Features: Georges Roque / The Art Bulletin

Chevreul and Impressionism: A reappraisal

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the Impressionists

do not imitate; they translate, they interpret. They set out to extract the result of the multiple lines and colors that the eye perceives at a glance before an aspect of nature.--Emile Blemont, Le Rappel, April 9, 1876(1)

The representation which the painter has to give of the lights and colors of his object I have described as a translation, and I have urged that, as a general rule, it cannot give a copy true in all its details. The altered scale of brightness which the artists must apply in many cases is opposed to this. It is not the colors of the objects, but the impression which they have given, or would give, which is to be imitated, so as to produce as distinct and vivid a conception as possible of those objects.--Hermann von Helmholtz, "The Relation of Optics to Painting" (in French, 1878), trans. E. Atkinson, 1881(2)

His latest terrible misfortune was to have been led astray by his fast-developing theory of complementary colors. He had heard of it first from Gagniere, who also had a weakness for technical experiments. Then, with characteristic over-indulgence, he had begun to exaggerate the scientific principle which derives from the three primary colors, yellow, red and blue, the three secondary colors, orange, green and violet and from them a whole series of similar complementary colors obtained by mathematical combination. In that way science gained a foothold in painting and a method was created for logical observation. It meant that, by taking the dominant color of a picture and establishing its complementary or cognate colors, it was possible to establish by experimental means all the other possible variations of color, red changing to yellow next to blue, for example, or even a whole landscape changing its tone-values through reflection or decomposition of light due to the passing of the clouds in the sky.--Emile Zola, L`Oeuvre, 1886(3)

Among the French scientists who worked on color vision during the nineteenth century, the most famous is Michel-Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889). Renowned as a chemist for his analysis of the properties of animal fats, he was nominated in 1824 to the post of director of the dyeing department at the Manufacture des Gobelins. Immediately after his appointment, he faced complaints concerning the quality of certain pigments prepared in the dyeing laboratory of the Gobelins, particularly the lack of strength in the blacks employed in making shadows in blue and violet draperies. After detailed experiments, Chevreul discovered to his surprise that the problem did not arise from anything in the dyeing process itself; it was not, therefore, a chemical problem, but rather one that fell within the province of psychophysiology. Pursuing this idea, he eventually succeeded in formulating the results of his researches in his famous law of simultaneous contrast, first published in 1839 (Fig. 1). (Fig. 1 omitted) The most general statement of the law, which emphasizes the reciprocal influence of two contiguous colors (Fig. 2), is the following: (Fig. 2 omitted)

If we look simultaneously upon two stripes of different tones of the same color, or upon two stripes of the same tone of different colors placed side by side, if the stripes are not too wide, the eye perceives certain modifications which in the first place influence the intensity of color, and in second, the optical composition of the two juxtaposed colors respectively.

Now as these modifications make the stripes appear different from what they really are, I give to them the name of simultaneous contrast of color; and I call contrast of tone the modification in intensity of color, and contrast of color that which affects the optical composition of each juxtaposed color.(4)

Several factors explain the enormous interest provoked by Chevreul`s book and by the lectures he delivered some years before its publication. First, by dedicating a copious volume to the matter, he gave broad public access to phenomena that until then had been discussed only in specialized scientific magazines. Then, by meticulously studying the applications of his law to almost every field of art and craft (from museography to horticulture, from army uniforms to stained glass, from painting to tapestry, as well as framing and teaching), he moved from pure science to applied science, and addressed himself to almost all those who used color.

Finally, he was less interested in the production of "accidental" colors by the eye than in the mutual and simultaneous influence that two colors placed side by side exercise over each other, which was exactly the situation painters and tapestry-makers were constantly confronting. Hence the enormous interest painters had in his law: some of them, including important artists such as Seurat and Delaunay, openly acknowledged their debts to Chevreul.

However, if in some cases--Neo-Impressionism, for instance--Chevreul`s influence is well documented and widely accepted,(5) in other cases, such as Impressionism, the situation is more complex. Rarely have such different and contradictory opinions been expressed as about possible links between Impressionist painters and scientific theories. My aim is to contribute to a clarification of this complex problem.

Pierre Francastel is one of those who argued, at an early date, for a close relation between Chevreul and the Impressionists. Indeed, he took literally he ideas developed by the critic and writer Edmond Duranty in his famous pamphlet La Nouvelle Peinture (1876), and therefore understood the evolution of Impressionism as a search for "the physical analysis of light itself," by "the application of a doctrine, no longer empirical, but now scientific," a doctrine derived from the writings of Hermann von Helmholtz, Chevreul, and Ogden N. Rood.(6) Francastel gave prominence to an abrupt change in the Impressionists` manner, a change he dated to around 1875, by which white light would no longer be represented "by approximation and empiricism, but by exact method and science," so that it seemed difficult "not to consider as a cause-effect relationship the sudden evolution of art around 1875 and the revelation of these modern


