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September 05, 2007

Laque de Garance

Colours often have a long and troubled past [some, like Prussian Blue, have a long and troubled present]. Picking one of the colours from Cezanne’s palette, Laque de Garance, we find it is a Rose Madder, which is made from the juice of the root of the madder plant, not unreasonably called Rubia Tinctorum.

The best Madder root came from Palestine and was brought to Europe by the returning Crusaders. As a result it was a rare commodity, because, well, not as many Crusaders returned as left, I guess – they kept sending them out, “fetch some more madder root” the artists would cry. “But there are fierce Saracens out there guarding the madder beds” came the reply, “and they’re not Christian!”

Something like that anyway. So precious was it that the French Authorities fixed the price and it became known as La Garance, or the guarantee.

The Laque, or Lake, part comes from the fact that the dye produced from the root is a liquid, and thus useful to the cloth dyer but useless to the painter. Painters needed a solid form, so in 1808 George Field, an English dye maker, produced a lake. That is: he turned the liquid dye into a solid by precipitating it with a mordant, in this case alum, and called it, again not unreasonably, Madder Lake.


However, as is so often the case with lakes, the resulting colour was fugitive. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go into the studio. This meant that it faded quickly when exposed to natural light. Not good in a painting I think you’ll agree.

So the chemists of Europe worked through the night to come up with a lightfast chemical alternative. In 1826 Pierre-Jean Robiquet, in France, found the two active ingredients in the madder root, namely: Alizarin and Purpurin, and in 1868 Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, in Germany, finally synthesised alizarin from anthracene.

This was a lightfast, quick and, probably most significantly, cheap alternative to Madder. So the market for madder root collapsed overnight, which was probably a Good Thing as the Crusades had packed up long ago.

Posted by john at September 5, 2007 04:09 PM