With commentary as elegant as the images are sumptuous, The Brilliant History of Color in Art (Getty, $24.95) shows its own brilliance in myriad ways. Just as “color” indicates a spectrum of shades, its history charts the courses of changing technologies, surfaces, materials, and images. Telling a broad story of culture, Victoria Finlay, author of the classic Color: A Natural History of the Palette, ranges from caves to cathedrals to iPads, soot and chalk to synthetic paints and digital pixels, revealing the origins and uses of pigments. Along the way, she leaves a trail of fascinating facts, like—well, bread crumbs, which were the original erasers for pencils. She also introduces the people behind the names, such as Benjamin Day, whose namesake dots animate comics. And the iconic blue of the Virgin Mary’s robes? The color came not from Biblical associations but from the valuable pigment of lapis. But working with colors has always been like playing with fire; to get a basic manganese black required heating rocks to 1650 degrees F. The most luminous white entailed the risks of working with lead, while Scheele’s green contained arsenic—the cause of several deaths and suspected (it was in his bedroom wallpaper) in Napoleon’s. Yet colors also soothe the soul, and it’s telling that medieval and Renaissance artists got their pigments from apothecaries, color and medicine sharing the same ingredients.
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