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  • The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments, 1400–1800 Ed. by Andrea Feeser, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Beth Fowkes Tobin
  • Elizabeth Hutchinson (bio)
The Materiality of Color: The Production, Circulation, and Application of Dyes and Pigments, 1400–1800 Edited by Andrea Feeser, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Beth Fowkes Tobin Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012 333 pp.

Spices still get most of the credit for inspiring maritime expeditions in the so-called Age of Discovery. But the Metropolitan Museum’s 2013 exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 helped the general public see what cultural historians have long understood: the desire for color is what drove Europeans to find new trading partners around the world. Pigments and vibrant products dominated international trade until the synthesis of chemical dyes in the mid-nineteenth century. The Materiality of Color gives life to this history, offering new scholarship on the objects involved in this trade and investigations into the reasons behind different populations’ thirst for color. As the editors explain,

Color was precious. … Colored threads and fabric, colored paint for interiors, colored pigments for ceramics, cosmetics, printing, and for artists’ oil paint and watercolors were products that required extensive knowledge and labor and were concocted from material and techniques that not only traveled long distances and across oceans but also were surrounded by mystery and intrigue.


In sixteen essays that cover topics spanning the Americas, Europe, and Asia (with some attention to Africans in the New World), the book demonstrates the care with which members of diverse groups produced colorants, [End Page 567] applied them to different materials, and used the resulting objects—clothing, furnishings, makeup, ink, jewelry, home decorations, and so on—to make meaning of their experiences of a changing world. The volume is part of the series The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950, edited by Michael Yonan. It contains forty-eight color plates—a generous number by today’s standards.

Two of the editors—Goggin and Tobin—are literature professors who have worked before on several volumes about women and material culture in the long nineteenth century. This book extends more than their time frame—the contributors to this collection hail from a variety of disciplines ranging across the humanities and social sciences including the history of technology and science. The essays thus vary in conceptual framework, some providing close studies of individual objects and others speaking more generally about the technical developments in the production and trade of colored materials. Some authors describe the labor of artisans working with dyestuffs, ranging from schoolgirls to guild members to slaves; others address color from the point of view of the consumer. The essays are substantial but brief enough that the reader is encouraged to digest more than one in a sitting. By grouping the chapters into three parts, “Color’s Social and Cultural Meanings,” “Producing and Exchanging Pigments and Dyes,” and “Making Colored Objects,” the editors have established a structure that allows for the development of key concepts across diverse texts. Readers are encouraged to consider the relationship between color and social prestige, cultural belonging, or the sacred to contemplate how it helped shape national economies and international trade in the early modern period.

As the editors point out in their introduction, scholars have recently begun to attend to color, but most studies focus on the modern and contemporary context. While art historians have long paid attention to an iconography of color—linking blue to the Virgin Mary, for example—cultural historians have generally turned their gaze away from pigment. In part because of the limitations of reproductive technologies, earlier studies of the early modern books, textiles, and carvings included in The Materiality of Color frequently neglected the sumptuous hues, textures, and reflective qualities of their subjects, using diagrams or black-and-white illustrations to discuss text, pattern, or subject. An avoidance of color may also stem from a long-standing anxiety about color’s powerful ability to charm [End Page 568] the viewer. Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding’s contribution to the book explores British “chromophobia” as a wary response to the popularity of luxury goods from East Asia. She...


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