The colour black is the reason why I became an art historian specialising in Netherlandish oil painting. From the backgrounds of 17th-century still-life paintings, to nocturnal representations with strong chiaroscuro and portraits of rulers dressed in fancy velvety clothes, black shades are omnipresent and mesmerizing. I always wonder: How can a colour be so deep, intense, and vibrant?
If painters could represent in painting cloths with black pigments, it means that people in the past could dye their fabrics in such dark tones. Which materials and processes can produce this colour so rare in Nature? The Museum Hof van Besleyden, in Mechelen, tries to answer these questions in the research-driven exhibition “Back to Black”. This exhibition presents some of results reached by the interdisciplinary research project ARTECHNE.
Black as a Time Machine
After walking for a while in the museum, which is dedicated to the history of Mechelen, visitors are welcomed in a small room by old portraits of Flemish dignitaries. Their elegant black clothing and severe glance remind us of the power they once held. A little further, the visitor encounters a contemporary installation consisting of long and irregular pieces of black wool suspended from the ceilings. There is a common thread between these artworks: the flaps’ colour is produced by a similar dying process to the one used five centuries earlier to dye the clothes depicted in the paintings.
This room informs us about the making of black dyes that has been transmitted in French, Dutch, German, and Italian over the centuries through recipes and through masters in artists’ workshops. The choice of Mechelen as a location for this exhibition is perfect: the city was well-known for its production of “Burgundian Black”, or “Noir de Flandres”, in the 16th century.
Artistic Process, Natural Ingredients
Objects and documents illustrate the transhistorical voyage of European knowledge regarding black colour technologies. On one side of the room, a sample book with pieces of silk, wool and linen dyed in black shows the results of (re)enactment of historical techniques learnt and tested during workshops organised as part of the ARTECHNE project. The dyed fabrics are presented together with the list of ingredients and the illustrated recipes providing these shades. The black colour offers a wide variety of nuances depending on the recipes’ components, materials’ reaction while drying, and the fabric.
On the other side of the room, jars with ingredients such as plant-based materials necessary for the experimental reconstructions of black dyes are displayed on shelves. For the 21st-century viewer, who tends to forget how and with which materials the final products sold in stores are manufactured, it is useful to remember that it originally comes from natural elements!
Recording the Making
A short movie shows footage shot during the Burgundian Black Collaboratory in Claudy Jongstra’s atelier in Friesland, where the artist has been experimenting for a long time with dying techniques involving natural ingredients. Dressed in winter clothes, participants are stirring liquids in boiling cauldrons, while other are mixing together strange ingredients. As if it were a secret rally of alchemists, apprentices follow directives of experts, artists, practitioners, and dye specialists, who master old techniques. This video provides visitors with an overview of the different steps to follow in order to obtain the results they have in front of their eyes. Moreover, this recording reminds us that the success of a recipe does not only rely upon one’s ability to understand textual sources, but also on the discussions with knowledgeable and experimented people, as participants described in previous posts.
Touching Black Stuff
The curators offered visitors the thrilling opportunity to touch objects in the museum. On a table, pieces of black fabrics invite them to give their opinion about the final products by manipulating the samples and filling a questionnaire. Viewers can decide which textile looks and feels the most expensive, elegant, or beautiful. This interaction between people and objects in the context of a museum provides an agreeable feeling of playing a role in the research. Alongside, visitors can write down on paper cards some concepts that they associate with ‘black’ to create a contemporary overview of the collective imagination connected to this colour.
Binding Together Academic Research and Public Institutions
For those who find academic research difficult to grasp, bringing the results of interdisciplinary projects into a museum builds bridges between public institutions and academia. Moreover, it highlights the importance of collaborating with different protagonists of the art world, such as art historians, artists, artisans, conservators, curators, and art technologists.
This exhibition is therefore likely to attract a large public to the museum. The black colour remains a favourite colour in the textile industry nowadays and continues to fascinate people. Furthermore, the focus on the technical making allows a large potential of interactive activities.
