11 May 2011

From alizarine to vermilion: color history

The book cover features a box of Foinet artist's pastels, c. 1930.

The production of dyes and pigments for use on textiles has had a huge influence on human events, yet conventional histories largely ignore this thread (pun intended.) "Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments" is a profusely-illustrated book that travels from 40,000-year-old painted caves in France to the chemistry cartels of Germany, weaving a fascinating tale conflating commerce, industry and art.

There are many examples of the impact of consumer demand for better textile colorants on world history. For instance, while it was a British chemist who invented the first commercially exploitable synthetic dye, cheap labor in the British colonies continued to prop up the use of natural dyes for textiles. Germany, which had come late to the table as a colonial power, sought solutions in industry, and in their search for domestically-produced pigments German chemists helped invent the field of organic chemistry. By 1904, Germany was exporting massive amounts of synthetic indigo, to the detriment of colonial India and the ports of France; as the books states, "many markets were lost to German chemistry".

Indigo dyer at work.
The British established an agricultural
monoculture of indigo in India.

British chemist William Perkin with shawl featuring yarn
tinted with his synthetic mauveine.

There are also particularly fascinating sections on color in medieval iconography, the toxicity of some early pigments, and the emergence of chromatics, the science of color and perception.

This book is the nearest approximation of an economic and cultural history of textile pigments and dyes that I've found to date, and has excellent production values, a good index and appendices of primary documents and further reading.

Nuts and bolts info: authors Francois Delamare and Bernard Gu
ineau; ISBN 0-8109-2872-8.