The Mother of Colour Theory
The landscape of art during the 19th century is far removed from how it is today. During this time the principles of colour theory rose in popularity with many masculine artists the head of this study. This field was carried in the leading art institutions at the time such as the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
What is Colour Theory?
Colour Theory is the Art of how we organise and combine colour, providing Artists and designers with a language to strategically understand and utilise colour, in a more discerning and critical manner. By understanding how colours relate and interact, we can evoke emotion and capture attention, in a way that is both elegant and appropriate in each setting.
First theorised by Aristotle when he suggested all colours come from light and dark, sent in rays from God. It was Sir Isaac Newton in 1704 that developed the first colour wheel after splitting light with a prism. This theory is still the most adopted and taught worldwide, but it is by no means in isolation, with current theorists still repositioning our understanding of colour theory based on hue and chroma. Placing Red opposite Cyan when moving Warm to Cool. Not the Green we normally expect to see the opposite Red.
For centuries past, the art world has been moulded by men, so when we think of colour theory, we think of the Masters, Aristotle, Newton, or Goethe. However, I believe space should be created among these giants for the little-known Mary Gartside.
Working as a watercolour instructor and artist, she dared to break ground by doing the unthinkable and published three books between 1805 and 1808. Her first book, "An Essay on Light and Shade", on colours and composition in general, did not falter into the loose language of muse nor lose interpretation but rooted itself in discipline and enlightenment. Punctuating instructional writing with glorious abstract works of colour, unlike anything that had come before them. It is a work unlike no other and is famed to be one of the earliest examples of abstract work in existence.
Her theories include an argument to reorder colour. Whilst accepting Newton’s Prismatic order she proposes ordering colour by brightness, a paradigm shift, she orders yellow centrally bleeding into orange, red and blue, then eventually moving into a pale green. Publishing her colour circle in 1808.
She also notably refers to white as “The true primitive colour of light, unmixed with any other substance”, cementing it in her view as a colour of its own standing.
There is no other example of a representation of colour systems that is as inventive and radical as Gartside's colour blots
- Alexandra Loske, Art Historian
The journalist, Kelly Grovier of the BBC, writes of the essence of her work embodying the flavours of Georgia O’Keeffe, which would not exist for more than 100 years. I must agree the softness and shifting of the image echo a spirit beyond, more reminiscent of smoke than solid. Toying with saturation, tone, and tint, her work is unlike anything that preceded it, beautifully and groundbreakingly shifting our understanding of colour. Producing something no man nor woman had come even close to publishing before. She executed the work with a tone of quiet confidence.
Throwing aside the respectable limitations of floral paintings expected of women of her time to bring into being a series of masterpieces, she notes the modesty of her medium and the limitations of her knowledge, whilst conjuring works that both literally and metaphorically coloured outside the lines.
While little is documented of her life, records show her exhibiting as early as 1781 and being shown in the Royal Academy on several occasions. From this, we can surmise she likely moved among academics as was likely linked to Mary Moser one of the two founding members a flower painter herself. It is believed that her connections at the Royal academy afforded unmarried Gartside the freedom to teach and attend lectures in a way that was inaccessible to many of her peers.
This, together with letters regarding exhibitions, paints a picture of an assured, confident and established artist moving through a world not designed for her, it is also documented that Queen Charlotte heads up her list of subscribers, cementing her as a key figure of her time.
In a world where Newton's theories dominated it seems that, despite her profile, the spread of Gartside’s art was gender limited. Her work, unlike her peers, was not romantic but scientific and analytic. Breaking ground on our understanding of colour. This highly educated woman boldly, yet humbly did what no woman had done before her and not only sculpted a successful career but published in colour theory, long before any other woman.
The work we’ve created is an abstract take on her watercolour works, distilling colour into blocks we see the lack of signature blending, just as history lacks her name. Utilising the G.F Smith Colorplan collection, a palette of greens, pinks and reds in a fine matt finish.
But while her name seemingly disappears into the sands of history, we hope you will remember the brilliance, boldness and scientific acumen, of Mary Gartside, the mother of colour theory. A woman ahead of her time.