top of page

Women of Color: Mary Gartside and Emily Noyes Vanderpoel

In “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) [1], feminist art historian Linda Nochlin turned the commonly accepted ideas of genius upside down. She demonstrated how greatness has as much, if not more, to do with social access (education, current ideas and trends, patronage, distribution etc.) as it does with unique traits and abilities. For the same reason that there are no ‘famous Eskimo [sic] tennis players’, women were often absent from the esteemed canon of Western art and science: the history of color and color theory is no exception. But recent scholarship [2] has begun to identify women who were actively involved in color research and whose insights and ideas have prefigured later developments more often associated with men. Mary Gartside in England, and Emily Noyes Vanderpoel in America are two such women. They both published books on color theory in their lifetimes, and characteristically presented their work as painting manuals under the guise and genre of flower painting and the decorative arts – areas befitting to women of their time. But these were more than the traditional ‘manuals for ladies’. They were works of great originality and learning, and in many ways ahead of their time. Their ideas on color focused primarily on the phenomenology and experience of color, on color harmony, modulation and color relationships, ideas that prefigured some of the concepts and approaches to color theory that were later taken up and popularized by the other sex. Besides the content; however, both are remarkably similar for the striking beauty and originality of approach in their abstract and non-representational color ‘illustrations’. (fig.1)

Fig 1: (left) Blue, Mary Gartside, from ’An essay on light and shade’, 1805. Image: Alexandra Loske. (right) Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, Plate V - Advancing and Retiring Colors , Color problems; a practical manual for the lay student of color (1902)

Mary Gartside published three books on color in her lifetime. The most well known, An Essay on Light and Shade (1805) [3] presents an approach to color that, quite independently, arrived at many of the same conclusions as Goethe did in his Zur Farbenlehre, of a few years later, such as “the effect of colour combinations, the significance of light and shade in relation to tints, and the eye of the beholder as the centre and origin of colour perception” [4]. Gartside’s book was one of the earliest texts to divide colors into warm and cool, and to focus on the sensory effects of colors and their various combinations [5]. One of the most striking and original features of the book is the series of hand painted color ‘blots’ (figs. 1 and 2) that accompany each color section, visually demonstrating various colour harmonies and contrasts. They are annotated with letters and symbols and betray a level of discernment and discrimination that is not surprising considering her work with flowers and painting. Additionally, they have been recognized as probably the earliest examples of abstract art [6], predating Kandinsky by nearly 100 years! Gartside’s approach was practical, based as it was in the experience and use of color and is recognized today as bridging the gap between the more scientific approach of Newton and the experiential approach of Goethe.

Fig 2: Mary Gartside, (left) Color circle. (right) Crimson. From An Essay on a New Theory of Colours, London, 1808. Images: Alexandra Loske.

Nearly a century later, the American Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, a respected author on porcelains and other applied and plastic arts, published a curious book, Color problems: A practical manual for the lay student of color (1902) [7]

Fig. 3: (left) Emily Noyes Vandepoel. Color analysis of an antique rug, Color Problems; a practical manual for the lay student of color (1902) (right) Mrs. Emily Noyes Vanderpoel. Photo: Litchfield Historical Society.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of the main ideas of color theory at that time, as well as some original approaches to color analysis and interaction. Her book is lavishly illustrated with a great variety of color images, and like Gartside, displays a remarkable inventiveness. One example of such originality is a series of gridded squares (10 x 10) that analyze the proportions of color derived from actual objects (fig.3), an approach ubiquitous in art departments today. Other examples (fig.1) deal with color interactions in a square format that presage the iconic work of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square some fifty years later.

Though they never achieved the recognition and respect in their lifetime that their work deserved, these women are testaments to the human spirit, one that says - even in the remote tundras of the arctic, great tennis players are waiting to be discovered!


[1] From Art and Sexual Politics: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (eds. Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker; New York, Macmillan, 1971)

[2] I am indebted to the work of Dr. Alexandra Loske for her work on Mary Gartside ( ). Also to John Ptak at JF Ptak Science Books for his blog on Emily Noyes Vanderpoel.

[3] Gartside, Mary, An Essay on Light and Shade, on Colours, and on Composition in General (London, Printed for the author, by T. Davison, and sold by T. Gardiner, 1805).

[4] Loske, Alexandra (2010) Mary Gartside: A female colour theorist in Georgian England. Journal of Art History and Museum Studies, 14. pp. 17-30. ISSN 2041-1987

[5] A. Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000) 218.

[6] R. Rosenberg and Max Hollein, eds., Turner – Hugo – Moreau. Entdeckung der Abstraktion (Munich, Hirmer Verlag, 2006)


© 2016 Carl Jennings -

bottom of page