In brief, I left the museum with a mind full of new sensations and an impression of having participated in something special.
As October draws to a close, we feature yet another exciting article from our ongoing series of cross-postings on the hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. Today, Sharifa Lookman provides another fascinating peek into the inner workings of the project (Joshua Schlachet)
For the pre-modern artist, color was anything but random. As both concept and product, it wore many masks: the bearer of symbolic significance, an agent of trade, and a protagonist in histories of politics, economy, and geography. In material, it was the hard-earned product of natural ingredients and arcane, even alchemical processes. Researchers in the Faculty of Design Sciences and the working group ROOHTS (Research on the Origin of Historical Techniques) at the University of Antwerp have returned to historical recipes to investigate these aspects of color. From July 1-5, in collaboration with the ARTECHNE ERC research group at the University of Utrecht, researchers took up the following question: how did pre-modern colorists perceive, manufacture, and master the color black?
The intensive, five-day summer school, “Burgundian Blacks,” brought together artists, scholars, and scientists of diverse backgrounds to investigate black color technologies of multiple media, working from the production of black textile dyes (the focus of a January workshop, the Burgundian Black Collaboratory) and moving into adjacent practices used to produce black inks and paints in and around the historic region of Burgundy. Each day consisted of a theoretical component and a practical one: classes moved back and forth between the lecture hall, with studies on historical contexts, and the laboratory, where recipes were tested through experimental reconstructions, or (re)enactments.
The setting—a university conservation laboratory—was decidedly ahistorical and acknowledged the inherent limits of reconstruction: small sample sizes and anachronistic instruments, for starters. And yet, when all thirteen of the participants and a handful of instructors were in the lab together, we more or less simulated an active ‘workshop,’ complete with masters and apprentices, back-and-forth shop talk, and bustling bodies (Fig. 1). As a participant, I found that the summer school’s give-and-take between the written word and re-enactment emphasized two fundamental ideas in the study of color technologies: the mutability of language in interpreting recipes and the intellectual merit of touch and sensation in reconstructing them; in other words, the valuable cross-fertilization of both mind and body in materiality studies.[i]
In considering early modern writings on color, twenty-first century scholars must first be acquainted with an author’s vocabulary, biases, and technical ‘know-how.’ This was the case in our workshop reconstruction of “Noir de Flandres” (Black of Flanders), a seventeenth-century French recipe for a madder and woad-based dye. Here the compiler of the recipe added in his own hand, “And you will have a perfect and durable black” (Fig. 2).[ii] What, according to our writer, is a ‘perfect black,’ and how did it relate to other early modern colors? Over the course of our two-day dye session we produced a number of dyed textiles, many in various shades of black and others not black at all (Fig. 3). Were any of them ‘perfect?’ We often struggled with terms to describe this range, using words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘saturated,’ or ‘opaque.’ But are these the terms an early modern colorist would use? Our author does tell us that, in addition to being ‘perfect,’ the Noir de Flandres is also ‘durable,’ implying that, even in the moment of its making, it was important that the color last for posterity.
Knowledge of materials, processes, and techniques was also gleaned from sources that were not written down, namely ‘shop talk,’ a kind of knowledge circulated within and across artist workshops. Though the dye recipes we tested ranged in time period (1350-1670) and geography, they often shared ingredients. By analyzing the presence and absence of certain ingredients in black dye recipes, scholars, such as Natalia Ortega-Saez of the University of Antwerp, have classified these recipes into three main groups.[iii] Based on these, a twenty-first century reader can effectively ‘fill in the gaps’ when information in the original transcription of one particular recipe is missing or unclear. Likely, a contemporary would have done just that, having considered particular instructions to be common knowledge. We might think back to the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari who, describing fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini’s treatise on painting, wrote, “[Cennini] was anxious to know the peculiarities of colors … and gave much advice which I need not expand upon, since all these matters, which he then considered very great secrets, are now universally known.”[iv] By the sixteenth century certain materials and their properties must have been widely known across Europe, and the disappearance of these procedures in writing suggests that this information was not forgotten, but instead circulated verbally, just as we shared and transmitted knowledge orally in the laboratory.
