Victorian-Era Color Theory Manual Reissued for the First Time in 115 Years

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Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color

by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel

Long before people were creating color palettes from beloved films or matching food to their Pantone colors , Emily Noyes Vanderpoel was revolutionizing color theory. The Victorian collector, artist, and scholar published  Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color  in 1901 as a breakthrough manual for examining color .

She appears to come across midcentury design and minimalism decades before those movements through the twenty-first-century lens. She was able to present a thoroughly studied, yet the uniquely poetic, approach to colour theory that was later picked up and popularised by men and became ubiquitous in contemporary art departments by presenting her work as a painting manual under the guise and genre of flower painting and the decorative arts— subjects considered “appropriate” for a woman of her time. In a sequence of 10 Ă— 10 gridded squares, she examines the colour proportions obtained from real objects, such as Assyrian tiles, Persian rugs, an Egyptian mummy case, and even a teacup and saucer. Vanderpoel was an expert on pottery and had examined several of her pieces. Vanderpoel keeps her method a mystery, but it’s evident that she “sought not so much to examine the components of colour itself, but rather to quantify the total interpretative influence of colour on the imagination,” as historian and science blogger John Ptak points out.

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