Charlotte Ribeyrol © Pierre Kitmacher

Charlotte Ribeyrol

Professor of 19th-century British literature and head of the CHROMOTOPE project

How Ruskin talked about painting, how he described the great painters of his time, all this fascinated me.

A specialist in British literature and art history at Sorbonne University, Charlotte Ribeyrol launched the CHROMOTOPE project in 2019. It explains how the industrial revolution of the 19th century inaugurated new ways of thinking about color in literature, the arts, and the history of science and technology. This research is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Charlotte Ribeyrol is also uses colorful words. It's a palette that the 43-year-old researcher and professor of 19th-century British literature at Sorbonne University puts to good use when describing the contours of her specialty. From the time she was a teenager, this young woman of English origins developed a passion for British culture and art. She devoured books by great authors, and was also interested in art history through a literary prism. Logically, these were the subjects that drew her interest at the École normale supérieure and then at university. During her first year of a Master's degree, Charlotte Ribeyrol studied the links between text and image. The future researcher became particularly enamored of the work of John Ruskin, a famous British essayist and art critic, whose writings she admired. “I was fascinated by the way Ruskin talked about painting, how he described the great painters of his time," she recounts. He had his own way of painting with words. The finesse of his writing inspired many other artists, such as William Morris, who discovered the colors of medieval art thanks to these writings.

An era marked by the color revolution

Her study of the relationship between writing and painting continued in the second year of her Master's program, during which Charlotte Ribeyrol focused on the correspondence between a painter and a writer: James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Two figures sharing a common interest in France. A way of crossing cultures, to which she had also devoted herself during the course of her doctorate. Her thesis topic: Victorian Hellenism. "Victorian poets often referred to the colors of Greek antiquity. It's important to understand that, in the 19th century, nascent archaeology was unearthing remains and treasures dating back to Homer's time. This material reality invited us to re-read the poets of the past in a new way". 

Archeological discoveries that turned ancient imaginations on their head. Contrary to the popular belief that Greek statues were sculpted in immaculate white, it was discovered in the 19th century that they were generally colored. “Despite the resistance to the idea, this led to a real craze for color among artists," explains Charlotte Ribeyrol. "Especially as new pigments and dyes were being developed at the time, giving rise to a veritable chromatic revolution, particularly in the booming textile industry, but also in the artistic field. This revolution, however, divided artists. Between those who were enthusiastic about a more colorful, a less dull world, like the Pre-Raphaelites or the Impressionists, who found that the new pigments gave an extra sparkle to their works. While there were those who were already denouncing the environmental impact of these advances, as the new dyes were created from coal."

The CHROMOTOPE project on show at Oxford

Fascinated by all the new colors emerging in the industrial age, Charlotte Ribeyrol became involved in this research, in parallel with her position as associate professor at the Paris Sorbonne University in 2009. Four years later, following a collaboration with chemists at Pierre and Marie Curie University, she laid the foundations for what was to become the CHROMOTOPE project. Created in 2019, this research program, conducted in partnership between Sorbonne University, Oxford University and the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (Cnam), explores how the chromatic turn of the 19th century enabled us to think differently about color in literature, art and the history of science and technology.

This research is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until February 18, 2024. "In this exhibition, we show the artistic impact of chromatic innovations such as chromolithography—printing in color—and the invention of the first synthetic dyes. We also explain how the international exhibitions that marked this period informed the new color landscapes of modernity," concludes the associate professor.