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Stories Behind Beautiful Colors in Artistic Masterpieces

Burial of Atala / Anne-Louis Girodet (1808)

Artists have experimented with color in myriad ways for centuries. As art evolved, descriptive names for colors were created, often based upon the elements used to mix them. Author Victoria Finlay has a new book to be released on November 1 entitled The Brilliant History of Color in Art. The book provides backstories of how these colors came to be named, as well as how they were made and the artists who frequently used them.

One toxic example is the color "lead white," as seen in Burial of Atala by Girodet, pictured above. Lead white was so named because it was made from lead. It was also used as a cosmetic by upper class, fashionable women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The lead makeup killed women such as Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, who died in 1760 at age 27.

Lead white was made by stacking containers of vinegar and lead and applying manure to the tops of the containers. After months of this process, the lead acetate converted to lead carbonate, eventually creating flakes of the substance. The color was frequently used in 17th century Dutch portraits.


Read ten more (abbreviated) backstories of beautiful colors in art here. Finlay's book, with the stories in full, can be purchased here. 


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