In 1828 French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet discovered a means of preparing synthetic lazurite by heating together china clay, soda, charcoal, quartz and sulphur. The new pigment became known as French ultramarine. It was a fraction of the cost of the original.
By the 1870s French ultramarine was the standard, despite artists complaining that it lacked the depth of blue derived from lapis lazuli.
Synthetic ultramarine was later used as an ingredient in laundry soap, to enhance the optical properties of white. A tiny amount of blue offsets the yellowing that occurs from repeated washing and makes white fabric look brighter.
Laundry blue, marketed as Reckitt’s Blue in England, was taken to the colonies where European notions of ‘cleanliness’ and domestic service were imposed on local populations. The soap powder was subverted and transformed.
The highly desired ultramarine colour produced by Reckitt’s Blue was used by Indigenous artists across Africa, the Americas and the Pacific to decorate a wide variety of special items.
My mother used a form of Reckitt’s Blue marketed as Dolly Blue in a small muslin bag that she would put with the wash in the washing machine.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) chronicled some of the most turbulent and transformative decades in the history of the United States and of the Atlantic world more broadly. Simmering tensions regularly erupted in conflict. Three long-standing empires -Britain, France and Spain – jostled for control over vast areas of Africa, Asia and the Americas, while colonial subjects increasingly resisted European dominance. The USA, a young imperial power, fought a bloody Civil War (1861-65) to abolish slavery and re-establish internal unity. At the same time, it expanded westward, assembled industrial and financial might and flexed military muscle. Homer was a witness to these tumultuous events. Born in Boston into an upper-middle-class family, he travelled the length of the East Coast observing the United States in peace and war. Also working in The Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, France and England over the course of his career, he paid close attention to people and landscape – and the relationship between the two – wherever he went.
This is the description that greets you when you enter the exhibition. What you learn through the paintings that cover the arc of his life is that he was a war artist during the American Civil War. Tamara and I were surprised that his painting years even stretched back that far – we had him in the decades a bit later in the century.
What his art shows is that he was sensitive to the humanity in others and you can see that from his choice of subjects. He humanised Black people at a time when they were being treated like freed cattle.
In his later years it was the elements, no people – who needs people when you have a storm?
As the info-panel to NORTHEASTER says:
NORTHEASTER 1895 Later in life, Homer increasingly edited his paintings. In 1895, when he first exhibited this epic scene of a winter storm at Prouts Neck, it included two figures crouching on the rocks in the lower left corner. Between 1896 and 1900, he eliminated the human presence and intensified the spray from the crashing waves. Oil on canvas Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1910 (10.64.5)
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature – runs at the National Gallery until 8 January 2023