Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2022
Basile Baudez Inessential Colors: Architecture on Paper in Early Modern Europe Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. 288 pp.; 176 color ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780691213569)

Carefully rendered wash drawings in a variety of hues, prints enhanced by gouache and watercolor—the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries saw a progressive expansion of polychromy in architectural representations and are analyzed by Basile Baudez in Inessential Colors. Architecture on Paper in Early Modern Europe. Throughout his extensively illustrated work the author interrogates this phenomenon, which initially served to bring clarity to a building’s design and later engaged in a visual language intended to captivate the viewer.

The field of study is vast, from Italy to the Netherlands, Great Britain to France, by way of Russia, Spain, or Germany. The author, a specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture, had already taken on a European perspective in his book on academic institutions, Architecture et tradition académique (2006). In Inessential Colors he uses this ambitious and stimulating approach to consider architectural drawings. Although far from absent in art history, such drawings often serve to illustrate the work of an architect or the history of a building or styles; with few exceptions, they are rarely studied in their own right. Basile Baudez thus offers a particularly fruitful subject in analyzing these drawings and prints from the novel perspective of color, revealed here as an essential tool of communication with both patrons and a wider audience. To do so, the author gathers impressive material documentation, including architectural treatises, drawings, and over 170 illustrations sourced from graphic design firms from around the world.

Baudez structures his commentary in three chapters and a prologue titled “Architectures in Black and White,” in which he introduces the state of affairs from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Until the sixteenth century, architects for the most part used black ink; any color that appeared was the doing of painters solicited to embellish the drawings or painter-architects such as Giotto. Likewise, architectural etchings from 1540 onward were conventionally worked in monochrome, considered a guarantee of the image’s objectivity. Italian theorists such as Vasari and Scamozzi promoted this view, criticizing the use of color as interfering with the perception of the line. In Europe, Italian architects long privileged monochromatic representations, whereas Baudez offers examples of British architects espousing and resisting this practice.

In the first chapter, “Imitative Colors,” the author examines the increasingly frequent use of color starting in the late sixteenth century. In such cases, colors signified materials, including red for brick, gray for slate, and yellow or brown for wood. In France, Jacques I Androuet du Cerceau employed color to convey elevation to his clients, while seventeenth-century Dutch architects, educated in a painting tradition rich in polychromatic landscapes, also embraced wash drawings. Baudez highlights the concurrent contribution of cartography in this new use of imitative colors. Present from the Middle Ages in legal maps and surveying documents, color as a pictorial tool of imitation spread to prints, which also served to decorate interiors in the fifteenth century.

The second chapter, “Conventional Colors,” tackles the codification of colors adopted by architects throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. French military engineers were responsible for this innovation: under the reign of Louis XIV, Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, Commissioner General of Fortifications, was charged with homogenizing drawing practices in order to increase efficiency. As a result, certain colors were chosen based on their likeness to the real, while others were chosen arbitrarily. Drawing manuals by two military engineers, Henri Gautier then Nicolas Buchotte, led to an expansion of color codification. Other European engineers adopted the French model—as Baudez demonstrates with examples from Spain and Sardinia—at the same time that architects began to embrace this framework. In their drawings, architects combined the use of imitative colors (most notably for gardens) and conventional colors to distinguish between an existing building and a projected one, indicate windows and mirrors, or even show the difference between types of stones. However, such colors were not universally applied; only the use of pink to signify masonry was established throughout Europe, albeit sometime later. 

The final chapter, “Affective Colors,” focuses on the second half of the eighteenth century. Parisian architects did not consider themselves mere builders, but established themselves as veritable artists, capable of evoking emotions. In an era animated by sensory theories, their drawings turned into artistic compositions which, rivaling paintings, seek to captivate the viewer. The origins of these evocative depictions can be found in eighteenth-century tastes for polychromatic interiors (with bright murals, textiles, and richly colored wallpapers) and colored prints (with the proliferation of techniques, including colored mezzotint, the crayon manner, wash etching, and aquatint). The boundary between architecture and painting blurred: picturesque scenes of ancient buildings, held in high esteem by Europeans of the Grand Tour era, influenced architectural drawings, while Sir William Chambers, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Claude Nicolas Ledoux invited their colleagues to adopt pictorial effects to appeal to such sensibilities. Following Piranèse’s striking depictions, architectural drawings expanded beyond their original limitations, as demonstrated by the evaluation of academic compositions not for their feasibility, but for their beauty. This new aesthetic merit of architectural drawings led to their display in exhibitions. Though infrequent, such exhibitions allowed architects to reach the public and to weigh themselves against painters. In this new context, architects geared their every effort toward affecting the viewer through large formats, reduced scales to accentuate the colossal size of buildings, landscaped environments, atmospheric effects, and varied hues. However, at the end of the eighteenth century other architects, such as Boullée, abandoned the use of color, without renouncing pictorial effects; they privileged the monochrome reinterpreted by dramatic chiaroscuro to gesture to the sublime. The influence of painting on architecture was not without its critics. At the Ecole Polytechnique, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand rekindled a mistrust of color and encouraged his students to rely solely on the line.

The work concludes with “The Anxiety of the Architect,” in which Baudez recalls the nineteenth-century return to color in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, following Durand’s radical defense. The professional practice of architecture steadily asserted itself, and its representatives, concerned with distinguishing themselves from painters and engineers, henceforth used a graphic language of their own, combining pictorial effects and conventions from building.

Basile Baudez offers a riveting reading of architectural representations. By considering them over a long period and a wide geographic terrain, he offers a clear and erudite synthesis. Remarkably high-quality, renewed illustrations support this elegant study. One might regret, however, that the author insists in the first chapter on examples that are exceptions to the rule, somewhat overemphasizing their actual significance. In turn, he deals with eighteenth-century architects who made abundant use of color less thoroughly than their importance would warrant. Naturally, as a culmination of the phenomena described here, the question of architectural drawings in the nineteenth century arises. Let us hope that the author will devote a new work to them, titled Essential Colors.

Translated by Lily Lloyd Burkhalter

Alexia Lebeurre
Associate Professor, History of Art Department, Université Bordeaux Montaigne