This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
"Colouring is the sunshine of the art, that clothes poverty in -smiles, and renders the prospect of barrenness itself agreeable, while it heightens the interest and doubles the charms of beauty." - Opie's Lect iv. p. 138.
How early, and to what extent, colouring may have attained the rank of science among the an-tients, is a question not easily set at rest; but that some progress toward it had obtained, even among the early Egyptians, is a fact proved by the late researches of the Messrs. Salt, Beechey, and Belzoni, who have again opened to us the magnificent tombs of the Egyptian kings at Thebes. The former of these gentlemen has described the walls of the royal mausoleum as covered with paintings in fresco, so fresh and perfect as to require neither restoration nor improvement: so far from it, that neither of those artists, with all their talents and attention in copying them, found it possible to equal the brilliancy of the originals; which, according to the literal expression of Mr. Salt, "as far as colours go, throw all others completely in the back-ground:" he adds, "the most minute attention and painful labour are not equal to give a faithful idea of the fascinating objects of these designs. The scale of colours in which they are painted is that of using pure vermilion, ochres, and indigo; and yet they are not gaudy, owing to the judicious balance of the colours and the artful management of the black. It is quite obvious that they are worked on a regular system, which had for its basis, as Mr. West would say, the colours of the rainbow, as there is not an ornament throughout the dresses where the red, yellow, and blue, are not alternately mingled, which produces a harmony that, in some of the designs, is really delicious."
It may however be remarked, that as these paintings were viewed by torch-light, it is probable the blue and yellows, which looked like indigo and ochres, suffered in appearance from the colour of the light, and were perhaps painted with a yellow brighter than ochre, and with the celebrated Armenian blue, of a livelier character than indigo; and, if not identical with our ultramarine, was even of greater pecuniary value and esteem among the antients: and, with respect to the harmony of these paintings, it is obvious that it was of the simplest kind, - a first step that extended only to the crude accordances of the primary colours, and precisely that of the native Mexicans, South Sea islanders, and the North-American Indians, at this day.* So late indeed as Van Eyck, and the earlier masters of the German school, the practice of colouring had in it much of the same primeval ch.aracter.†
The above account of the antient Egyptian painting is fully borne out by the testimony formerly given by Diodorus Siculus, Norden, Dr. Perry, and recently by M. ChampolHon and others. Norden remarks, " that the manner of painting is so totally different from any thing in practice at this time, as to make it necessary for me to give you some slight idea of it. A painting eighty feet high, and proportionably broad, is divided into two ranges of gigantic figures in bas-relief, and covered with most exquisite colours, suited to the drapery and naked parts of the figures. But what is still more wonderful is this - that the azure, the yellow, the green, and the other colours made use of, are as well preserved as if they had been laid on but yesterday, and so strongly fixed to the stone that I was never able to separate them in the least degree." - Templeman's Norden's Travels, p. 33.
* Since writing the above, we have been favoured with some beautiful Indian wort from Nova Scotia, by the lamented lady of the noble admiral, late chief in command on the North American station, in which the combinations of the primary colours, and management of black and white, are perfectly illustrative of the remarks of Salt, Norden, and others, respecting the colouring of the antient Egyptians.
† Examples of which may be seen in the admirable collection of Charles Aders, Esq., to whom, and to whose talented lady, the author is indebted for frequent opportunities of con-Arming this observation. It is to be regretted that these fine examples of the early school of oil painting have, since the former publication of this work, been dispersed.
Dr. Perry, who visited Upper Egypt about the beginning of the last century, describes, among the stupendous ruins at Carnac, on the site of antient Thebes, an apartment "one hundred paces wide, and sixty deep; perfectly crowded with pillars twelve feet in diameter, and seventy-two high: all these columns, as well as the ceiling, roof, and walls of the apartment, are quite covered or crowded with figures in basso-relievo and hieroglyphics; all exquisitely beautiful, and finely painted all over; and, which may seem very extraordinary, all these things look as fresh, splendid, and glorious, after so many ages, as if they were but just finished." - Perry's View of the Levant, p. 341.
M. Champollion, jun. has given a similar account; and all agree in describing these colourings of the Egyptians in the most glowing terms of admiration.
From Philocles, the Egyptian, and Gyges, a Lydian, both of whom, according to Pliny, acquired the knowledge of the art of painting in Egypt, we have historical evidence that the Greeks obtained the seed of their Ars Chromatica,* which the latter are said to have carried by gradual advances of the art during several centuries from the monochromatic of their earlier painters, to the perfection of colouring under Zeuxis and Polygnotus. Thus the principles of light, shade, and colours in painting appear to have been understood by the antient Greeks to have been lost with their valuable treatises on the art, including that of" Eu-phranor on Colours," ever since the time of the Romans, and not to have been recovered at the restoration of learning in Europe. Accordingly M. Angelo, Raffael, and all the early Roman and Florentine painters, so eminent in other respects, were almost destitute of those principles, and of all truly refined feeling of the effects of colouring.