theories."(7) Although Francastel deserves credit for having raised the important problem of the Impressionists` relationship to science, his argument was unfortunately flawed. One should note simply that even if a sudden evolution of the painters` style did occur around 1875, such an evolution cannot be attributed to Rood, whose book was not translated into French until 1881. Nor can Chevreul be considered a "revelation" at this date, since his book had been published in 1839; even Charles Blanc`s interpretation of Chevreul`s law had already been published in 1867.(8) And what about Helmholtz? The great novelty of his research on "the nature and composition of light" was the distinction between additive and subtractive mixture.(9) Yet this distinction did not appear in his lecture "On the Relation of Optics to Painting,"(10) to which Francastel referred. Ernst Brucke, it is true, had drawn attention to the point in his treatise on color, translated into French in 1866,(11) but in vain; almost no one read this text and artists therefore continued to confuse the two mixtures. Actually, the light theory on which Impressionism rests misunderstands the distinction between additive and subtractive mixture,(12) and Duranty was no more aware of it than were the painters, as the following statement from La Nouvelle Peinture makes evident:

The discovery of

the Impressionists

actually consists in having recognized that strong light decolors tones, that the sun reflected by objects tends (because of its brightness) to bring them back to that luminous unity which melts its seven prismatic rays into a single colorless radiance: light.

Proceeding from intuition to intuition, they have little by little succeeded in breaking down sunlight into its rays, its elements and to reconstitute its unity by means of the general harmony of the iridescent color which they spread on their canvases....The most learned physicist could find nothing to criticize in their analyses of light.(13)

Helmholtz, however, would have criticized these analyses precisely for their confused analog between Newton`s observations concerning the prismatic decomposition and recomposition of light,(14) on the one hand, and the decomposition of the pigments on the canvas and their subsequent optical fusion in the viewer`s eye, on the other. In fact, the two phenomena obey entirely different laws.(15) However, as will be discussed below, a parallel may be established between Helmholtz and the Impressionists, but it would be located on an altogether different level.

The theories that inspired Francastel have been summarized by later historians of Impressionism as if they were self-evident and had been definitively ,proved. For example, according to Phoebe Pool: "the Impressionists...were to be decisively influenced by Chevreul`s discoveries; and there is direct evidence that Monet and Pissarro (and later, Seurat) had firsthand knowledge of his work."(16) Unfortunately, Pool provides no convincing proof that the Impressionist painters had firsthand knowledge of Chevreul`s theories. Neither the fact of coloring shadows with the complementary of the dominant color of the object, nor the myth according to which the optical mixture would give more intense colors than those mixed on the palette, nor the mutual intensification of complementary colors juxtaposed on the canvas is, properly speaking, a Chevreulian concept. These three points highlighted by Pool were, on the contrary, developed first by Blanc, dearly deviating from the chemist`s ideas.(17)

Those who consider that Chevreul has little to do with Impressionism simply do not discuss him at all. Such is the case with John Rewald, who mentions Chevreul in his monumental History of Impressionism only in relation to Georges Seurat.(18) One of the very rare discussions of Chevreul`s lack of influence on the Impressionists is the brilliant response made by Meyer Schapiro to Guy Habasque`s paper "Le Contraste simultane des couleurs et son emploi en peinture depuis un siecle,"(19) given during a conference entitled "Problemes de la couleur," organized by Ignace Meyerson in Paris in 1954. Schapiro`s useful clarification deserves discussion. One of his major arguments relies on Pissarro`s correspondence:

Of course, the Impressionists did not read Chevreul; there is a definitive text that says so. In 1885, Pissarro writes a letter to his dealer, saying that he has met a young man, Seurat, who read Chevreul and came to some important conclusions. I think Monet also denied that his painting arose from science.(20)

I would not be so categorical. The text Schapiro mentioned is a well-known letter to Durand-Ruel, in fact dated 1886, whose meaning may be clarified by its context. On November 2, 1886, the dealer had asked Camille Pissarro for "a note as complete as possible, first about you, then about your doctrines, to send to New York."(21) The painter replied:

My Dear M. Durand-Ruel,

I am sending you the enclosed account of my new artistic doctrines that you requested.

You may complete it by consulting the brochure of M. Felix Feneon, recently published under the title: Les Impressionistes en 1886, on sale at Soirat`s, 146 rue Montmartre, and in the major bookstores.

If your son prepares a publication on this subject, I should like him to make it clear that M. Seurat, an artist of great worth, was the first to have the idea of applying scientific theory, after having studied it fully. I have only followed, as have my other colleagues, Signac and Dubois-Pillet, the example given by Seurat. I hope your son will be kind enough to do me this favor for which I will be truly grateful.


Seek for the modern synthesis with scientifically based means which will be founded on the theory of colors discovered by M. Chevreul and in accordance with the experiments of Maxwell and the measurements of N. O. Rood.

