modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism


people, terms, and concepts: local color, perceived color; primary color, secondary color; analogous colors, complementary colors; divisionism, optical mixture; simultaneous contrast

additional reading:  Signac, “From Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism”

As the Signac reading suggests, the Neo-Impressionists saw art as a rational, scientific pursuit.  They agreed with the Impressionists that a painting should be a record of the way the subject looked at a particular time under specific light conditions:  hence they tried to capture the perceived color rather than just the local color of the objects they painted.  But they objected to the Impressionists’ reliance on mere observation, preferring instead to paint according to a thorough understanding of the physics of light and the physiology of vision.  The scientific understanding of light and vision had advanced enormously over the course of the nineteenth century, from Goethe’s Optics (1810) through Chevreul’s Law of Simultaneous Contrast (1839) to Helmholtz’s Handbook of Physiological Optics (1856).  The Signac handout attempts to explain the scientific basis of every aspect of the Neo-Impressionist color and brushwork, including:

•Their exclusive use of the “pure” colors of the spectrum, unmixed with any other color except white, in order better to retain the vibrancy of light. (Contrast the dull, earthy browns and grays that dominate traditional naturalism such as the Couture or Courbet on the previous page, for example.)

•Their division of the various factors that make up the perceived color of a given object into its individual components, including most importantly the local color or color of the object itself, the color of the light (or shade) in which the object sits, and the reflected color from adjacent objects.

•Their reliance upon optical mixture, mixture in the eye of the viewer, rather than physical mixture on the palette, to make these various influences meld into one apparent color that is the perceived color of the object.

•Their conformity to the laws governing the physiology of human vision, such as Chevreul's law of simultaneous contrast, which notes that any two colors (or grays) placed in juxtaposition will show maximum differences from one another (e.g., a given color will appear lighter next to a dark color, warmer next to a cool color, and more intense and vibrant next to its complement).

Ideally you should be able to discuss the color choices in a given Neo-Impressionist work down to each individual dot in relation to these concepts.  All of these color terms and concepts will continue to be helpful in understanding other movements this semester as well, so be sure you have a good grasp of them.

Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of the Grande Jatte, Neo-Impressionism, 1884-86

Seurat, The Models, Neo-Impressionism, 1886-88

Monet, Rouen Cathedral (two of dozens of different versions at different times of day), Impressionism, 1894

Signac, Harbor at San Tropez, Neo-Impressionism, 1895