Naples Yellow can range from a buttery primrose yellow to an earthy brown-yellow. It is very dense, opaque, fast drying (like all lead-based pigments) and has an average tinting strength, but the genuine pigment is rarely found in artist ranges today. This article explores how one painting by Édouard Manet represents a turning point in the journey of this historical colour.
What is Naples Yellow?
Naples Yellow is an ancient pigment composed of lead antimoniate. It is the earliest known synthetically produced yellow pigment, and it was thought to have been first manufactured by the ancient Egyptians. For centuries it was used only in yellow ceramic glazes, and it wasn’t until the mid-17th century that it is first recorded for use in painting. Until this point, Lead Tin Yellow was the primary yellow pigment used in European oil painting, but Naples Yellow had overtaken it in popularity by the beginning of the 18th century.
The name ‘Naples Yellow’ is much newer than the pigment itself. It was first recorded in latin (luteolum napolitanum) in 1693, probably due to the belief that the colour was made from Neopolitan volcanic stone. While the pigment has nothing to do with the Italian city, the name stuck. Naples Yellow was a staple in the artist palette for more than a century, most notably it was used by Goya, Canaletto, and Delacroix. However, by looking at one work by Impressionist painter Édouard Manet we can identify the point at which the popularity of this historical pigment began to wane.
How did Manet Use Naples Yellow?
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was an important artist of the French Impressionist period. He is most significant in his portrayal of everyday urban life, rejecting the mythological and religious themes that dominated salon painting at the time. His style is loose and evocative and he worked wet-in-wet, often using paint straight from the tube, rather than the traditional method of building up the painting with successive layers of thin glazes.
Music in the Tuileries Gardens was one of Manet’s first major paintings. It depicts a fashionable crowd gathered in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris, and is something of a who’s-who of Parisian society. Present are portraits of many people that Manet knew, including poet Charles Baudelaire, composer Jacques Offenbach, and the writer Champfleury.
More interesting than Manet’s social circle are the pigments that he used in the painting, which include Viridan, Ultramarine Blue, Chrome Yellow, and Zinc White. The chairs in the foreground are painted with genuine Naples Yellow. It appears to be of the browner variety, with its characteristic golden hue which is perfect for evoking a brassy sheen.
But also present in this painting is something much newer– the bright lemon yellow bonnet of a woman sitting behind the two central female figures is painted using a pre-mixed colour, sold in tubes in the 1860s under the name Jaune de Naples. It is a mixture of Zinc White, Chrome Yellow, and Yellow Ochre which combine to recreate a genuine Naples Yellow (in this case, the more lemony variety).
Pre-mixed colours, sometimes referred to as ‘hues’, are a blend of pigments that approximate the shade of another colour. When Manet painted Music in the Tuileries Gardens, readymade hues were a very new concept. Until the 19th century artists or their apprentices would purchase dry pigment from apothecaries and grind their colours themselves, a process that is both labour-intensive and time-consuming. It was only in the 1820s that machines for grinding oil paint were successfully invented. In 1841 the collapsible tin paint tube was introduced which changed the artist market entirely– painting became accessible to amateur artists as well as academy-trained professionals, and paints could be easily taken out of the studio, leading to the practice of painting en plein air. The mass-manufacture of readymade paints also meant that several pigments could be combined in standardised ratios to make cheaper pre-mixed hues.
Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens represents a crossroads in the history of Naples Yellow. It includes both the traditional genuine Naples Yellow, a staple artists colour for hundreds of years, and a new ‘hue’ that would soon largely replace the original pigment. Just as Naples Yellow had superseded Lead Tin Yellow by the middle of the 17th century, it was itself superseded by modern pigment blends, facilitated by the invention of the paint tube.
Naples Yellow Today
With very few exceptions, Naples Yellow paints today are all hues– even if the paint name doesn’t explicitly describe it as such. The mixture of pigments used vary greatly from range to range, but most include a white pigment (either Titanium or Zinc White) and a combination of yellow, brown, or orange pigments. Here are some Naples Yellow hues from various oil paint ranges:
The pigments used in the above swatches are as follows, from top to bottom:
- Old Holland Naples Yellow Extra oil paint – PW 4 (Zinc White), PW 6 (Titanium White), PY 42 (Synthetic Yellow Iron Oxide)
- Daler Rowney Naples Yellow 2 Artist oil paint – PW 4 (Zinc White), PY 1 (Arylamide Yellow), PR 9 (Naphthol Red), PY42 (Synthetic Yellow Iron Oxide), PW 6 (Titanium White)
- Charvin Naples Yellow Artist oil paint – PY35 (Cadmium Yellow), PY42 (Synthetic Yellow Iron Oxide) + an unspecified white pigment
- Michael Harding Naples Yellow oil paint – Pbr 24 (Chrome Antimony Orange)
- Sennelier Naples Yellow oil paint – PW 6 (Titanium White), PW 4 (Zinc White), PY 3 (Hansa Yellow), PY 74 (Monoazo Yellow)
It’s interesting to see the different combinations that paint manufacturers use to recreate the colour. For artists who prefer to use single-pigment colours, Chrome Antimony Orange (PBr 24- shown above in the second row from the bottom) makes a pretty good replacement for the browner varieties of genuine Naples Yellow. You may find it better for mixing than the pre-mixed colours which contain white. For a single-pigment alternative to the light variety of Naples Yellow I’d recommend trying a Nickel Titanate Yellow (pigment index number PY 53) which, while less earthy than genuine Naples Yellow, is a beautifully buttery shade that is very Manet-esque!