Substitute optical mixture for the mixture of pigments. In other words: break down tones into their constituent elements because optical mixture creates luminosities more intense than the mixture of pigments.(22)

If Durand-Ruel had asked for information from Pissarro rather than Seurat, it was simply because he was in contact with the former. But insofar as this letter discusses Pissarro`s "new artistic doctrines," that is, Neo-Impressionism, the painter wished, with typical modesty, to emphasize that the innovation was Seurat`s, and that he was simply following Seurat`s example. Pissarro had other reasons for offering this clarification. First of all, since he was by far the eldest painter of his group,(23) and had himself changed his way of painting, contemporaries might easily have imagined he was in fact the true inventor of the new doctrine. Indeed, it was Pissarro who had, some months earlier, advocated the inclusion of Seurat and Paul Signac, in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, showing his work alongside theirs and that of his son Lucien in the same isolated room (a condition imposed by the other painters as a prerequisite for their own participation). Not surprisingly, certain critics of the exhibition mistakenly attributed to Pissarro the authorship of the new doctrine.(24) Thus, one can readily understand Pissarro taking advantage of a letter to his dealer to clarify the issue. A further reason can be added: Pissarro knew how sensitive and jealous Seurat was about his theories;(25) that is why he insisted so much on the credit being given to his young friend. Despite these precautions, however, an incident occurred two years later that again touched upon Seurat`s priority. An article by Arsene Alexandre made Signac furious, especially the statement that Seurat saw himself almost "deprived of the paternity of his theory by ill-informed critics or unscrupulous comrades." Signac immediately wrote to Pissarro to complain about "our excellent comrade`s jealous meanness," and Pissarro replied in a letter that clarifies his previous one to Durand-Ruel:

What, is it not enough to have, from the beginning, taken the greatest precautions, with Feneon, with Durand-Ruel, and with all who were interested in the new art, to leave to Seurat all the glory of having been the first in France to have the idea of putting into practice the application of science to painting? Today he would like to be its sole proprietor] That`s absurd....After all, all art is not in the scientific theory. If Seurat had only that, I confess he would interest me but moderately.(26)

This makes it clear that Pissarro`s earlier letter to DurandRuel deals with Neo-Impressionism and not Impressionism. Furthermore, even if Seurat was indeed the first to have studied scientific theory deeply in order to apply it to his own work, Pissarro does not say that he discovered Chevreul thanks to Seurat. One cannot, therefore, extract from this letter more than it says, namely that the merit of having established the basis for the Neo-Impressionist doctrine belongs solely to Seurat.

Schapiro provided another, more convincing, argument. According to him, Chevreul thought:

that the significance of the law of simultaneous contrasts lay in the fact that painters who understood it could abstract the disrupting factors of vision....The problem of the simultaneous contrast of colors is the problem of true and correct local colors.

I think that, if we read Chevreul carefully, we can see that it has nothing to do with Impressionism or Neo-Impressionism....It is not necessary, indeed, to put some orange into a green that is close to a blue, for the proximity of these two colors will induce this disruption anyway. Seurat and the Impressionists did the opposite of the scientists, and I think that if one reads the texts from a scientific viewpoint, one realizes there is a great divergence between the science of that time and painting.(27)

It seems important here to emphasize the pertinence of this clarification, the most lucid statement made by an art historian about the topic. It is perfectly true that it is not necessary to add the complementary of a given hue to the canvas, since the visual result occurs anyway; in fact, if added, it would merely exaggerate the effect, as the chemist himself well understood.(28) One is therefore bound to conclude that those painters did exactly the opposite of what the chemist recommended. But this hardly means that Chevreul`s influence was completely absent. While it may be true that the painters misunderstood the chemist, we cannot infer that there was no relationship between them. Blanc made the same mistake that Schapiro rightly denounced, but can this mean that Blanc also had nothing to do with Chevreul?(29) Certainly not, since he explicitly attempted to explain the law of simultaneous contrast in the chapter of his Grammaire des arts du dessin devoted to color. A work can have many influences, including misinterpretations of the author`s original ideas, as happened in Blanc`s very popular book, or "creative misreadings" by artists. So one can easily imagine (even if one cannot prove) that the Impressionists would have known Chevreul`s ideas as expressed by Blanc, and would thus have been led to paint juxtaposed complementary colors. Other books too, as we shall see, gave the same advice.

The relationship between Chevreul and the Impressionist painters appears complex for several reasons. First, Chevreul`s own book, published in 1839, was out of print by the beginning of the 1850s,(30) so that the Impressionists could not have obtained it easily. Second, Chevreul`s color theory was but one. of many, and was challenged by others (such as Brucke and Helmholtz), from the end of the sixties on. Finally, Chevreul had been generally misunderstood, particularly by Blanc, whose Grammaire des arts du dessin played a prominent role among artists from its first publication in 1867. The chief misunderstanding was thinking that to Chevreul`s eyes complementary colors were particularly harmonious. An extensive explanation here is beyond the scope of this paper; suffice it to say that for Chevreul, the harmony of complementary colors was only one among six types of harmonies, and that it was not especially privileged in his text; on the contrary, Chevreul often favored the harmonies of "analogous" colors, rather than those of "contrast."(31)

A second misunderstanding shared by Blanc and more recent scholars and already mentioned above was the belief that Chevreul recommended that artists paint complementary contrasts. Chevreul`s book itself may have contributed to this misapprehension. If the Impressionists had the opportunity to see the album of plates that accompanied it (published as a separate volume, Atlas, with the first edition), they may very well have been led to misunderstand the chemist`s ideas. In an introduction to some of these plates (Fig. 3), Chevreul wrote: (Fig. 3 omitted)

We can represent by colored circular spaces the modifications which the principal colors tend to induce in those which are contiguous to them.

