To Capture the Music of Light

In the Hall of Honor of the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition hung a watercolor painting titled The Spirit of the 19th Century.  The piece was among those awarded the fair’s highest jury commendation — a bronze medal designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens— and was the work of a 51-year-old artist named Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, the author of this fascinating book and creator of the prescient works of art held within. [1]

Vanderpoel paints a scene looking over an urban rail yard of interlaced tracks laid on raw wet earth reflecting a violet grey sky.  On the tracks a trio of engines shuttle coal cars beneath a long iron bridge spanning the yard’s red brick walls.  A single smokestack rises behind, telegraph poles carry wires off into the distance.  The engines’ trails of swirling white steam fade to pink in the composition’s color harmony of red tones. [2]

Accompanied in the Hall by the more conventional portraits, landscapes and allegorical figures painted by her fellow awardees, Vanderpoel’s unique expression of the terrible beauty of the industrial infrastructure driving the era gives insight into the artist, of whom many key traces have been lost.  Lost, like traces of the painting titled Ypres which was said to have hung in the “National Art Museum” in Washington D.C. [3]  Lost, like a cache of her personal papers reported to be incinerated by her grandson’s wife. [4]

Scion of a prominent colonial American family, and of a stern and industrious stock that was part of her character [5], Vanderpoel divided her time between New York City and Litchfield, Connecticut.  A connoisseur and collector of a wide range of cultural artifacts, Vanderpoel was a proud Daughter of the American Revolution, and a generous local philanthropist. She was a champion of girls’ education, women's means for advancement, and society’s knowledge and cultivation of traditional craft. [6]

Widowed before the birth of her only son [7], Vanderpoel as an artist and author was active in New York’s creative community, centered around the American Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street.  The building nurtured an interdisciplinary mix of organizations including the American Watercolor Society, and the break-off New York Watercolor Club, the first such co-ed association of its time, where she served as president.  It also held the American Fine Arts Society, the influential Art Students League, and held exhibitions and events for the Architectural League and the National Academy of Design among other organizations. The American Fine Arts Building was frequently a venue for lectures on fine art and applied arts and sciences, including color science [8]. In short, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel was a remarkably independent Victorian woman with great access and much more than Virginia Woolf’s requisite “money and a room of one’s own” that a woman would need to author independent works.

At the turn of the 20th century, Vanderpoel published Color Problems, a Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, along with two other works: the 465-page first volume of Chronicles of a Pioneer School, and a set of charming and technically astute illustrations for the The Tale of the Spinning Wheel by Cynthia Barney Buell [9]. She continued to author books (including a lovely photographic survey of american lacemaking) and to exhibit paintings into the last decade of her life before her death at the age of 96 [10]. Vanderpoel had a foot firmly and productively in both centuries.  She experienced the quickening of the 1800s into the speeding 1900s.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, ushering in the new century, presented possibilities and means of the final distribution of the industrial revolution out of the factory and into homes, workshops and classrooms for the betterment of daily life.  Vanderpoel’s participation there seems to have inspired the long project of this book. She would have been impressed by the advancements of science and technology presented adjacent to comprehensive displays of historical and contemporary fine arts and crafts of world cultures at the Fair, which was attended by nearly a quarter of the nation’s population.

Despite the future-oriented work in many of the Columbian Exposition’s displays, the architecture and planning of the greatly influential “White City”, as the campus was known, was itself a study in neoclassical Beaux Arts composition, an historical revival style that was on the rise in architecture and urban planning. Such historicism had already begun its long decline in the fine and decorative arts, amidst the evanescent beginnings of new styles not all yet precisely nameable in those disciplines, developments that Color Problems is an example of.

It was at the Exposition that she may have been introduced to the inventor and publisher of art educational materials Milton Bradley, who was displaying his Color Machine, patented that same year (PLATE XXVII) [11]. Many informed hands would be needed to direct the technological and aesthetic promise of the coming century.

While Mr. Bradley’s work went on to educate future public school teachers about color and its science [12], Vanderpoel engaged her passion for craft production, the valuable work of women, the ornamental and the exotic, science and technology to write another kind of instructional text. Her aim was to teach color to the non-artist (“artist” meaning at the time only painters and sculptors, mostly male) and the non-arts-educator.  The book was intended for those in the practical arts and for the common citizen making things, especially women whose hands were being made idle by the rise of household technologies. [13]

In this two-part book she accomplished more than that, however.  One won’t find a more concise summary of the contemporary technical literature on color than what is given in the first part of the book, and the science hasn’t advanced much since then.  However, in the creation of her own method to teach the practical observation and notation of color, Vanderpoel introduces a wholly original and thoroughly modern series of works: the 54 “Color Analyses” and the 15 freeform “Color Notes” we find in the book’s 117 color plates.  The Analyses are observations mainly of inanimate decorative objects and are of a more interior nature, described in the chapter “Historic Color”, while the Notes are observations of more fleeting natural phenomena outdoors, described in the chapter “Natural Color”.