Artists who are interested in the properties of the historical colour can find genuine Naples Yellow in the Michael Harding oil paint range. There are two varieties- light and dark– which represent the lemon and brown shades of Naples Yellow respectively.
Even if the genuine pigment is no longer in common use, Naples Yellow lives on in the palettes of many artists. Let us know how you use Naples Yellow, whether genuine or a hue, in your palette by leaving a comment below.
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Shop Oil Painting on jacksonsart.com
Buenos días, tardes o noches.
Son interesantes los artículos que se tratan
en Jackson’s, les felicito por ello. De estos
temas, en la actualidad, tengo un libro en la
imprenta sobre técnicas pictóricas y
gráficas que puede ayudar a otros colegas,
es una opinión diferente que aporta
investigaciones previas al desarrollo de la
Ahora estoy en Inglaterra (vacaciones y
negocios) y tengo programada una visita a
una tienda concreta de Jackson’s, en
Londres, para ver los materiales que tienen,
no es lo mismo verlos por internet.
Respecto al amarillo de Nápoles puedo decir
algo. Lo conozco bien y, las muestras que
acompañan al texto de referencia, en mi
opinión, no lo representa, puede ser que la
imagen salga defectuosa por algún motivo
pero no lo veo claro. Las reproducciones no
suelen cuadrar con el original, pueden
acercarse, eso sí.
Llevo utilizando el amarillo Nápoles desde
“que tenía pantalón corto”, por lo tanto,
siempre ha estado presente en mi paleta. Me
soluciona muchos problemas por ser
“rápido” al rebajar la intensidad de cualquier
mezcla porque, el blanco es muy duro y
puede “ensuciar” tanto la mezcla como la
Estoy hablando de una de las bondades del
amarillo de Nápoles y, ya veo que tiene
Salud, bienestar y feliz Navidad.
Pd. La página web está ”colgada” desde
2007 por falta de tiempo, las investigaciones
me llevan muchas horas y no la puedo
Thanks for your comment Lucas. I hope you enjoy your time in London and your visit to our store. Happy New Year to you also!
My mum uses Naples Yellow,it is versatile and dries quickly. Violet Morris is her name.92 and still painting. She gets a load of her materials from Jackson’s.
Hi Michele, your mum sounds amazing! Thanks for sharing.
Excellent ! I personally like your blog and
waiting for more articles like this
Hi Jenni, thanks for letting us know. You can find more in this series here: Colour in Practice. Very best!
Hi I’ve always loved Naples yellow not
sure if it’s the name or it’s ability to
evoke light. Like most artists I am
very fond of the different qualities of
pigments the way Prussian Blue will
totally dominate and take over your
canvas, I never use it. There is a great
book out there discussing artists and
Hi Glynn, thanks for sharing!
Informative well written article, truly enjoyed reading and I hope to see more of the like.
Thanks Elaine! Here are some more in the series and there are more to come. Enjoy!
My watercolour work was much improved by
using only transparent colours for a while
before buying Naples yellow to use sparingly
and at the finishing stage. It works well
added to indicate the very lightest autumn
leaves caught in sunlight.
Sounds lovely Karen!
Great to hear about the history of this
colour and to see the variations. I first
used it in a large-scale landscape in
acrylic and loved the way it worked with
all the other colours on my palette. It
mixed really well with blue to create
movement in the sky and give the
impression of clouds (without turning
the sky green). When I realised I was
mixing it with everything I had a mini
panic that I didn’t have enough to finish
The one I used was most similar to Old
Holland or Daler-Rowney hues shown
above. I am currently trying to decide
the professional range I would most like
to use in my art going forward, and I may
use this colour to help me find my
Thanks for sharing Katie. We’re glad you enjoyed this article.
Schmincke Horadam’s Naples Yellow is
one of my favorite’s in my watercolor
painting! It’s like light or neon in paint
form, even for something where
luminescence is intrinsic (like
watercolor paint.). I don’t use it often,
but when it’s right for the painting, it’s
Hi Carolyn, Thanks for sharing!