Take circular pieces of paper, or other material, colored red, green, orange, blue, greenish-yellow, violet, indigo, and orange-yellow, of about one inch and a half in diameter; place each one separately on a sheet of white paper; then, with a thin wash of color, tint the white paper around the circle, with its complementary color, gradually weaker and weaker as the tint recedes from the colored circle. These figures are principally intended to represent the effects of contrast in a palpable manner to those persons who, not having studied physics, yet have, nevertheless, an interest in knowing these effects.

The Red circle tends to color the surrounding space with its complementary Green.

The Green circle tends to color the surrounding space Red.(32)

Thus, Chevreul has "illustrated" his law for pedagogic reasons. A reader could therefore interpret the plates as an example to be followed, forgetting the chemist`s warning at the beginning of the album:

The figures are intended to familiarize the reader with the effect the red, the green...tend to induce in ourselves when they make the surrounding surfaces look like their complementary color....The figures do not represent the real effect, but the exaggerated effect

l`effet charge

, that is, the space contiguous to each circle has received a light tint of the color complementary to the color to the circle.(33)

Now the painters may have overlooked this advice, being more sensitive to the visual aspects of the plates than to lengthy explanations by the scientist. One could even say that the misinterpretation was not accidental but was in some sense inevitable. Chevreul felt obliged to exaggerate. He wanted to render visible an effect that is only induced in the mind, and his desire to make a psychic phenomenon readily apparent probably opened the way to misinterpretation, for the painters were equally eager to transfer their subjective perception of colors to the objective field of the canvas.

In the first section of his chapter devoted to the "utility of the law of simultaneous contrast of color in the science of coloring," Chevreul explained that: "The painter must know, and especially see, the modifications of white light, shade and colors which the model presents to him in the circumstances under which he would reproduce it."(34) In other words, the painter must know how to see, know before seeing, know how to see better. And one cannot make this knowledge visible without exaggerating the effect.

This last quotation brings us back to Impressionism, which it characterizes quite well in terms that would not have been denied by a Duranty or a Jules Laforgue.(35) Was not the Impressionist the painter par excellence who "must know, and especially see, the modifications of white light, shade and colors," under particular conditions? The Impressionists were certainly attentive to the special way of seeing recommended by Chevreul. But while the chemist thought it necessary to be aware of these modifications in order more effectively to eliminate them (as Schapiro noted), the Impressionists were interested in the modifications for their own sake: they thought to represent them, insofar as they considered the "optical sensations" given by the perception of an object more important than the "faithful" representation of its conventional appearance. In an oft-quoted remark, characteristic of his position toward the visible, Monet said:

When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here a oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.(36)

According to this statement, Monet was looking at the organization of color spots per se, rather than at the objects. This presents an opportunity to address the myth that the Impressionist painters did not need any "theory," since they trusted their eyes exclusively. Whether the phenomenologists agree or not, there is no such thing as a "wild eye." And the Impressionists no more and no less than any others could simply copy what their eyes "saw." The cognitive sciences have proved that there is no purely visual perception, for perception is already a cognitive phenomenon.(37) At a more general level, there is no perception without implicit or explicit knowledge about what there is to see, knowledge that is dependent on cultural background; and that background, scientific as well as artistic, gave more importance in the 1860s to the "accidents" of light than to color constancy. It is therefore vain to wonder whether the Impressionists did or did not formulate explicit "theories": it is enough to say that the scientific knowledge that was part of the artists` background--since the time of the Barbizon School(38)--gave form to their perception, and thus to their way of painting. It is hardly necessary to dwell upon the importance of cultural factors on color perception, since many studies have been devoted to this topic.(39)

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn noted that "what a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience had taught him to see." And from the copious literature devoted to this theme by experimental psychologists in the fifties--including many works on color perception--Kuhn concluded: "Surveying


rich experimental literature...makes me suspect that something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself."(40) The new paradigm that governed the visual perception of the Impressionists (and already, in some ways, that of Delacroix) is what I call the paradigm of complementary colors.(41) It is one thing to establish it theoretically, as I have attempted to do; another would be to prove that it worked.