Where our dye reconstructions were much more ‘experimental,’ some recipes being deciphered and tested for the very first time, our pigment recipes had comparatively fewer unknowns. Instead, we were encouraged to consider the appearance, smell, and feel of our materials as we progressed through the recipes. Simply put, we shifted away from the written and spoken word and towards the sensory experience of color production. We began by roasting our raw ingredients—primarily animal bones and fruit pits—in crucibles in an open flame (Fig. 4). The goal here was to char the materials just until they turned black; too long on the flame risks turning the bones white, the base for another color, ‘bone-white.’
The body took centerstage as we began grinding our pigments. Organic materials, like fruit stones and plant matter, broke down in mere minutes, but sheep and bovine bones were significantly denser and more difficult, some requiring twenty to thirty minutes of continuous grinding. To achieve the kind of fine powder necessary for high-quality pigments, one clearly needed strength and dexterity as well as a cultivated sensitivity to natural materials. Without time specifications in our recipes, we ground our pigments until they felt finely powdered, and mulled them with water until we could no longer feel or hear granules sliding between the glass (Fig. 5). Sensory indicators—touch, smell, and sight—developed into an acquired “skilled vision” and “expert touch” akin to shop talk, one that filled gaps in reasoning.[v]
We considered these ideas even further by applying the pigments to paper: how did the paint feel when applied? What was its texture? Translucency? Facture? Here the term ‘body’ can be dually defined. In addition to referring to the body of the maker, it also suggests the ‘body’ of a color, as Jenny Boulboullé of the University of Utrecht has observed.[vi] The coloristic effects, success, and ‘body’ of our black pigments were not only dependent on its raw material and how we processed it, but also the type of binding medium used; depending on this, a color’s transparency, density, and quality differed considerably (Fig. 6). Because we used only water and gum arabic as binders, I couldn’t help but wonder how, precisely, the choice of binder can modulate the color black. In other words, to quote Ann-Sophie Lehmann, in mixing and applying pigment, what is the “matter of the medium?”[vii]
Re-enactments of historical techniques bring to the surface ideas that are often latent in strictly theoretical approaches to technique and materiality. By investigating recipes for pre-modern black, we engage with color as both technique and concept, as the cross-geographical product of nature and artistic experimentalism, and, above all, as an area of study that has increasingly come to move across disciplines and scholarly domains.
[i] See Sven Dupré’s blog post, “Re-enactment in Teaching Art History (Part 1),” https://artechne.wp.hum.uu.nl/re-enactment-in-teaching-art-history-part-1/
[ii] Original French: “un noir parfaict & durable.” Recipe transcribed and translated by Jenny Boulboullé.
[iii] Natalia Ortega Saez, Ina Vanden Berghe, Olivier Schalm, et al., “Material analysis versus historical dye recipes: ingredients found in black dyed wool from five Belgian archives (1650-1850),” Conservar Património 31 (2019): 1-18.
[iv] Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Agnolo Gaddi,” in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, nelle redazionidel 1550 e 1568, Vol. 2 , eds. Paola Barocchi and Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1966-87), 248-9; for translation see Angela Cerasuolo, Literature and Artistic Practice in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Helen Glanville, ed. Walter S. Melion (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2017), 173.
[v] Cristina Grasseni, Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007).
[vi] Jenny Boulboullé and Maartie Stols-Witlox consider these themes in an essay entitled, “Working (with) the corps: bodies of colours, sands and varnishes in Ms Fr. 640 and MS 2052,” which will be published in the forthcoming Critical Edition of Bnf Ms Fr 640, edited by Pamela Smith & the Making and Knowing Project.
[vii] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The matter of the medium: some tools for an art-theoretical interpretation of materials,” in The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, c. 1250-1750, eds. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop and Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 21-41.
