Andrew Jackson DowningHistoric PreservationHistoryMiscellaneouspaintPicturesque

The Downing Colors and their Critics

I have discussed the career of Andrew Jackson Downing previously and the long shadow he cast in American architecture and design during the 19th century. Downing was a romantic who stressed “truthfulness” in architecture where proper design should express the purpose of the building. That is, the purpose “is conveyed by the features of the building, or by the whole appearance, suggesting the end in view, or the purpose for which it is intended (A. J. Downing, Cottage Residences, p. 11).” A corollary of Downing’s concept of truthfulness was his theory on color. Rather than standing in contrast to nature, as did the bright white or yellows common with Greek Revival, paint colors should harmonize with a building’s natural surroundings and building materials. We call this approach the Picturesque because it is similar to the use of color and composition found in romantic-era landscape paintings. Indeed, Downing wrote “no painter of landscape that has possessed a name was ever guilty of displaying in his pictures a glaring white house, but, on the contrary, the buildings introduced by the great masters have uniformly a mellow softened shade of color, in exquisite keeping with the surrounding objects (Cottage Residences, p. 13).” As an alternative to bright white, Downing mentions several warm, earth tones, including grays, fawns and drabs as most appropriate for country houses.

The Picturesque style became popular during the middle of the 19th century and thousands of houses were painted using Downing’s color palette. An article in the 1850 edition of The Agriculturalist magazine on house painting features recipes for exterior paint colors which include several Downing colors, including drab, brown stone, gray stone, sage, slate, and straw. Collections of paint samples distributed by early paint manufacturers continued to feature the Downing palette for several decades.

An early collection of paint colors distributed by the Wadsworth, Martinez and Longman paint company. From the Historic Design Consulting library.

However, like any artistic or aesthetic trend, the Downing colors soon attracted criticism. In an article “Color of Houses” published in the January, 1850 edition of The Prairie Farmer, the author questioned the popular use of the Downing colors. The author writes that “in an attempt to vary from continued custom, many mistakes will be made” and suggests that Downing has given “directions that do not bear following (The Prairie Farmer, p. 24).” Indeed, the author is quite sarcastic and mentions Downing’s instructions to paint “after the color of the earth; turn over stone and take the color beneath it for the color of your house (Downing, p, 201).” Instead, he suggests that if you just build a house out of pine and let it stand for ten years without paint, you will have the same color.

Although not a proponent of returning to the universal use of white, he does consider white a “good color” and that if used properly, “nothing can excel it.” He agrees that a building must be painted with colors that suit its situation, but considers white a good choice for a house located at the back of a lot and obscured with trees and foliage. If only partially obscure, then the white can be softened with the addition of pigment. The author does not propose a complete break with Downing, as he does offer instructions for mixing various shades of drab and straw. However, he seems to take issue with the use of dark brown and other somber colors which reminds him of a prison or barn when used in the wrong situation. Instead, he suggests that white, which had been banished by Downing, ought to be reconsidered.

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