immediately picked up one of my new books: Color (A Natural History of the
Palette) by Victoria Finlay. It is not a technical book, by any means; it is
anecdotal and personal, a palette, as it were, of Ms. Finlay’s journeys to the
sources of pigments: ochre from Aboriginal country, deep red from cochineal
snails in Mexico, and ultramarine from the lapis lazuli of Afghanistan.
In the introduction, she talks of
artists in 19th century England finding themselves increasingly ignorant of
where their colors came from and how they were made, unlike artists of earlier
centuries, who ground and mixed their own pigments. These “modern” artists had
little to no idea of how colors could react when they met on the canvas, and the
disasters that could quite conceivably result. Van Gogh had a painting that for
years was called “White Roses,” until museum curators realized he had used
fugitive colors, and that the white roses were originally red. (It is now
called, safely, “Roses.”)
In a later
chapter on white, she mentions the “Bloom of Youth,” white and ethereal and
angelic, achieved by 18th century ladies with the fervent application of lead
powder on their faces, which hastened their becoming truly ethereal and angelic,
after they suffered the martyrdom of brain damage and vomiting and other effects
of lead poisoning.
Before this book (I
am only on page 30 – I must sneak more time to read), I finished Beethoven’s
Hair by Russell Martin. Beethoven died deaf, dropsied, and in extreme pain. Two
Beethoven memorabilia collectors, Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara (not that
Che Guevara), bought the strands of hair in a locket, memento mori, and
triggered an investigation into how the hair made its way through the centuries,
and enthusiastically collaborated with scientists to uncover further leads on
Beethoven lived and died. To this end the collectors sacrificed several strands
of Beethoven’s hair to DNA and isotope testing.
His hair apparently had 90 to 120 times
more lead than the control sample.