June 1 through September 29, 2024

Rodale Gallery

Indigo, azure, or Prussian blue; carmine, crimson, or veinous blood red: do these terms evoke identical color visualizations for all of us? Are we speaking the same language?

Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986), Red and Orange Streak, 1919, oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987 (1987-70-3)

In his book Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814), Scottish painter Patrick Syme sought to create a reference for use across the arts and sciences. Featuring affixed color samples, it proved practical and portable. In fact, naturalist Charles Darwin used it during the collecting expeditions that led to his theory of evolution.

Syme’s book was distinct in defining colors through examples from the natural world: “animal, vegetable, and mineral.” For instance, the sample square called “Skimmed milk White” equates to the “White of the Human Eyeballs,” the “Back of the Petals of Blue Hepatica” flower, or the “Common Opal.” These points of reference help us toward a common understanding of color. While color charts have evolved in complexity, well beyond Syme’s 108 color samples, and their presentation has entered the digital realm, Werner’s Nomenclature continues to offer a shared language.

Inspired by this early work in color nomenclature, this exhibition presents a selection of artworks in which color—and sometimes its theory or taxonomy—predominates. From Orphism’s abstract echo of sound to the chemical chroma of cyanotypes, visual artists’ explorations of color contrasts and simulations remind us of the unique way in which we each see the world, and the opportunity we have to impart that through words, images, and their interpretation.

This is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Art Bridges Cohort Program.


Image at top: Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879-1940), Tomb in Three Parts, 1923, watercolor and graphite on paper with borders painted by the artist. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louis E. Stern Collection, 1963. (1963-181-35)