The freeform Notes might be said to be highly influenced by the works of the prolific art teacher and color theorist Mary Gartside, who was working at the transition of the 18th to 19th Centuries.  Vanderpoel’s Notes are significantly different, however, in that they are not only illustrations of the production of effects of adjacent colors coming from theory, but are abstract paintings of observed scenic color.

In the case of the unprecedented gridded Color Analyses, her invention is a highly synthetic method of abstraction. By careful observation of a part or whole of an object using subjective framing through an aperture—the Color Isolation Card found in the folder in the back cover of the book [14]— students are instructed to separate the object’s color from its form to appreciate colors and their adjacencies in and of themselves, and are given a method to record what they see.

The observation, refined to just the quantity, adjacency and quality of color, is painted into the matrix of a 10 x 10 grid.  The recorded analysis, then, performs as a kind of memory device composed of its 100 pixels to capture the essence of the scanned color experience.

Vanderpoel’s grids liberate the measured color arrangements to be used at another scale or in another medium.  No longer part of the observed Mummy Case, or confined to be a Celtic Ornament or Panel of the Taj Mahal, the new compositions are free to be interpreted and repurposed at will. They can be viewed in the context of textile pattern, flower arrangement, parlor decoration, or hat design, she says.  They can be seen as space plans or cross sections at the scale of a room, building or town.  The color adjacencies create space within their matrix as colors and color fields advance or retreat in relation to each other according to the laws of optics and subjectivities of perception. The observer/interpreter is assured of the value of the provenance of the object‘s color composition as being the product of  a slow historical material culture practice. [15]

It is the abstraction itself of the Analyses that enables this cross-discipline, trans-media transfer. [16] The object can be liberated from its name while its valuable, transmissible, visual essence remains in the Analysis. The use of the square format enables one further distancing from the source by allowing free rotation, erasing even gravity’s trace of up and down. The method produces a modernist axiom associated with the great living artist Robert Irwin, that “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” [17]

Vanderpoel encourages students to visit art and natural history museums in an effort understand the proper use of color manifest in the artifacts inside. Presumably, one would draw the linear grids on watercolor paper to take to the galleries with a portable watercolor palette and the Color Isolation Card. If a museum wasn’t available, then the public library has books of expertly studied ornament like those of Owen Jones or John Ruskin to work from, she says. Without the museum or library as resource, then common things surrounding the student will do, a Magazine Advertisement or a Prize Dinner Table for example. What’s important is cultivating the observational and interpretational practice, a meditation. Indeed, what Vanderpoel sets out is a Practice of color. As she points out in her preface to the book, it’s not enough for someone with an “eye for color” to rely on that simple innate ability any more than a person with a natural singing voice would let that gift go undeveloped. Her democratization of color practice relates the common domestic practice of music performance with color so that “hence we may aptly term color the music of light.”

One will find colors organized in grids in the previous technical literature: square ones, round ones, triangular. But one won’t find an earlier use of the grid in the manner that it is employed here, analogous to the arrangement of the rods and cones of the retina, the grain of photo sensitive chemicals in the emulsion of photo paper, or of a sensor array in a digital camera, though at another resolution, and just as subjective as the pointing of the camera lens of photography.

If the appearance of the grid in art was a unique declaration of modernity, as the eminent Rosalind Krause theorizes, “appearing nowhere, nowhere at all in the art of [the 19th century]”, then maybe in retrospect Vanderpoel’s grids could be considered a candidate for such an appearance. [18]

It wouldn’t be for another few years after the 1902 publication of Color Problems that artists and designers, from diverse locations and disciplines would coalesce, using abstraction as a lingua franca in their quest to give a visual language to their shared experience, renouncing representation and declaring themselves, their art and their era “modern.” [19]

It took until the 1929 founding of the Bauhaus in Germany before such approaches to art, craft, and design pedagogy, process, and appreciation were systematically developed into an institutional force. The Bauhaus entirely changed the landscape of art and design, and its influence is, in part why it’s possible for us to now see Vanderpoel’s remarkable works in a way she herself could not, though her intellectual engagement, passion and pleasure in the work is plainly apparent. [20]

There is no evidence that the later modernists knew of this work, although running across it in a public or university library was a distinct possibility, especially in an English-speaking country. It doesn’t appear in the library records of the Bauhaus, nor of the American experimental design school Black Mountain College, for instance. Renowned artist and color teacher Josef Albers, whose works have such an affinity for work like Vanderpoel’s, was inspired by but not beholden to the same color theory sources that she was: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevruel, James Clerk Maxwell, and Ogden Rood—her colleague in the Watercolor Club whose color science influenced Georges Seurat as well as Wilhelm Ostwald at the Bauhaus.