The Red Thread site grew out of an interdisciplinary, Honors College seminar, Global History of Color. I made colour the focus of a course for four reasons:
it intersects with my own research into early modern experimentation with color;
it is a vehicle for teaching a course that is global, interdisciplinary, and material;
it is not too intimidating for students;
and I thought it would be a way to connect disparate corners of campuses and to build a public intellectual community.
Everyone knows that artisanal production is big in Oregon, but there is little connection between wider public interests in historical craft practices and academic research on those topics. When it comes to the study of material culture, we not only have under-used collections of objects at UO, but also many unique and wonderful resources around campus–an Urban Farm, Craft Center, and Beach Conservation Lab. We also have a highly skilled, curious and passionate local public of artists, crafters, homesteaders and farmers. What we don’t have is a way to connect and strengthen these various constituencies, especially in a way that places the University and historical research at the center of this connection.
Particularly as a faculty member at a public university, I feel that engaging the university with a wider public is part of its mission. Historically, recipe collections have served as forms of social media tracing community building and sharing across different domains of knowledge. At a moment when face-to-face interaction, civil discourse, and communities are weakening on a national scale, we can draw on the strength of this historical genre to engage ourselves, our students, and the public in a collective endeavour to build intellectual community.
Color proved to be an accessible way for both students and the public to engage with primary sources, material practices, and historical artifacts. In the course, we focused on a range of reds: ochre, coral, cinnabar, vermilion, kermes, madder, cochineal, Tyrian purple, brazilwood, logwood, colloidal gold, ruby glass, and red-painted porcelain. Together, we studied the history of these pigments through the lenses of the history of science, the history of medicine, economic history, cultural history and material culture. Each student focused on a single material object from campus collections, which became the subject of their exhibition labels for a co-curated exhibition and a final research paper.
We visited three campus collections: Special Collections and University Archives, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH) and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), with strengths respectively in European, Native American and Asian materials. Through a campus grant for teaching initiatives (the Williams Foundation), I invited a guest speaker to campus for a public event. Marie-France Lemay, the paper conservator at Yale Library, brought with her the Yale Traveling Scriptorium — a traveling showcase of the materials found in premodern books and manuscripts. With Lemay, we explored the Scriptorium alongside rare books and manuscripts from our campus collection. Lemay also demonstrated a cochineal recipe, which highlighted for students the wide range of materials and processes involved in producing premodern books.
The course produced several intertwined outcomes that were oriented simultaneously to the classroom and to the public. The Museum of Natural and Cultural History hosted a small exhibition of the student-researched objects drawn from their collections. A selection of all the students’ work is also featured on a site I was able to build through a grant from our campus Digital Scholarship Center. All the books and manuscripts were completely digitized as part of the grant. My aims in building the site were to advertise our under-utilized campus collections; to highlight my students’ research; and to produce a resource that could be used in other courses and by the public.
With remaining funds from the Williams grant, I built our own version of the Traveling Scriptorium, with help from UO’s conservators Marilyn Mohr and Ashlee Weitlauf. The Scriptorium is a case full of nearly 100 materials. We experimented a lot with packaging and labelling its various parts. Through my use of the Scriptorium in various classroom settings, we tested the ease and rapidity through which it could be unpacked and repacked. When we were satisfied with it, we donated the Traveling Scriptorium to our campus library, where it is now cataloged and can be checked out by faculty for a week at a time.
At the same time that I was working on developing the digital Red Thread site and the physical teaching resource, the Traveling Scriptorium, I also worked on an on-going third initiative, “Farm to Book” , a collaboration between myself, the Beach Conservation Lab and the Urban Farm. We experimented with historical ink recipes drawn from my archival researches with conservators of the Beach Lab. We also planted ingredients for inks and dyes at our Urban Farm.
We’ve held several highly successful public events at the Craft Center and at the new “Dream Lab” in our library where members of the public could craft with our inks produced according to historical recipes, practice calligraphy, hear student presentations on their historical research, explore the Traveling Scriptorium and the Red Thread site, see selections from our rare book materials, and learn about the history of our campus collections. We even served cochineal cake!
