Black was the color of the Industrial Revolution, largely fueled by coal, and later by oil. Thanks to coal smoke, the buildings of the large cities of Europe and America gradually turned black. Charles Dickens and other writers described the dark streets and smoky skies of London, and they were vividly illustrated in the engravings of French artist Gustave Dore.
Overcrowded London, Gustave Dore
A different kind of black was an important part of the Romantic Movement in literature. Black was the color of melancholy, the dominant theme of romanticism. The novels of the period were filled with castles, ruins, dungeons, storms, and meetings at midnight. The leading poets of the movement were usually portrayed dressed in black, and usually with a white shirt and open collar with a scarf over the shoulder. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron helped create the enduring stereotype of the romantic poet.
The invention of new, inexpensive synthetic black dyes and the industrialization of the textile industry meant that good-quality black clothes were available for the first time to the general population. In the 19th century black gradually became the most popular color of business dress of the upper and middle classes in England, Europe and America.
Black dominated literature and fashion in the 19th century, and played a large role in painting. James McNeil Whistler made the color the subject of his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black Number One, 1871, better known as Whistler's Mother.
Some 19th century French painters had a low opinion of black: "Reject black," Paul Gauguin said, "and that mix of black and white they call grey. Nothing is black, nothing is grey." But Edouard Manet used blacks for their strength and dramatic effect. Manet's portrait of painter Berthe Morisot was a study in black which perfectly captured her spirit of independence. The black gave the painting power and immediacy; he even changed the color of her eyes, which were green, to black to strengthen the effect.
Berthe Morisot, Manet
Henri Matisse quoted the French impressionist Pisarro telling him, "Manet is stronger than us all--he made light with black."
Auguste Renoir used luminous blacks, especially in his portraits. When someone told him that black was not a color, Renoir replied: "What makes you think that? Black is the queen of colors. I always detested Prussian blue. I tried to replace black with a mixture of red and blue, I tried using cobalt blue or ultramarine, but I always came back to ivory black."
The Reader, Renoir
Vincent van Gogh used black lines to outline many of the objects in his paintings, such as the bed in the famous painting of his bedroom, making them stand apart. His painting of black crows over a wheatfield, painted shortly before he died, was particularly agitating and haunting.
Wheatfield with Crows Vincent's Bedroom in Arles