By Leonor-Jo Barnard

The 19th century witnessed a growing interest in the visual arts, particularly in the relationships between pictures and text. During this period, two significant debates emerged: the truthful representation of nature and the interplay of line and colour. Scientific advancements in colour pigmentation and dyes revolutionised artistic practices, challenging traditional notions of colour usage and meaning. My research explores the impact of these developments on the works of renowned artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin, as well as their integration into the literary landscape through the writings of Thomas Hardy.

Remarkable scientific advancements in colour pigmentation were developing during the century. The discovery of new dyes, including ‘Scheele’s Green’ and William Perkins’s aniline dye, offered artists access to brighter and more pigmented colours for textiles, wallpapers, and paintings. These new pigments sparked discussions about the use and interpretation of colour in art. Additionally, the introduction of paint in tubes by Windsor and Newton enabled artists to carry their materials and paint outdoors, leading to the popularisation of the ‘plein-air’ approach. This approach was pioneered by John Constable in Britain and from about the 1860s became fundamental to impressionism. Artists could finally leave their studios where they formerly painted from sketches or memory, and instead could go outdoors and pain the landscapes and skyscapes straight onto their canvases. This transformed artists’ approach to colour composition as they could now record all the gradations in the sky with precision.

Scientists and artists were now lecturing on colour by suggesting colour theories and practical colour manuals. This includes influential figures of colour debates such as Newton and his introduction of the prism, Goethe and his presentation of the colour wheel and the art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin’s extensive work, Modern Painters published between 1843 and 1860, aimed to redefine how people perceived and emotionally responded to colour. He defended artists like J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their bold and vibrant use of colours. Ruskin emphasised that colour held intrinsic meaning and had the power to evoke strong emotions. Colour is not just aesthetic or decoration, it is woven into the meaning the image conveys and is central to the work of the painter. He urged artists to faithfully represent nature’s colours, emphasising the manipulation of light and shade, form, and the unique manifestation of colour to the sense of sight. Ruskin’s advocacy for colour profoundly impacted the artistic landscape of the time.

In addition to visual art, the 19th century’s ‘chromatic turn’ also influenced the literary world. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy actively engaged in the colour debates of the 19th century. In my research, focus has been placed on Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, set in the fictional region of Wessex, England. Hardy’s descriptions of landscapes revealed his awareness of the significance of colour, light, and shade. Through direct references to artists and art periods, Hardy invites the readers to visualise scenes in their minds eye. He employs colour terms to convey emotions and his use of painterly techniques heighten the visual impact of literature, aligning with the beliefs of Ruskin and Turner.

A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy’s third published novel. It clearly exemplifies Hardy’s interest in colour through his incorporation of specific colour terms, painterly references and by integrating names of renowned artists such as Turner, Rembrandt, and Bellini into the narrative. Furthermore, he employs a vivid and diverse colour palette, using terms like ‘orange-yellow’ (PBE, 108), ‘rich indigo hue’ (PBE, 142), (PBE, 142), ‘neutral Indian red’ (PBE, 142) and ‘achromatic grey’ (PBE, 234), to create visual and emotional depth. Through these descriptions, readers are immersed in a world of colour, emphasising the importance of visuality and reinforcing the theories put forth by artists and critics regarding the significance of colour in artistic expression.

The 19th century marked a significant evolution in the understanding and application of colour in visual arts and literature. Scientific advancements in colour pigmentation and dyes, coupled with the influential voices of artists like the Pre-Raphaelites, J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin, revolutionised the use and perception of colour. These developments not only transformed artistic practices but also found their way into the literary landscape through the works of writers such as Thomas Hardy. His works integrate the visual arts into prose and in this way, Hardy becomes an active participant in the colour debates of the 19th century.

References: The edition used in this paper: Hardy, Thomas, A Pair of Blue Eyes, ed. by Pamela Dalziel (London: Penguin, 1998). References are made in parenthesis in the text as PBE.