How the book was received in its time is unknown, other than appreciative reviews by booksellers. It doesn’t appear to have had much influence on its stated lay audience. The numerous color plates made it expensive and in its two printings it seems to have been distributed mainly to collectors, libraries and institutions. Complete printing records and whatever correspondence [21] that may have remained from the process of its publication and its distribution were lost to the blitz of World War II at the London-based publisher. What records there may be of Boston publishing partner Rockwell and Churchill Press also haven’t been found [22].

Vanderpoel went on painting conventionally representational watercolors, never again producing abstractions like those found in Color Problems.  She did not write of them again, or exhibit them in an art context that we know of.  However, a 1927 watercolor of cubic black automobiles jostling up and down a rainy Fifth Avenue under the direction of its first traffic lights seems to bear some fruit of the Analyses. [23]

A series of photographs taken after her 1907 move from Park Avenue to a townhouse on Gramercy Park reveals a dual nature in the character of Vanderpoel.  There was a Downstairs Emily and an Upstairs Emily.

While the photos documenting the downstairs salon are furnished in a respectable unassuming period correctness, the photographs of her fourth floor studio reveal a private world entirely different.

Dressed in a full-length silk Chinese robe, her hand resting on the coiled stone carved elephant trunk supporting the mantlepiece, Vanderpoel presides over a large bear skin rug.  The room’s walls carry an oceanic theme adorned by fields of rocaille shell-encrusted panels framed by finely crafted Japanese-inspired Arts and Crafts Movement woodwork. The aperture of the large square skylight above is draped with finely woven fish netting, filtering the Manhattan sunlight. She wears a winsome expression on her face.

This lovely, mysterious book is an introduction to that colorful upstairs world, Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, and her eye-opening, all but forgotten work.

Alan Bruton, 2018


1 Regarded as the first structure of national importance to be designed by a woman and run by women, designed by Boston architect Sophia Hayden, with the program curated by the Board of Lady Managers, which included women of both the progressively conservative rear-guard and the progressively liberal vote-getting avant-guard. See Weimann, Jeanne M. The Fair Women: [the Story of the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893]. Chicago: Academy, 1981. Across the Exposition, the top 20% of exhibitors in each category were awarded the bronze Medal. In the Woman’s Building this grouping was in the Hall of Honor. See World's Columbian Exposition, 1893 : Official Catalogue : pt. XIV, Woman's Building, Pg 45.

2 The painting The Spirit of the 19thCentury is in the collection of the Litchfield Historical Society.

3 This painting is referred to in Vanderpoel’s New York Times obituary as well as in a letter from a descendant to a researcher in the 1970’s.

4 Lynne Brickman, PhD., conversation, 2010. Dr. Brickman discovered the destruction of the personal effects during research on Vanderpoel in conversation with a descendant.

5 In Lynne Brickman’s essay in the catalog of the Litchfield Historical Society 1993 exhibition To Ornament their Minds: Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy 1792-1823, p.36, we learn that “every hour of the week must be occupied” for the young women of the academy that Vanderpoel admiringly documented in her Chronicles of a Pioneer School. “Inclined to be a tartar, but she knew what she was doing.” was the opinion of William Lampson Warren, 1896/1998, a longtime Connecticut resident and former director of the Litchfield Historical Society. Documented in 1971 Letter to Dr Clark S Marlor of Adelphi University.

6 Her primary known philanthropy, very substantial, was for the Litchfield Historical Society. In Litchfield she helped organize the local chapter of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) in 1899, and her continuous work on the documenting of girl’s education and particularly their education in the arts and crafts is thoroughly demonstrated in the two volumes of her books Chronicles of a Pioneer School and in her book American Lace and Lace Makers. She donated most of her large collection of artifacts to the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. The Litchfield Historical Society received much of her ceramic collection.

7 The public record shows Emily Noyes (1842-1938) married John Aaron Vanderpoel (1842-1866), the youngest of the prominent Kinderhook, NY family, 22 May 1865. He died 12 April 1866 before the birth of their son John Arent Vanderpoel, born 4 June 1866. No obituary has been found for husband John Aaron, graduate of Columbia, listed in some records as an author. Their son’s Boston Chronicle obituary reports he died in a hotel there 28 January 1901, as Color Problems was being copyrighted, having just prior to his death been involved in a high profile divorce case with his Washington DC society wife. Correspondences archived at the Litchfield Historical Society show that mother and son had a congenial relationship.  All that is known of her formal art education is that she is said to have been a student of the American painters Robert Swain Gifford (1840 –1905) , who wrote the introduction to Color Problems, and William Sartain (1843 – 1924).