My hope is that the Red Thread site can be used in tandem with the Traveling Scriptorium in other classes or in public presentations, either in preparation for a visit to our campus collections, or in the case of large class sizes, in lieu of a group visit. Pairing the hands-on Scriptorium with the digital resource proved to be a great way to minimize some of the limitations of digital surrogates by giving participants a sense of the material constituents of the original books and manuscripts. I used the site and the Scriptorium, for example, during a presentation for a program bringing high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus.
The tactile nature of the Traveling Scriptorium offered a great way to draw people in, as members of the public found it fascinating to handle all the little bottles of materials. I purchased one seventeenth-century volume (for less than $100) to include as part of the Scriptorium, so that an actual rare work could travel to events off campus. Being able to hold a four-hundred year-old book always has an immediate effect upon public audiences. The initial wonder and curiosity sparked by these hands-on interactions often then provoked questions and deeper discussions.
Do you think that there is something to gain from connecting classroom instruction on historical practices of making with makers across campus and from your local community? If so, how would you do it?
“They [the Italians] seem to commence everything with spirit to get tired of it before it is finished.” Mary Marrifield’s letters from Italy to her husband are full of charming–and if you are Italian sometimes engaging–reflections. The importance of the publication of Mary P. Merrifield’s (1804-1899) letters for the history of recipes will not pass unnoticed to the reader of this blog as well as to those interested in the transmission of the art techniques. Merrifield published the first English translation of Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte (1844),and a few years later, following her journey in Italy, The Art of Fresco Painting (1846), and the Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849), works that have made the history of modern artistic techniques.
found in Brighton by Zahira Véliz Bomford, Merrifield’s letters have never been
published in English. Sent by the English Royal Fine Arts Commission, Merrifield
travelled in Italy for several months between 1845 and 1846 to collect as many historical
manuscripts on painting techniques as possible. The objective of the search was
to enhance the English arts, which were called to glorify the British Empire at
its acme. The letters are a refreshing, revealing, and entertaining look of
northern Italy in the years before the political turmoil of 1848, as well as a
dive into Merrifield’s world and vision. Giovanni Mazzaferro now publishes the
full text of the correspondence in an enjoyable Italian translation, La donna che amava i colori: Lettere
dall’Italia 1845-1846 (Milano: Officina Libraria, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN:
An independent scholar at his second publication –the first being Le Belle Arti a Venezia nei manoscritti di Pietro e Giovanni Edwards (2015)–Giovanni Mazzaferro keeps a renowned blog, Letteratura Artistica, which started around his rich collection of published sources for art history. Mazzaferro thorough apparatus of footnotes will be of use to the growing number of scholars interested in Merrifield as it spans from the identification of manuscripts and paintings, to individuating the people Merrifield met during her quest, and to secondary literature. In the substantial introduction, Mazzaferro insists that studying Merrifield under a single perspective, such as the artistic or the scientific one, deprives us of a full understanding of the complexity of her character. Merrifield was a multifaceted intellectual, almost the nineteenth-century woman version of a Renaissance virtuoso. A swift but careful overview of her life and works shows this vast breath: she published in the field of artistic techniques and colors, of maritime biology, and, toward the end of her life, for the advancement of women in society.
Merrifield’s familial practices predate her written commitments to the advancement of women. During the journey in Italy, Merrifield travelled accompanied by her son Charles, while her husband stayed in Brighton with their other four children. Husband and sons were all working for Mary, as they were involved in the transcription, translation, and writing of Mary’s books. Such odd family arrangement, at least for the time, presents us with an unconventional nineteenth-century woman. Overall, Merrifield does stand as a complex figure whose progressive private arrangements are parallel to her deep patriotism, her commitments to the English empire, and her Victorian style. Her figure reminds us that intellectual and private identities cannot be easily defined: a progressive stand on the role of women does not necessarily conflict with an imperial vision, the interest in old manuscripts, and color techniques can go hand in hand with a passion for algae.
 Mary Merrifield
to John Merrifield, November 2, 1845.