It’s well-known that the
revolutionized painting at the end of the 19th century, bringing the dawn of modern art with them
. But art lovers have to thank someone other than
, and the rest of that Parisian circle for their contributions to art history: an American portrait painter named John Goffe Rand. Although he died in 1873, the year before the Impressionists’ first exhibition, Rand single-handedly (though indirectly) helped the movement come to life with his invention of the paint tube.
Back in the 1840s, Rand was living in London, and had become increasingly frustrated with the shelf life of his oil paints; he’d often find them dried up before they were even used. At the time, there were two common (yet not ideal) methods for storing paint: in fragile glass jars or syringes, which were dangerous to carry around, or in pig bladders, which artists would fill with pigments and seal with string. To access these colors, artists like Rand had to poke a hole in the pig’s bladder and scrape out as much paint as possible—but because the hole couldn’t be re-sealed, whatever paint they didn’t gather went to waste. (Besides, who wants to store their precious pigments in a pig’s bladder?)
In 1841, Rand had an epiphany: Small metal tubes would make storing paints simpler, cleaner, and handier, while increasing their longevity and portability. By March 6th of that year, he’d taken out patents on these “metallic collapsible tubes,” and they soon became a hit. With this ingenious invention, artists were able to bring however many shades of paint they wanted, wherever they wanted—whether that was a café, a garden, or an open field. The tube also let artists work in completely new ways, such as applying thick layers of paint directly from the tube.
It’s clear that the Impressionists—whose practices were distinctly marked by all of these approaches—relied on Rand’s paint tube, specifically on the ability it gave them to paint outdoors, directly from the world before their eyes. Indeed, as Renoir one remarked, “without colors in tubes…there would be no Impressionism.”
But the paint tube was revolutionary even beyond Renoir’s France, improving painting for artists everywhere. In 1904, British chemist William Winsor added a screwable cap to Rand’s tube, allowing painters to save colors for later use. Pigment experts could then produce and sell paints in bulk without fear of them drying out, thereby making the medium cheaper. These mass-manufactured paints also had a more even consistency, which could be thinned down with material such as turpentine—enabling further experimentation among artists, like Frankenthaler’s inventive soak-stain technique in the 1950s.