The first task is to examine whether or not the Impressionists know about the paradigm of complementary colors. An important document has not been consulted on this point: the monograph Camille Pissarro written by Georges Lecomte for the series "Les Hommes d`Aujourd`hui." Because Lecomte`s text was published in 1890, one might expect him to have viewed Impressionism from the standpoint of Neo-Impressionism, which was in vogue at the time. Whether or not he did so is a crucial point, since Neo-Impressionism, unlike Impressionism, explicitly emphasized the importance of color theory and Chevreul in particular. Lecomte belonged to the Symbolist milieu, whose emergence he had fostered as editor of the magazine La Cravache (1888-89).(42) Moreover, Lecomte was introduced to Pissarro by Felix Feneon, the champion of Neo-Impressionism, who explained that Lecomte`s biography of the artist was the first of a series devoted to Neo-Impressionist painters.(43) One might expect, therefore, to find that Lecomte adopted the position of Feneon, six years his senior, in defense of the Neo-Impressionists, and thus understood Pissarro`s Impressionism from a Symbolist or Neo-Impressionist viewpoint. But even though Pissarro himself had a Neo-Impressionist period (1886-90),(44) Neo-Impressionist theory did not shape Lecomte`s reading of Pissarro`s Impressionist work.

First, Lecomte`s links to Symbolism alone hardly indicate a non-Impressionist perspective, for, as Richard Shiff has shown, the difference between Impressionism and Symbolism around 1890 must be relativized.(45) Second, in his second Pissarro monograph, published thirty years later, when the Neo-Impressionist context was long past, Lecomte maintained his views, even if he moderated them somewhat.(46)

In fact, Lecomte`s text owes much to Pissarro. He was only about twenty years old when he first met the painter,(47) so that the exact historical details he included must have come from the artist himself. It is precisely because he needed this information that he wanted to meet Pissarro in the first place, as Feneon wrote Pissarro: "G. Lecomte would like to meet you, for he wants to ask you for biographical and technical information he judges essential." And Pissarro, who largely inspired Lecomte`s text, never disowned it.(48) I think, therefore, there is little question that Lecomte`s text provides a faithful testimony on Pissarro`s Impressionist paintings. In one of the most interesting paragraphs, he writes:

About that time


, M. Pissarro, after a holiday at Piette in Brittany, went to London with M. Claude Monet. During their ten-month stay in this city, they sent canvases to the Royal Academy

Academie nationale

, which then condemned the painters` audacity. Nevertheless, on British soil, the eye had been educated by Turner, who had long since been restricted solely to the colors of the prism. In their study of his work, they found confirmation of theories--the law of complementary colors and its natural end, the division of the tone--already discussed in private and realized in individual essays that had not yet been publicly shown.

This stay in England hastened the Impressionists` evolution. Back in Paris, MM. Pissarro and Monet made themselves the exegetes of the new technique. Quickly, their friends, prepared by previous attempts, recognized the superiority of the retinal color mixture over the obviously darker mixture that occurs on the palette. The optical reconstitution of the complementary colors divided on the canvas finally gave them those golden lights so patiently sought.

Impressionism, stemming from precise theories, soon emerged with the brilliance of its luminous and vibrating harmony.(49)

This text shows at least that Pissarro and Monet attempted something considerably beyond an "empirical" practice of painting: they were looking for and they needed theoretical explanations that were scientifically grounded in the knowledge available at the time. Obviously while their point of departure was their practice--hence its difference from Neo-Impressionism, as recalled by Pissarro in his letter to Durand-Ruel--they needed to support their practice with a doctrine, in this case the "law of complementary colors."

The portrait of Pissarro drawn by Gustave Geffroy confirms the importance of the London stay, which was later minimized by Rewald:(50)

With Monet, the oldest comrade of his group, he


had discovered Turner in London, and ever after, he was always passionately and learnedly interested in the theories of lights and colors, fervent in the search for processes, always ready for research and realization. There was in him something of a doctor of pictorial sciences, skilled in scrutinizing the harmonies of a painting, in discerning the dose necessary for the elaboration of the great work whose radiance inspired his life.(51)

Geoffroy`s account gives us a plausible source for Pissarro`s and Monet`s early interest in color theory, since we know that Turner used the same "division of the tones" that so interested our two painters.(52) One might, however, concede to Pissarro the status of "theorist," while refusing it to Monet, quoting the famous sentence: "I have always had a horror of theories,"(53) a sentence that played an important role in the elaboration of the myth of the Impressionist left solely to his ocular perceptions. But there are other accounts of Monet`s lack of interest in color theory. Rewald recounts the visit Louis Anquetin made to Monet, around 1885, precisely to inquire into his views on color theory: "He


soon discovered that Monet know very little about the problems he was so eager to study....Monet had never bothered to theorize much; he relied on his instinct more than on any knowledge of the properties of complementary colors, etc. Anquetin returned disappointed from Vetheuil."(54)

Nevertheless, if we examine the source cited by Rewald for his account of Anquetin`s visit to Monet, we find another side of the story. Emile Bernard explained that Anquetin was disappointed, realizing that Monet "know only a very little part of what he was coming to ask him, contenting himself with the theory of the complementary colors, applied with the palette of the seven prismatic colors."(55) I suggest that Rewald, in his desire to minimize the impact of theory on Monet, neglected the important and positive information that this document contains, namely the fact that Monet did indeed use the theory of the complementary colors.

