Beautiful Color Theory: Revisiting Emily Vanderpoel

Revisiting Emily Vanderpoel’s Color Theory Book 117 Years After Its First Release
In addition to being a watercolorist, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel was also the author of Color Problems, widely overlooked, yet staggering turn-of-the-century book on color theory.
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Though her name is virtually unknown today, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel enjoyed a modest reputation as a watercolorist at the turn of the 20th century. She painted seascapes, country landscapes and the occasional industrial scene — perfectly competent works, but ultimately quite conventional. Nothing about them hints at the fact that Vanderpoel was also the author of a widely overlooked, yet staggering book on color theory, its pages bursting with a series of vibrant illustrations that seem to anticipate an abstract aesthetic decades before it emerged in full force.

Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, which Vanderpoel first published in 1901, sought to teach an audience of non-artists how to combine colors in ways pleasing to the eye. The 400-page book elegantly summarizes the ideas of eminent color theorists, before unleashing Vanderpoel’s wildly original approach to color analysis: 10 x 10 grids that break down the color proportions of real objects, most of which came from the author’s personal collection of antiques. Vanderpoel lovingly transforms a mummy case, a teacup, a Japanese silk brocade and dozens of other knick-knacks into series of geometric patterns. Her grids emerge as artworks reminiscent of Homage to the Square, the iconic abstract series that Bauhaus pioneer Josef Albers began creating in the 1950s.

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In spite of its stunning prescience, Color Problems has been largely forgotten in the 117 years since it was first released. Two Brooklyn-based publishing companies now hope to salvage the book from obscurity. On November 9, The Circadian Press and Sacred Bones Records will reissue Color Problems in both softcover and a hardcover facsimile, their efforts supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

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Vanderpoel was immersed in New York’s creative scene. She never received a formal art degree, but studied under the painters William Sartain and Robert Swain Gifford, who taught at Cooper Union and the Arts Students League. Vanderpoel exhibited her artworks through the New York Watercolor Club, which frequently staged group shows, and her paintings occasionally cropped up in grander venues. In 1893, she won a bronze medal at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition for a painting of an industrial rail yard. Some years later, her painting “Ypres,” (no date) a memorial to World War I that is now lost, was displayed at the National Art Museum in Washington, DC (which was subsequently incorporated into the Smithsonian). In the late 1920s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an offsite exhibition of nine of her watercolors at the Connecticut Agricultural College.

At some point amidst this flurry of productivity, Vanderpoel began writing and illustrating Color Problems. No records of her process survive to the present day, but she likely worked on the book for several years, says Alan Bruton, a professor at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture and Design who has researched Vanderpoel’s life and work.

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Color Problems is a guide for both hobbyists and people who work in the practical arts: florists, decorators, designers, lithographers, salespeople who want to attractively display their wares. The book is not specifically catered to women, but Vanderpoel certainly had female readers on her mind. She writes that understanding the intricacies of color theory can be of value to milliners and dressmakers — occupations often held by women during the Victorian era — along with housewives who dabbled in home decor.

As she doles out advice for achieving aesthetic harmony at home and at work, Vanderpoel reveals herself to be well versed in color theories that proliferated throughout the 19th century, due in part to scientific advances that led to the development of new pigments. She frequently refers to major names in the field, among them Michel-Eugène Chevreul, whose ground-breaking 1839 book explored how adjacent colors influence one another; James Clerk Maxwell, who used spinning color discs to show how people perceive mixtures of color; and Ogden Rood, who, among his other contributions, suggested that colors differ from one another due to variations in purity, hue, and luminosity.

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Even more striking are Vanderpoel’s 54 grids, or “Color Analyses, ” in which she reinterprets various objects as geometric designs made up of 100 squares. Vanderpoel’s analysis of a Celtic ornament, for instance, is rendered as 50 green squares, 18 red ones, 17 yellow, seven black, and eight white, all fitted together with Tetris-like precision. She wasn’t the first theorist to organize colors into grids, but rendering pixel-like representations of real objects to capture the optical effect of color — that was something new.