8 Physicist Ogden Rood, an amateur painter and member of the New York Watercolor Club, is listed in the New York Times to have lectured on Maxwell’s spinning color disks, for instance (which were later improved upon by the metrication device of the Milton Bradley Color Machine.)

9 In the Tale of the Spinning Wheel, p.35, there is an illustration “Woman with Hetchel, 15thCentury” of a spinner preparing flax on a tool called a hetchel that has a remarkable likeness to a person looking through the 15th century device of a Sighting Grid. The nature of the Tale being told is how women of the revolution won the Revolutionary War through their weaving and other necessary and fine crafts, as it says has been throughout history.

10 A 1928 clipping from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Vertical File reports her exhibition at the Community House of the Connecticut Agricultural College of nine watercolors, brought there by the Met, which hasn't any of them still in their collection. The titles were: The Long Hill, Japanese Color, Over the Dark Valley, The Green Mug, The Bronze Home, Early Morning, The Cliff, Moonrise, and The Ledge.

11 Catalog of the World’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893 Department L, Liberal Arts, Gallery I, Primary Secondary Superior Education, Z-13, page 215 lists several likely possibilities for such presentation of the Color Machine.

12 Bradley, Milton. Elementary Color. Milton Bradley co, 1895. Print

13 See for instance the article Women as Consumers, Women as Producers  in Lupton, Ellen, and J A. Miller. Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design. London: Phaidon, 2008. Print. pp178-79.

14 Vanderpoel demonstrates the method in Plates LXXXI, An Antique Rug, and LXXXV, its Analysis. Note the asymmetry in the analysis which has color quantity winning over the formal symmetry.

15 Vanderpoel tells us these Analyses are not merely pixelated representations, fixed in scale, material, name and meaning on page 109 of Color Problems where she projects onto PLATE LIV, Color Analysis from Mummy Plate her re-interpretation of the matrix as a “gayly feathered parrot”. Thus, the grids could be considered “continuous sites of emergence of material thought”, as per Carol Armstrong’s analysis on the dialog between painting (in the work of Seurat) and other media (textile craft in the work of Anni Albers.) in Armstrong, Carol. “Seurat’s Media, or Matrix of Materialities.” Grey Room. 58 (2015) 6-25. Print. P18. Vanderpoel also here refers to “those who made [the plates]” as if they were her students or someone else, but no record of her teaching the method or somehow stumbling upon it as the work of someone else exist.

16 In the Introduction to the catalog of the exhibition Ornament and Abstraction, at the Beyeler Foundation, (pp16-26), Markus Bruderlin introduces questions in the discourse about abstract art’s continuation of the history of ornament that Vanderpoel’s work engages.

17 A quote attributed to the French poet Paul Valery, and the title of Lawrence Weschlers 1982 biography Robert Irwin’s titled “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.”

18 Krauss, Rosalind. "Grids." October. 9 (1979): 51-64. Print.

19 Dickerman, Leah, and Matthew Affron. Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Print. pp13-14. For an institutional definition of what is Abstract Art verses what is abstract otherwise, refer to the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Inventing Abstraction: “Scores of earlier images from other Western disciplines — chromatic studies, theosophical and mediumistic images, cosmogonic images, scientific images—may resemble abstract art. But these are not at all, for despite any formal similarity they are meant to produce meanings in other discursive frameworks....[they] do not declare a break with subject matter.” Vanderpoel certainly generates an intentional ambiguity if not a “declared break” with subject matter.

20 Bergdoll, Barry, and Leah Dickerman. Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009. Print.p.21 On the “Grid logic” that developed in the Bauhaus: “the grid became a structural tool allowing for the creation of spaces that integrated disparate mediums into overarching designs - painting, furniture, and textiles into planning...the computer-like punch cards used in the Jacquard looms.”

21 Correspondence with Reading University, 2010, archive of publisher Longman’s and Green.

22 Correspondence with Pearson Press, 2010, successor to Longman’s and Green.

23 New York Historical Society, Object #35.66, gift of Emily Vanderpoel. In Color Problems, Vandepoel often positions her interest in color in relation to personal and public well being, even safety: color blindness as a primarily male trait dangerous for railroad engineers, drivers of the new automobiles in relationship to choreographing color signals.

24 Collection of New York Historical Society.

“Color Problems” by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel

Introduction Essay:

“To Capture the Music of Light”

by Alan Bruton, 2018

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