On this shelf alone I have eighty different kinds of yellow and forty grays.
—Josef Albers

What does color do? To early nineteenth-century eyes and those before, an apple was green, flesh pink, in life and so in art. Then in the 1860s Monet and other Impressionists, drawing on certain insights of Delacroix and the physicist Michel Eugene Chevreul, began handling color differently. These artists learned that local color—the intrinsic color of an object—was not fixed but mutable; it was affected by atmospheric conditions as well as by the reflections of adjacent objects. In their quest for objective optical fidelity, the Impressionists altered forever the way color was conceived and used. “Liberated” from the object it depicted, color became a function of the eye, a purely optical phenomenon. And here lies one of the more interesting paradoxes in the history of art. In its scrupulous attention to...

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