JAIC 1990, Volume 29, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 01 to 12)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1990, Volume 29, Number 1, Article 1 (pp. 01 to 12)




WHEN ALLSTON saw the Venetians in Napoleon's Louvre, he commented, “It was the poetry of color which I felt.” Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese “took away all sense of subject” with their “gorgeous concert of colors” (quoted in Dunlap 1918, 2:306). Allston became interested in glazing and was called “The American Titian” by the artists in Rome (Dunlap, 1918, 2:315).

But what were the colors of the Titians that Allston saw? He may have seen the Venetian works covered with the discolored brownish “gallery varnish” that seeded the controversies in Paris and London 30 years later. The paintings were surely varnished; Charles Leslie (1860, 22) complained that his first history picture was not allowed in the British Institution's exhibit of 1814 on the grounds that it was not varnished and therefore looked “unfinished.” Leslie also noted. “Allston first directed my attention to the Venetian school, particularly to the works of Paul Veronese, and taught me to see, through the accumulated dirt of the ages, the exquisite charm that lay beneath.” Clearly Allston was aware of discoloring surface layers.

Allston's palettes and detailed coloruse recommendations have been extensively documented by Nathaniel Jocelyn as of August 1823 (Morgan 1939, 131–34), by Sully (1965, 32–35) during a visit to Allston in 1835, and by Greenough's lengthy descriptions published by Flagg (1893, 181–201). Greenough's descriptions are undated, but were, according to Flagg, written for R. H. Dana, Sr., as a contribution to his proposed biography of Allston. Following Allston's death in 1843, Greenough cleaned and prepared Belshazzar's Feast (unfinished, Detroit Institute of Arts) for exhibition and wrote articles for Dana and the Boston Post (Greenough 1966, i). It is therefore assumed that his writings quoted by Flagg are from 1844. A reconstruction of the Allston palette as described by Greenough appears as figure 3.

Fig. 3. A reconstruction of Allston's palette as described by Greenough and reported by Flagg

All the palette colors mentioned by Jocelyn are in Greenough's account, and more. Jocelyn lists yellow ochre and its three tints as the only yellow, but Greenough notes that the yellow (yellow ochre, raw sienna, or Naples yellow) was chosen according to the complexion Allston was about to paint.

Allston's palette of 1823, however, reflected the entire painting, not just the flesh tones. Elizabeth H. Jones (1947, 4), former conservator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, observes, “It is striking in its severe limitation on the number of pigments used.” Still it took Allston half an hour to mix and meticulously spread out on his palette each day (Flagg 1893, 242–43). Possibly to cut down on glaring white reflections and distractions, as painting conservators do today, Allston had the walls of his Cambridgeport, Massachusetts painting room tinted Spanish brown (Dana 1943, 168).

The general tonalities of Allston's paintings are warm and brown, reflecting what Richardson (1944, 55) calls a “golden” or “brunette” palette. He notes that “Allston created for American painting a warmer and more golden tonality, which is the spiritual ancestor of the warm palette of Inness, Page and Eakins.” With megilp and interlayerings of varnish, the “warm” or “golden” effect would likely increase with age.

George Field, the color theorist, visited Allston's painting studio in London in 1815. Field had seen Allston's painting The Sisters (ca. 1816–17, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), which was painted in the tertiary colors using theories Field was writing about. Allston had arrived at the same theory independently. As Elizabeth Johns (1977, 15) explains, “For both Allston and Field, the significance of the tertiaries was that they alone on the color wheel contained all three primary colors and thus were a physical symbol of the ultimate harmony in the universe.” (For instance, citrine equals green + orange, and green equals yellow + blue, and orange equals red + yellow.) For the shadows, Allston used olive, made, according to Greenough, (quoted in Flagg 1893, 182–83), in the following way:

Lastly I take a little pure yellow, pure red, and pure blue, and mix them to a neutral hue, which comes as near to olive as any of the tertiaries. This is for the shadows … a little Indian red, or vermilion and lake, deepended by black, serves to strengthen the shadows, if necessary and comes in play to mark the deep shadow of the nostrils, the eyelids, and parting of the lips.

Allston's use of tertiaries makes verbal color descriptions difficult and hyphenations mandatory. To describe the colors of The Spanish Maid, one resorts to “a pinky-beige hat,” “dried-blood red velvet,” or a “mustard-green belt.” Richardson's color descriptions of Allston's The Sisters include “puce-colored dress,” “cherry-brown blouse,” and “brownish purple skirt.” In describing Allston's Diana and her Nymphs in the Chase(1805, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lists “beautiful purple-crimson mosses” and “grey-blue faintly purplish” rock (Coburn 1944, 25). In comparison to other artists' palettes, Allston preserved a triad symmetry of hue, even as he tinted up quantifiably with white, by basing his triad on what he calls the “crude” three primaries.

For flesh, Allston (quoted in Flagg 1893, 185–86) aimed toward what he considered Titian's “luce di dentro” or “internal light” technique, which he compared to a purple silk woven of red and blue threads. The flesh tints are to be mingled lightly “with the brush only,” “twiddling them together instead of grinding them with a knife.” An up-close examination of the face of The Spanish Maid does reveal a Seurat-like complexion composed of colors that blend best to the eye at a slight distance.

W. W. Story (quoted in Flagg 1893, 390) related in 1880 that Allston:

expatiated at length one day on the peculiar effect of blue in the eye, and told me that in his studies for the head of Jeremiah (1820, Yale University Art Gallery) he … found that the mere change of color from blue to brown so altered the expression that whereas the blue seemed to gaze abstractedly into vacancy, when changed to brown, they seemed to be fixed intently on some object. He tried it over and over again with the same results.

The Spanish Maid has greenish brown eyes and distinctively staring black pupils with no highlights. Her eyes do seem to be intently fixed on some “object,” which may be the real or the imagined returning Isidore.

Allston represents a sort of bridge between painting and poetry and between technical and symbolic concepts about uses of certain colors or pigments. He ranged from the pedestrian concerns of avoiding Prussian blue (Sully 1965, 32), noting its property of changing color when dry (Jones 1947, 5) to the writing of the “The Paint-King,” a poem in which the heroine (who, we have been told, is beautiful but has a “barren waste” for “her mind”) is actually ground up for pigments (Allston 1850):

Then, seizing the maid by her dark auburn hair, An oil-jug he plunged her within. Seven days, seven nights, with the shrieks of despair, Did Ellen in torment convulse the dun air, All covered with oil to the chin.

On the morn of the eighth on a huge sable stone Then Ellen, all reeking, he laid; With a rock for his muller he crushed every bone, But, though ground to jelly, still, still did she groan; For life had forsook not the maid.

Now reaching his palette, with masterly care∗ Each tint on its surface he spread; The blue of her eyes, and the brown of her hair, And the pearl and the white of her forehead so fair, And her lips' and her cheeks' rosy red.

∗Here “The Paint-King” duplicates the same “masterly care” Flagg describes Allston's taking each day with the laying out of his palette.

Later in the poem, however, the reader learns that the portrait painted by “The Paint-King” is not considered successful, perhaps because, as Allston declared in his “Lectures on Art” (Allston, 1850), mere imitation or reproduction cannot produce great art; the artist's imagination must synthesize borrowed elements. (Also, a mouse has run off with Ellen's pupils.)

Fortuitously for technical study, there are many unfinished Allstons through which one can study his solid buildup of dead-colors in black, white, and Indian red and his underpainting with the parallel tints, and compare the actual with the descriptions from Greenough, a comparison that holds up well.

Copyright 1990 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works