In this light one might rewrite the comment by. Schapiro quoted above, to read: "Of course, the Impressionists knew the theory of the complementary colors, there is a definitive text that says so, besides Lecomte`s." That text was an interview given by Monet to an English newspaper: "Color owes its brightness to force of contrast rather than to its inherent qualities...primary colors look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries."(56)

In fact Alfred de Lostalot, reviewing Monet`s 1883 retrospective in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, had already mentioned the complementary colors to justify to the public the "radical way" in which Monet "applies the color laws": "He spreads just enough color to express, not the color of an object, but the coloration that this object seems to have both in the distance and within its surroundings. To achieve this aim, he puts into practice the laws of the contrasts, of the complementary colors."(57)

Let us return now to Lecomte`s text, which contains crucial information about Pissarro`s frames: "At the 1877 Exhibition, M. Pissarro, applying in its rigorous logic the law of complementary colors, set his canvases into white frames that, without influencing the colors, left the tones with their exact values."(58)

The precision of Lecomte`s sentence is remarkable. Chevreul had actually drawn attention to the influence of the colors of the frame on the colors of the framed work. He had argued against the use of gilded frames: if the work itself included golden elements, for example, the comparison between the golden frame and the golden parts of the painting would be unfavorable to the latter.(59) The Impressionists followed his advice. Chevreul had also tested the differences between a lithograph framed in white and eight other versions of it, each framed in a different color.(60) Though he did not explicitly recommend the use of white frames, the fact that he chose white as his standard indicates that for him it was probably the most neutral hue, the one least harmful to the colors of the lithograph.

Since Chevreul was probably the only scientist to have paid attention to this problem at the time, Pissarro could not have learned about it from any other source. We know that he liked the idea of white frames and had to struggle with his dealer, Durand-Ruel, to have them for his personal exhibitions, though he did not receive permission to use them until 1883.(61) But Pissarro did not content himself with white frames. Lecomte writes: "In 1880, he


tints his stretchers with the complementary of the dominating color of the painting: for a sunset with a dominating red, a green frame, for a purplish canvas, a frame with a dull yellow tone; a spring with a green aspect fits into rose."(62)

Here Lecomte condenses two different pieces of information. For the fifth Impressionist exhibition, in 1880, Pissarro showed his etchings with a yellow mat and a violet frame;(63) this presentation was further intensified by the colors of the room, as he recalled to his son Lucien: "my room was lilac with a serene yellow edge."(64) We know that Huysmans was not receptive to these colored frames; in his review of the exhibition, he wrote: "I will leave aside the engraved works of M. Pissarro, surrounded by the violet of his frames enclosing a yellow paper."(65)

The following year, in 1881, Pissarro took the opportunity of the sixth Impressionist exhibition, to innovate further. It was on this occasion, as noted by Lecomte, that he tinted "his stretchers with the complementaries of the dominating color of the painting," so putting into practice the law of simultaneous contrast. Chevreul had actually explained that a gray frame was favorable to many landscape scenes, above all when the gray was slightly tinged with the complement of the dominant color of the canvas.(66) This is the only case when he (timidly) recommends tinting a frame with the complement of the dominant color of the painting. For Chevreul`s preoccupation was not to try to enhance the colors of the painting by means of the frame, but on the contrary, to control the influence of the colors of the frames on those of the painting. Pissarro, however, wanted precisely to heighten the color brightness of his paintings by means of the appropriate framing.

Reviewing the sixth Impressionist exhibition, Huysmans turned his attention again to the frame problem: "What a variety in the frames, which assume all the varied tones of gold, all the known shades surrounded by borders painted in the complementary color of the frames. "(67)

Huysmans here invokes the previous exhibition, and the particular way in which Pissarro had shown his etchings, adding the important information that the colors of the mat and the frame were complementary.(68) But why did Huysmans return to this point? I suggest that an artist--Pissarro, perhaps, since they were in communication(69)--explained to him the meaning of these frames, which he had neglected the year before, thus revealing his lack of understanding of their innovative character. Whatever the case, the important fact is that he refers to the complementarity of the colors and that this explanation structures from then on what he says about the frames, having now perfectly understood what they were about. The paragraph quoted above continues:

Pissarro`s series

of paintings

is, this year above all, amazing. It is a medley of emerald green


and water green, of corn and peach flesh, of kindling


and wine, and one must see with what tact the colorist matched all his hues the better to make his skies melt and his foregrounds jut out....There is, in short, an agreement made between the container and the content, between the painting and the frame, and all the Independents understood it so well that all, following M. Pissarro, rejected long ago the traditional gilded frame.(70)

Pissarro thus knew Chevreul`s law of simultaneous contrast: he had probably even read Chevreul`s chapter on framing, and above all, he effectively applied this knowledge several years before meeting Signac and Seurat. So we can conclude that at least in his frames he consciously put Chevreul`s law into practice. Pissarro himself was mistaken when, in the famous letter to his dealer quoted above, he said that Seurat "was the first to conceive the idea of applying the scientific theory." On the contrary, Pissarro probably showed the way for Seurat, who, as Feneon noted, sometimes painted "on the frame tones and hues complementary to the tones and hues of the painting."(71) Lecomte, once more, is probably right when he characterizes, if simplistically, Pissarro`s adhesion to Neo-Impressionism: "As for the evolution of Camille Pissarro`s talent, it is sufficient to say that

the theories of Charles Henry

add to Chevreul`s theories on complementary colors, so that in practice they result in a more rigorously scientific division of the tones."(72)


