Leonardo's color in the early 20th century

Marie Frank

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

In 1922 American design theorist and collector Denman Waldo Ross mounted two exhibitions, one in Boston and the other in New York City, in which he typed out passages from Leonardo's writings on color and placed them between his own paintings and others from his collection. The exhibitions demonstrated Ross's design theory, known as Pure Design that had, from the late 1890s on, influenced artists of the Ashcan School, architects of the Prairie School and artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement. Pure Design was modern, avant-garde, and a deliberate rejection of academy practices. How did the comments of Leonardo written 400 years earlier earn a place in this theory?

In the history of ideas, an idea transcends time at the same time it acquires a particular interpretation at a particular time. Just as the Renaissance humanists remade the ancient texts, Ross remade Leonardo for the 20th century, placing emphasis on some aspects of Leonardo's thought and ignoring others completely. Ross's use of Leonardo allows us to focus on one of the perennial and enduring questions in the history of ideas: the complex relationship between art and science. Ross always insisted on the necessary role of science in the production and appreciation of art and he no doubt knew Leonardo's Paragone. And yet both the science and the art of Ross's day had changed dramatically; Ross invoked Leonardo just as artists started to reject the mimetic representation that Leonardo had so painstakingly achieved.

Ross published a comprehensive account of his design theory in 1907: A Theory of Pure Design: Illustrations of Harmony, Balance and Rhythm (fig. 1). The book illustrates the principles of harmony, balance, and rhythm through a thorough explication of the design elements of the point, line, shape and color. This format recalls Leonardo's statement that "the first principle of the science of painting is the point, the second is the line, the third is the surface, [and] the fourth is the body which is clothed by these surfaces" (Libro di pittura, chapter 5) (fig. 2).

But Ross might have followed Leonardo's model even more consciously. As Martin Kemp pointed out, Leonardo paralleled his words (or text) with three types of images: geometrical diagrams, demonstrazione and the finished works of art. Ross did precisely the same in his writings and teaching. In his book, he accompanies his text with geometrical diagrams; in the classroom he provided students with demonstrations of harmony or balance with the design elements; as a collector he amassed over 16,000 works of art.

The essential understanding that Ross shared with Leonardo with regard to images was their independent cognitive value. Indeed, he spent his life arguing that children had to be taught to "see" a work of art just as they were taught to read a book. Leonardo would not have been Ross's only source for the cognitive value of images—he absorbed a heavy dose of Ruskinian aesthetics through his teacher Charles Eliot Norton. But Leonardo's model would have reaffirmed for him the universal validity of the argument. Throughout his voluminous writings and teaching materials, Ross never provided the long descriptive passages of particular paintings for which his contemporaries, such as the art historian Heinrich Walfflin, became famous. He did not want to tell students what to see but give them the tools to learn to see.

"Learning to see" for Ross meant perceiving the artist's judgment in a composition: how he or she achieved harmony, balance and rhythm through the arrangement of the design elements of line, shape and color. The aesthetic merit of a work rested in the quality of design, not mimetic accuracy. This alternative way of "seeing" helps explain what Ross skipped over in his reading of Leonardo. He provides no discussion of shadows, modeling or perspective. The representation of a world seen from a single point of view is wholly absent from his design theory.

Ross's shift in "seeing" can be linked, in part, to the science he relied upon. For Ross, as for Leonardo, art and science were linked through observation. Since the science of optics and the science of vision, which were one and the same thing in the Renaissance, had split by the 19th century, Ross turned not to optics but to contemporary investigations in physiological psychology by Wundt, Fechner, Helmholtz and others. Much of the work of these men focused upon vision—particularly the eye's reaction to visual stimuli such as shapes and colors and resultant judgments of the mind.

The emphasis on vision and the perception of line, shape, arrangement and color literally opened up a new world. Ross's formalist approach allowed him and his colleagues to "see" beyond the western canon of Renaissance masters. Ross was a noted collector of Asian art and helped introduce Bernard Berenson to Chinese art in 1894; Berenson wrote, "[The pictures had] powerful characterization […] in terms of line, color, tone, that we Europeans have never approached."(Berenson 73-75). Roger Fry praised Ross's theory or "orderly connections" and applied it to his growing esteem for Post-Impressionism. Irma Richter learned of Ross's theories (through Jay Hambidge) and wrote Rhythmic Form in Art twenty years before publishing Leonardo's notebooks. All of these individuals used their knowledge of Renaissance art to appreciate other periods but all also looked at Renaissance art with 20th century eyes.

Leonardo's writings served as a source but also a validation for the production and appreciation of art. The science of painting and the design elements of the point, line and color allowed the perception of the universal language of art in the specific work of art from any time and any place.

Fig. 1 Denman Ross, A Theory of Pure Design: Illustrations of Harmony, Balance and Rhythm (Boston & New York, 1907).

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura (Rome, 1817).

Suggested reading

Bernard Berenson & H. Kiel, The Bernard Berenson Treasury (New York, 1962).

K. Danziger, Constructing the subject: Historical origins of psychological research (New York, 1990).

Marie Frank, Denman Ross and American Design Theory (Hanover & London, 2011).

Irma Richter, Rhythmic Form in Art: an Investigation of the Principles of Composition in the Works of the Great Masters (London, 1932).