Five years before Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Theory of Color, English artist Mary Gartside published her own challenge to Isaac Newton's ideas – yet, as Kelly Grovier writes, Mary Gartside has disappeared from history.In 1805, a little-known English artist and amateur painter did what no woman had done before: she published a book on the subject of color theory. Although few details of Mary Gartside's life and career survive, her unprecedented volume An Essay on Light and Shade, on Colours, and on Composition in General reveals evidence of her extraordinary creative genius.
Modestly presented, Gartside's study is accompanied by a series of startlingly abstract images unlike any previously produced by a writer or artist of any movement. At first glance, one can easily mistake Gartside's eight watercolor "stains" for enlarged floral landscapes that pre-empt the pieces by American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who became famous more than 100 years later.
The stains, not fragrant flowers plucked from the real world, nor imaginary flowers unfolding in the mind, Gartside's abstract stains, were beyond the borders of themselves, an entire century before non-figurative painting established itself on Wassily Kandinsky's best-known canvases. , Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Gartside's abstract blotches served a paradoxically precise theoretical function that belies its amorphous beauty. Art historian Alexandra Loske explains in her recent study Color: A Visual History that the hues, "white", "yellow", "orange", "green", "blue", "violet" and "crimson", show various degrees of saturation.
Gartside's goal was to illustrate the harmonies and contrasting hues of primary and secondary colors in a more organic, and perhaps less scientifically distant, way than the schematic color wheels of his famous ancestors. Although their spots may have, as TS Eliot writes in a poem in Burnt Norton of 1936, "the look of flowers that are watched," in fact they sought generations earlier to isolate the light energy that invigorates our perception of all things: color. "Colors," the romantic essayist Leigh Hunt gleefully noted in 1840, "are the smiles of nature. What is clear from Gartside's pioneering studies is that no theorist ever listened more closely to the laughter of colors than she."There is no other example of representing color systems that is as inventive and radical as Gartside's patches of color," writes Loske.