A Colorful Life

Albert H. Munsell.

Albert H. Munsell. Image courtesy of RIT Munsell Color Science Laboratory.

Painter and professor Albert H. Munsell (1858–1918) had strong feelings about color—so strong he constructed a rational classification system for it, which is still largely considered one of the most successful in the world.

Seascapes and portraits were the Boston-born Munsell’s subjects of choice. He attended the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now the Massachusetts College of Art and Design), and served on the faculty there for 37 years.

During his lifetime he patented several instruments relating to art and color measurement. His first book, A Color Notation, was published in 1905, and here he first proposed a sphere system for describing colors. Munsell determined that three values were essential to determining colors: hue, value, and chroma. According to the book’s glossary, hue is “the respect in which red, yellow, green, blue, etc., differ one from another”; value is “relation of one object . . . of a picture to the others, with reference to light and shade”; and chroma is “color intensity.”

As Munsell worked on his color system further, he discovered that the variation in brightness among colors is too great for them to be confined to a sphere. So he arranged the colors in what is dubbed a “color tree”—a circle with 10 segments that are ordered according to hue, value, and chroma. In 1915 Munsell published his Color Atlas, which was reprinted posthumously in 1929 with the title Munsell Book of Color. This book includes plates of color for comparison, and this edition is still used today.

The year before his death, Munsell founded the Munsell Color Company. His son, A.E.O. Munsell, continued to run the company and to promote his father’s color system after 1918. Eventually the company became the Munsell Color Foundation, and then funds were donated to the Rochester Institute of Technology to create the Munsell Color Science Laboratory.

CHF's library holds copies of Munsell's A Color Notation and Munsell Book of Color

1881 
Munsell graduates from the Massachusetts Normal Art School.

1886
Munsell’s work is exhibited at the Paris Salon for three years.

1889 
Munsell receives his first patent, for the “Artist’s Easel”—an improved version of the old stand-by.

1905 
Munsell publishes his first book, A Color Notation.

1906 
Munsell is issued a patent for his “Color Chart or Scale.”

1983 
Munsell Color Science Laboratory is founded at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Victoria M. Indivero is the production editor of Chemical Heritage.