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Historical colors hit the right note

Consider painting walls in hues true to your home's era. At the Huntington, an 1818 red makes the new Constable exhibit `sing.'

February 01, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

IF you've ever agonized over what neutral modern shade to paint your Tudor, Mediterranean or Cape Cod living room (or wished you had the guts to choose a daring color), you might want to take a lesson from Shelley Bennett. As curator of British and European art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, Bennett confronted and conquered the color conundrum for the John Constable landscapes show, which opens Saturday.

Bennett is no amateur at choosing colors. She's spent years studying the subtle shadings used by great painters throughout the ages. She understands that colors have history, just like countries, and that some are more historically appropriate than others for use in certain styles of homes, as backdrops for private art collections and for the walls of the museum in San Marino.

Constable, who lived from 1776 to 1837, is one of England's national treasures, a man whose passion for his homeland's rural countryside and moody skies caused him to paint them repeatedly, in all sorts of weather.

Those paintings -- including 6-foot landscapes never before shown in the U.S. -- were coming to what has been Bennett's workday home for 27 years. But when she had to choose a color for the walls on which she would hang them, none of her expertise helped her in that age-old debate: Do I go with what is tried and true? Or do I dare do something different?

The show started at the Tate Britain, then traveled to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Bennett attended the opening. She noticed the landscapes were hung on walls painted in blues and greens -- colors traditionally used in museums for display of 18th and 19th century master landscapes.

But then she learned of a letter Constable wrote in 1813 to a friend. "He described the paint colors he was putting on the walls of his own home in London. The colors he spoke about were a deep red and a salmon," she says.

"This perplexed me. I couldn't imagine his work hung against salmon. I talked about it with the director of art collections here at the Huntington, and he reminded me of a British paint company that has developed historical paint colors based on English country house interiors. This company actually did scientific analysis of paints used in these great houses from the 17th to 19th century and has reproduced the colors. I contacted them and learned that they offer an 1805 shade named Dead Salmon. It turned out that the name doesn't refer to the flesh of the fish, but to its scales. It's a warm shade of gray, almost like taupe."

Bennett decided to use Dead Salmon for the text and printed material accompanying the show. And since she was in touch with the maker of historically accurate paint, a firm called Farrow & Ball, she considered the shade of red that Constable might have used in his home.

"One color they offer is an 1818 red called Eating Room Red. And that's just the right time period for Constable, isn't it?"

She took the leap and decided to paint the exhibition rooms in Eating Room Red, which the paint company donated for the project. "I thought it would look right. But I was very, very nervous. I only had small images of the paintings, which were still in Washington, and I couldn't really know how they would look against this color."

The paintings arrived and were hung. "I can't tell you how splendid they looked," Bennett says.

"What I had not anticipated when I chose the color was that one of the most famous paintings -- a 6-foot work done in 1819, called "The White Horse" -- has a man standing beside a horse. He is wearing a jacket that is a dead match for the wall color I chose, Eating Room Red. I realized then that by making this gut-level decision I had got it absolutely right. The paintings don't just look good, they really literally sing against this red background. And it is absolutely historically correct."

What's more, she says, she is thrilled to have accomplished this color coup right here in Southern California.

"We are so far from England, so surrounded here by cutting-edge modernity. And yet, we have created an 1818 context for viewing his paintings that is historically accurate, but also cutting edge." The environment created by the color enables viewers to see the dazzling modernity of the paintings, Bennett says. "It's a new way of viewing the old master."

The lesson for homeowners struggling to choose wall colors is clear: Look at the architectural style of your home, she says -- "out here in Pasadena, for example, we have a lot of Arts and Crafts-era houses "-- and study historically accurate colors originally used for such homes.

Even if your house is a relatively new faux Mexican, Mediterranean or New England cottage style, there's a record of colors used when such homes were originally built. Such historically accurate colors can help focus your choice while expanding your aesthetic horizons. And while the colors may be old, they can make your house feel new.

bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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