Colour Matters 2023

Colour Matters

Exploring Colour and Chromatic Materialities in the Long Nineteenth Century (1798-1914)

6-8 December 2023

Trinity College, Oxford

When discussing colour, it is customary to say that the topic has long been shunned or marginalized in academic study, especially in the humanities. But the past two decades have seen the emergence of a new interdisciplinary field marked by the publication of a wealth of colour-focused studies and the organization of major conferences dedicated to the histories of polychrome practice in art, architecture or textile heritage. Building on Michel Pastoureau’s and John Gage’s pioneering work, these new perspectives on colour bring together the visual arts, chemistry, physics, archaeology, archaeometry, anthropology, social history, and even literature, to unveil hitherto neglected aspects of the culture of colour. No longer seen as superficial or secondary (Batchelor 2000), colour now evidently matters.

And yet, contrary to Pastoureau’s and Gage’s cultural histories, many of these works (Roque 2009, Eaton 2013, Doran 2013, Ribeyrol 2016, Durgan 2018, Kalba 2018, Gaskill 2018, Rossi 2019, Conquer 2019, Dootson 2023) focus on the long nineteenth century only. The period was indeed a crucial moment in the history of ‘modern’ colour as the industrial revolution turned into a ‘colour revolution’ (Blaszczyk 2012). This revolution was notably brought about by the invention of new synthetic pigments, dyes and colour technologies (such as chromolithography) which radically changed the perception and production of colours for all sections of society in Europe and beyond, as well as the status of colour itself (Loske 2021). Thanks to technological innovation in heritage science (in particular the continuous development of non-invasive analytical methods) it is now possible to characterize the new colour substances and techniques introduced during this key period without compromising the physical integrity of the objects studied (Carlyle 2001, Townsend et al. 2004).

Growing interest in nineteenth-century colour is closely tied to materiality understood as referring both to changing colouring materials and to the diverse forms of the embodied observer’s sensuous responses when seeing, handling, tasting, hearing or smelling chromatic matter (Young 2018, Howes 2022). Drawing on the material turn in the humanities as well as on interdisciplinary methodologies interweaving art historical approaches and heritage science, this conference will bring together scholars working on the long nineteenth century to explore how new approaches to chromatic matter can shed light on what happened to colour during this period. Discussions will aim to bridge the gap between concreteexperimentations with colour (whether industrial, scientific, technical or artistic) and more abstract reflections on the chromatic (in philosophy, aesthetics, literature, psychology and/or anthropology).

This major international event is part of the ERC-funded CHROMOTOPE project (2019-2024), which analyses the artistic and literary impact of the invention of the first aniline dyes across Europe. It is scheduled to coincide with the exhibition ‘Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design’ (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 21 September 2023 – 18 February 2024), which will show how the chromatic innovations of the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the arts and culture of Britain and its Empire


We welcome abstracts for 20-min papers or posters on any aspect related to the following topics from early and more established researchers, whatever their disciplinary background. Proposals with a strong material and/or interdisciplinary focus will be given priority:

  • 19th-century colouring materials and techniques and their evolution: organic, mineral, synthetic dyes/pigments; traditional practice vs scientific innovation
  • Preserving and ‘reviving’ colour: colour across time (the fading of pigments and/or dyes); the 19th-century rediscovery of the colours of the past and their preservation or restoration, etc.
  • Colour naming and classification: colour manuals or ‘grammars’; colour theories and their dissemination, etc.
  • Colour pedagogy: the use of colour (colour slides, chromolithography, hand-tinting) in 19th-century pedagogical practice; teaching about colour and colouring practices in universities, academies, art schools, workshops, etc.
  • Global colour: the geography, circulation and geopolitics of colour in an increasingly global age, etc.
  • The economics and labour of colour: colour suppliers; colour trades; colour patents; colour consumption; colour ‘workers’ (from dyers to flower girls); industrialising colour; colour and capitalism, etc.
  • Colour ecologies: dyeing and pollution; colour and animal welfare; colour and botany; colour and evolution and/or sexual selection, etc.
  • The Colourscapes of modernity: the new sites showcasing colour (international exhibitions, etc.)
  • Colour spectacles: 19th-century investigations into colour vision, colour and new lighting conditions; 19th-century instruments/devices to see or record colours (kaleidoscopes, stereoscopes, magic lanterns, colour photography, early colour film, etc.)
  • Colour and the racialised and/or gendered body: skin shades/pigmentation and their reception/translation into polychrome art works; make-up, hair dyeing etc.
  • Colour as ‘pharmakon’: the physiological and psychological effects of colour on the body and mind; chromotherapy; colour toxicity, etc.
  • The epistemology of 19th-century colour: how was chromatic materiality studied and/or used in 19th century academia (in psychology, anthropology, linguistic, natural sciences, art history, applied sciences, etc.)
  • Combining material analysis and archival (or collection) research to expand our understanding of the social and cultural uses of colour in the 19th century
  • The materiality of 19th-century colour in the digital age: translating pigments/dyes into pixels; colour databases etc.

Proposals specifying COLOUR PAPER or COLOUR POSTER in the subject should be sent to by 17 March 2023.

The submission should include, as an attachment, a short biography and either:

  • a 300-word abstract in PDF format, or
  • a draft of the poster in PDF format

The authors of all accepted posters should print their own copy of their poster and bring it with them to the conference. Posters should be printed in portrait mode, with a maximum size of A0 (118,9cm x 84,1cm).

Author notification for paper/poster acceptance: 10 April 2023.

Accommodation and transportation costs will be covered and meals provided for all speakers.

Organising committee: Stefano Evangelista, Madeline Hewitson, Charlotte Ribeyrol, Matthew Winterbottom

Scientific committee: Nicholas Gaskill, Alexandra Loske, Stephanie Moser, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Georges Roque, Joyce Townsend, and the members of the interdisciplinary CHROMOTOPE team

A selection of papers will be included in an open access publication.


This event has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 818563).

Image copyright: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2009: John Johnson Collection: Soap 1 (41)
For the bibliographical references included in this CFP, please visit our Resources page.

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