lae in the 1923 book Con­cern­ing the Spir­i­tu­al in ArtUnlike the Roman­tics of her time — and like the Mod­ernists of two hun­dred years lat­er — Gart­side de-empha­sized indi­vid­ual genius while stress­ing the impor­tance of the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing. Only through a knowl­edge of col­or the­o­ry and psy­chol­o­gy, she writes bold­ly, could one achieve “com­mand” of the art and make it their own, as she sure­ly did in her illus­tra­tions. Joseph Litts points out in an essay for Mate­r­i­al Mat­ters:

Gart­side used her medi­um of water­col­or paint­ing to engage with con­tem­po­rary debates on col­or. Her under­stand­ing of col­or and col­or the­o­ry is the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion of her book. She recasts both Isaac Newton’s the­o­ry of pris­mat­ic col­or and Sir William Herschel’s the­o­ry of radi­al col­or by cre­at­ing a “col­or ball” that wraps the chro­mat­ic prism into a con­tin­u­al spec­trum. Such a col­or ball antic­i­pates Goethe’s attempts to put col­or into wheels, a shift from ear­li­er grid rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

Though Gart­side would not claim the man­tle of genius for her­self or her read­ers (and she avoids fuzzy talk of inspi­ra­tion, the mus­es, and so forth), we may place her con­fi­dent­ly in the com­pa­ny of great col­or the­o­rists and illus­tra­tors. And we might also see how her work shows an approach not tak­en, or not tak­en until a cou­ple cen­turies lat­er.

“There is no oth­er exam­ple of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of colour sys­tems,” Loske writes, “that is as inven­tive and rad­i­cal as Gart­side’s colour blots.” Learn more about Loske’s dis­cov­ery of Gart­side’s work in Kel­ly Grover’s BBC essay “The Women Who Rede­fined Colour.” See more of Gart­side’s water­col­ors at the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Vision­ary 115-Year-Old Col­or The­o­ry Man­u­al Returns to Print: Emi­ly Noyes Vanderpoel’s Col­or Prob­lems

The Vibrant Col­or Wheels Designed by Goethe, New­ton & Oth­er The­o­rists of Col­or (1665–1810)

Goethe’s Col­or­ful & Abstract Illus­tra­tions for His 1810 Trea­tise, The­o­ry of Col­ors: Scans of the First Edi­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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