Laura Anne Kalba: “Michel-Eugène Chevreul and the Material Cultures of Color in 19th-Century France”

Laura Anne Kalba

Laura Anne Kalba

On April 17, 2014, Laura Anne Kalba presented “Michel-Eugène Chevreul and the Material Cultures of Color in 19th-Century France.”

Originally published in 1839, chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Color quickly grabbed public attention, outshining his important previous discoveries in analytic chemistry. In this Fellow in Focus talk Kalba discussed the diffusion and reception of Chevreul’s influential ideas about color within the context of 19th-century France’s buoyant consumer culture.

Starting in the late 1850s, synthetic dyes, prints, mass-produced decorative knick-knacks, and gardens brought more color and more variety of color to everyday life. Faced with this overwhelming selection, how could consumers be certain of making the right choice? How could manufacturers and taste makers demonstrate the superiority of certain products—their products—over other options? Kalba argues that Chevreul’s discoveries about human color perception, transformed into a universal law of color harmony, resonated with conservative fears about the unregulated nature of modern capitalism and the deterioration of aesthetic taste triggered by the rainbow of new colors available to 19th-century consumers.

About the Speaker

Laura Anne Kalba is an assistant professor of art history in the Department of Art at Smith College and a Sidney M. Edelstein postdoctoral fellow in CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry. Kalba’s teaching and research focus primarily on 19th- and early-20th-century European art, architecture, and popular commercial visual culture. She has published articles on these subjects in History and Technology (2011), Representations (2012), and Modernism/Modernity (2012). Her book project, Color in the Age of Impressionism: Technology, Commerce, and Art, examines the impact of new color technologies on French visual and material culture, from the early commercialization of synthetic dyes to the Lumière brothers’ perfection of the autochrome photography process.

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