On Women and Colour: Catherine Perrot and the Practical Guides to Art-Making by Early Modern Women Artists
When in 1686 Catherine Perrot (d. 1690) published a treatise on the art of painting in miniature, she became one of the only known women in the early modern period to author a text on art theory or practice. Dedicated to the young Dauphine, Perrot based her text on two suites of natural history illustrations by the renowned flower painter, and one of Perrot’s teachers, Nicolas Robert (1614-1685). Upon close looking, the text itself is curious in its almost single-minded focus on the selection, mixing, and application of colour. The treatise, reprinted in the early eighteenth century and popular amongst experts and amateurs alike, becomes all the more intriguing when compared to the small number of other technical treatises by women in this period. Though practical texts by male artists in the early modern period cover a broad spectrum of topics and themes, the few extant texts on art by women all deal primarily, if not exclusively, with colour. What’s more, the colour pigments under discussion in these texts, when mixed with oil or water, are applied to the genres of natural history and portraiture, the areas of art-making outside of craft to which women were generally limited. This essay examines women’s historical association with colour, and therefore with both artifìce and vanity, and how the presence of this connection is felt in published treatises on colour theory by early modern women artists. The age-old association between women and nature tethered women not only to the representation of ‘natural’ subject matter, but also to the natural pigments used to produce paint, and the necessary act of colour mixing. Thus steeped in the consideration of materiality and gender, this discussion draws on Perrot’s treatise as well as texts by her contemporaries, including Mary Beale (1633-1669) and Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), to explore what it means to link women artists with the lowly practice of colour mixing, and the way in which this relegation may have been used by women like Perrot as a means to become published authors. By leaving a trace in the written record, in their own hand, women artists secured their legacy, presenting posterity with the undeniable proof of their expertise in the making of art, and thus speaking directly to us.