Chemistry and Art: Romanticism Art

The Romantic Period was full of drama - even the paint was dramatic!


k-mistry21800 – 1850 AD

That’s because loads of it was poisonous and made from human bodies! In fact, there was often more going on in the paint than on the canvas!

The Romantic Period was a time of industrial expansion, new technology and science but lots of artists felt kind of suffocated by all that serious stuff! So, instead, Romantic painters kind of let themselves go mad – painting all sorts of things from their imaginations and trying to capture the feelings that went with events, not just what things looked like.


One of the most famous artists of the era was English painter Joseph Turner.

turnerborisjohnson_2237386bThe picture above is his iconic seascape called “The Fighting Temaraire”.

Landscapes and seascapes like this one were very popular at this time.  Turner didn’t have to worry about getting enough precious blue or green paint for the sky or sea because there were now stacks of manufactured paints he could buy.

Funnily enough, even though Romantics were kind of rebelling against science – science was helping them do it!

paletteLet’s have a look at the new colours that would have been on Turner’s palette… 

  • Cobalt Blue
  • Chromium Green
  • Emerald Green
  • Oxide Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Zinc White
  • Rose Madder
  • Aureolin
  • Viridian
  • Cobalt Violet

Believe it or not, purple paint was a new thing for the Romantic era! 

mauveine dressBefore this time, you would’ve had to grind up very rare seashells or mix blue and red to create a purple. However, this all changed in the mid 1850s when a new colour called mauveine was created!

Mauveine was so popular Queen Victoria had clothes made for her entire family in it!

Some of the new paints had some serious problems though.

Emerald Green, for instance, was poisonous.  It was known as Paris Green, and was also used to kill rats in the Parisian sewers!

And a popular brown paint called Egyptian Brown, or Mummy Brown, was made by grinding up Egyptian mummies!  They were stolen from tombs and the bodies were traded around the world.


The good news is that a lot of artists just didn’t realise they were doing bad things!

090323bury-promotions-resumeWhen they did, some stopped using those paints.  In fact, one painter called Edward Burne Jones was so horrified that he’d been using dead bodies, he buried his last tube in the garden!

It wasn’t just a bad paint because it was made from people. Paintings created with it haven’t lasted very well and cause lots of problems for conservationists – the people who try to look after paintings.

The pigment (the coloured part) in Egyptian Brown paint, for example, contains bitumen.  That’s a kind of tar – similar to the sticky black stuff people mend roads with!

It’s so sticky that it never really dries.  This means that when other paints are added on top, they might crack when they dry because the wet stuff underneath keeps moving. A bit like when the earth cracks in your garden when it has been very hot.


Heat is used quite often to examine or mend paintings but there’s a big problem with using heat on this paint. 

Normally when paints dry, the molecules become rigid. However, conservationists have discovered that despite them being over a hundred and fifty years old, these paints are still the tiniest bit liquid!

Lick-3-anne-vilsoe-maleri-detaljeThat means the molecules are not as tightly bound together so when we add a bit of heat the molecules will get rather energetic and start moving around a lot – which will cause the paint to go all runny and ruin the painting!

That’s why conservationists have to figure out exactly what they’re dealing with before they start trying to mend or restore paintings.  Luckily there are stacks of scientific techniques that allow them to work quite a bit out without even touching the painting.

th008OBXZOHigh powered microscopes can zoom in and tell scientists a lot about the texture of a pigment. They might also use things like X-Rays, UV lights and infrared lights.  The way things look under these lights gives clues to what they are made of, and how they’ll react to different techniques that might be used to clean or repair them.

It’s a bit like how doctors would use an X-Ray to look at your bones under your skin.

We’ve got one more place to spot off on our tour of art history, it’s the Impressionist period!

Next: Impressionist Art