Pissarro`s frames are the only evidence I have found of a direct connection between Chevreul and the Impressionists. As explained above, Chevreul`s conception of color harmony was rather old-fashioned in the sixties, so that we should expect few, if any, direct lines of communication between the scientist and the painters. For that reason, I have not analyzed the paintings themselves, for such an analysis would prove little. In fact, there have been excellent close examinations of the works, showing that the artists used contrasts of complementary colors. However, this practice cannot be related to Chevreul directly; rather, as I have said, it represented a misunderstanding of Chevreul`s work, a misunderstanding partly due to the artists` failure to distinguish between imitative and nonimitative colors. Chevreul did recommend the use of contiguous complementary colors but only in certain instances (for the uniforms of the army, or for flowers in a garden), and never for painting. His reason for not advocating complementary colors in painting was that if a painter imitates what he sees, he also imitates the effect of the contrast and thus exaggerates it. It is not surprising, therefore, that only in a nonimitative element (Pissarro`s frames) does one find evidence of the direct application of Chevreulian theory.

I will focus now on the taste for blue and violet--violently criticized at the time--of most of the artists belonging to the Impressionist group, particularly evident in their frequent use of blue and violet shadows. My purpose is to relate this practice to the scientific background of the painters and their "circle." In opposition to what is generally said, the Impressionists and the art critics had access to a great deal of information about scientific laws and theories. This information formed part of their general knowledge and was integrated into their working methods.

A taste for blue and violet hues was surely favored by technical factors such as the commercialization of a synthetic ultramarine blue, highly saturated, resistant, and above all much cheaper than cobalt blue, one of the most expensive of all artist`s pigments. The same occurred with violet, which became very successful as soon as it was available on the market, for it was sold directly as a pure pigment that did not require mixing. Mauve, discovered in 1856, was also immediately successful, in this case because there was no equivalent among natural pigments; it was quickly adopted, in particular for watercolors.(73)

However, if the passing fancy for synthetic pigments obviously played a role in the frequent use of blue and violet, other factors must also have influenced the artists, given the regular appearance of these hues--considered by several critics as characteristic of the Impressionists--in their work. It is too easy to declare that this was due only to a "special coloristic key."(74) Rather, we must refer again to documents written by contemporary critics.

According to Duranty, for example, Monet took from Jongkind those colors belonging "almost already to a violet and bluish range," and the same author noted that Caillebotte was "probably a victim of the violet and blue range."(75) Duranty`s tone is cautious compared to that of Huysmans who, to explain what he called "indigomania," reached the conclusion that an ocular disease was responsible for an aberration that made the painters see nothing but violet. Despite explaining the problem as one of color blindness, an idea borrowed from Eugene Veron`s L`Esthetique and often quoted,(76) Huysmans nevertheless noted that the Impressionists started from a "right viewpoint": "Observing that; in a garden, for example, during the summer, the human figure, under the light filtering through the green leaves, turns mauve..., they have smeared faces with lumps of intense violet, insisting strongly where the tint was just a hint, where the nuance was scarcely emerging."(77)

So the painters simply exaggerated a real effect, an effect one can record.(78) But where does this information come from? Some elements are directly borrowed from Duranty,(79) whose interest in science is well known.(80) But the most likely source was probably Theodore Duret`s pamphlet Les Peintres impressionnistes (1878). Among the first advocates of Impressionism, nobody understood better than Duret the painters` taste for blue and violet, which he championed, explaining that they did indeed reproduce what they saw:

When winter comes, the Impressionist paints snow. He sees that the shadows on the snow are blue in the sunlight; unhesitatingly, he paints blue shadows. Now the public laughs outright.

If certain clayey soils of the countryside have a lilac appearance, the Impressionist paints lilac landscapes. At this point, the public begins to get indignant.

Under the summer sun, with reflections of green foliage, skin and clothing take on a violet tint. The Impressionist paints violet people

in the

undergrowth....The poor Impressionist vainly asserts his complete honesty, declares that he only reproduces what he sees, that he remains faithful to nature; the public and the critics condemn him.(81)

Again, where does the writer`s quiet self-assurance on this point come from? Or the painter`s self-assurance, as when Duret makes him say that he just paints what he sees? It seems to me indisputable that, if the painter just paints what he sees, it is because he knows what he must see, and his knowledge is based on scientific discourse.