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Beautiful Villa Savoye

As a monument to modernism, the building possesses a poetry and sensitivity full of idealism. The careful composition of living space and intention to harness natural light, not to mention the building’s iconic aesthetic, still define modern architecture.

villasavoye_landscapeThe Villa Savoye, built in 1929 in Poissy, a rural area outside Paris, was Le Corbusier’s answer to a French country house. Given relatively few constraints by the Savoye family, Le Corbusier designed a building to embody the architectural theory he had evolved in practice and in his book, Towards an Architecture 1923. He was inspired by both the classical forms of ancient Greek architecture and the modern technologies that were shaping the world such as automobiles, airplanes and ocean liners.

villasavoye_landscape2.jpgThis project was the last in a series of private homes known as the ‘white villas’ built by Le Corbusier and his cousin and partner Pierre Jeanneret, which introduced a new form of luxury in which space itself, and its capacity for leisure, were the valuable commodities.

Of these, The Villa Savoye perhaps best embodies Le Corbusier’s architectural manifesto, the five points of architecture. The first, pilotis – slender pillars which raise the building off the ground, opening up more space for gardens and cars, made possible the second, a façade free of its usual load bearing function. Walls were no longer supporting structures but ‘membranes.’ This allowed the unimpaired design of the third, an open plan interior, and the fourth, ribbon windows to flood the interior with maximum light and to illuminate it evenly. A sliding window system patented by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret was intended to offer superior ventilation, as well as give access to the fifth, a flat roof which could serve as a terrace. A curved solarium crowns the structure, the brightest increment in the layered design. This symbiotic relationship of these five features gives some insight into what could otherwise be a somewhat alienating notion of Le Corbusier’s, the famous concept of a house as ‘a machine for living.’

villasavoye_landscape3-outdoor.jpgUnfortunately the Villa Savoye presented its residents with its own host of problems, despite its pioneering design. Each autumn, as the windows ushered in a warm vista of seasonal colour, the family would write repeatedly to Le Courbusier, begging him to make ‘habitable,’ what proved to be a damp and chilly building. They complained of ‘raining’ in the hall, on the ramp and in the bathroom. The loud drumming of rain on the bathroom skylight kept them awake at night, heat escaped through the long stretches of glazing and the heating system was both insufficient and a further cause of flooding.

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Much of this was perhaps due to the fact that the technology involved was not fully developed at the time. As a monument to Modernism, the building possesses a poetry and sensitivity full of idealism. The careful composition of living space and intention to harness natural light, not to mention the building’s iconic aesthetic, still define modern architecture. Nonetheless, the discomforts they had suffered ultimately led the Savoye family to decide against restoring the property after the 2nd World War, when it was seized by German forces. About to be demolished by the local authorities to make way for a school, the building was rescued by architects and academics including Le Corbusier himself. Now a museum, restored closely to its original state, Villa Savoye is one of 17 of Le Corbusier’s buildings declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Credit: readcereal.com/

Beautiful Lithography Stones

n 2011, while the REI store in the Puck Building in Manhattan’s SoHo
district was undergoing renovation, workers made an unexpected
discovery. Hidden behind one of the walls of the cellar were more
than 100 lithography stones from the building’s days as a printer.
They are now on display on the store’s lower floor.

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The historic building got its name from the magazine Puck, the first
wide-reaching humor publication in the United States, which was
founded in 1871 and moved to lower Manhattan in 1887. It shared
the space, in a mutually beneficial relationship, with its printer,
J. Ottman Lithographic Company. Their shared headquarters was
he largest building in the printing district at the time.

J. Ottman Lithographic Company printed many things beyond the
Puck magazines, including theatrical posters and board games.
Among the works now hanging on the REI wall are a high school
diploma, a certificate of election, and a mortgage bond. Some of
the litho stones are in rougher shape than others.

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Most of the writing and images on the stones is “backwards,”
standard practice so that the final print is the reverse of
what is seen on the plate or stone. Some, though, were
prepared for offset printing, which involves an additional
step between the plate and the final product. The inked image,
prepared “forwards,” or as it would be seen in the final
product, is first transferred to a rubber blanket, reversing
the image once, and then to the final surface, setting it right.

Puck continued to operate out of the Puck Building until 1918,
when it ceased publication. It was known for beautiful, full-color
lithographs and sharp political satire. Statues of the magazine’s
mascot, Puck, decorate the outside of the building.
J. Ottman Lithographic Company shuttered around the same time.
Other printing companies, and even another satirical magazine,
have called the building home since the original tenants left.

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During REI’s renovation, a deliberate effort was made
to repurpose materials from the original building.
Fixtures from the steam engine that powered the
presses are on permanent display, including two
flywheels and the governor. Nineteenth century
I. P. Frink chandeliers, newly fitted with LED lights,
help light the main floor.

 

Source: Atlas Obscura