If the Impressionists could, or rather dared to paint blue shadows, it is because they knew it had to be so.(82) Indeed, this knowledge had long been popularized. Scientists had taken an interest in blue shadows since Buffon`s seminal text on accidental colors,(83) as well as since the work of Hassenfratz.(84) As regards the shadows on the snow, these were the object of a famous observation by Goethe during a winter journey over the Harz Mountains: "During the day, owing to the yellowish hue of the snow, shadows tending to violet had already been observable; these might now be pronounced to be decidedly blue."(85)

It is not necessary, however, to go back only to older sources. In his treatise Des Couleurs au point de vue physique, physiologique, artistique et industriel (1866), Brucke explained that:

The colored light of the sun, at sunrise and sunset, also gives rise to the most grandiose contrasts. For example, the violet tint of a distant mountain chain, contrasting against the yellow background of the sky, at sunrise; or the marked blue shadows that the sunset projects on a snowy surface.(86)

Significantly, Brucke deals with these colors in a chapter devoted to simultaneous contrast and bases his analysis on Chevreul, as is shown by his consideration of colored shadows as a form of simultaneous contrast.(87) In addition, Buffon`s accidental colors were the point of departure for the research that led to the concept of complementary colors, first formulated by Hassenfratz precisely to explain colored shadows. It should thus be clear that the blue and violet shadows painted by the Impressionists belong to the phenomena of contrast.

Even if Chevreul never recommended that artists paint blue shadows, though he drew attention to the phenomenon, other scientists did not hesitate to give such advice. In 1878, the year that Duret published his pamphlet, the French translation of Principles scientifiques des Beaux-Arts was published, in which Brucke returned to this matter:

The second cause of the violet tone in the distance, in the west, lies in the contrast that occurs very frequently. In the west, indeed, the sky is lit by yellow light over a large area.

This yellow is often so clearly a sulphur yellow that the contrast makes objects look violet.

And he adds: "The artist must take account of these effects of contrast; he must put purple and violet hues where necessary: the skies he paints could not produce these contrasts spontaneously, as in nature, because he cannot give his color enough intensity."(88)

I will return to this argument, but it is more important at this point to note that the "indigomania" of the Impressionists was encouraged by a scientist. I do not want to imply that the painters or their critics would necessarily have read Brucke (whose treatise was also intended for artists), but only to stress a suggestive parallel. For apart from scientific texts, other sources were available that were part of the general knowledge shared by painters and critics. Delacroix`s famous "Dieppe Notes" had been published in 1865.(89) Because this date seems to correspond to the date when the palette of the future Impressionists became brighter,(90) and given the admiration these painters had for Delacroix,(91) one art historian has suggested that this publication would have played an important role in the evolution of the Impressionists, leading them to abandon earthy colors and to adopt violet shadows.(92) However, this is a complex question that requires more careful examination.(93)

If the publication of Delacroix`s "Dieppe Notes" constitutes too hypothetical a source, other texts may well have helped the painters to see what they saw and dare to paint it. Among those texts was Blanc`s Grammaire des arts du dessin, a book that relates Delacroix`s anecdote of the violet shadow of the yellow cabriolet, and insists on the rules of the optical mixture, as well as on the reciprocal heightening of complementary colors in juxtaposition. Blanc also stresses the fact that "in nature, the light comes to us variously colored, according to climate, the medium, the hour of the day," so that we must pay attention to the effects of contrast: under the cold light of the north, the blue of a drapery is attenuated in the shadow. "On the contrary, if the light is orange like that of the sun, the same drapery will seem much bluer in the shade and less so in the light."(94)

This knowledge was probably claimed by certain painters to legitimize a practice that met with strong resistance. Thus, some critics favorable to the Impressionist group, for example, Zola and Huysmans, admit that the blue shadows have a scientific base, while blaming the painters for exaggeration. This argument appears even more explicitly in an article by Charles Ephrussi: "That the rays of the sun sometimes project blue shadows, all right; but that all the landscapes, water, houses, or cafe interiors, balconies, still lives are unchangingly and perpetually wrapped in a blue atmosphere is too much."(95)

Even a "scientific" explanation was proposed by another supportive critic to try to legitimate the famous blues and violets in the eyes of a reticent public. So writes de Lostalot, in his review, cited above, of Monet`s 1883 retrospective:

Where the eyes of the public start rebelling is where M. Monet begins struggling with the sun. The clarity of the yellow rays stimulate the sensory mechanism of the painter, dazzling it, at the same time inducing in him the well-known physiological phenomenon known as the evocation of complementary color: he sees violet. These who love this color will be gratified. M. Monet performs for them an exquisite symphony in violet.(96)

The important point here is not the rather crude "demonstration," probably inspired by the discussion of Chevreul`s contrasts by Helmholtz,(97) but the fact that a critic used the "well-known physiological phenomenon known as the evocation of complementary color" as an explanation in an article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. This clearly demonstrates that the paradigm of complementary colors was part of the general knowledge about color shared by painters and could thus be marshaled, even inaccurately, to support their colored shadows. The explanations proposed by the critics are indeed varied, but most have in common an interpretation based on the concept of complementary colors: the shadows are blue, for the sun is orange; or they are violet, because the sun is yellow. Renoir, for his part, explained at the end of his life that the blue aspect of the snow was due to a reflection of the blue of the sky: "You admit that you have a sky above that snow. Your sky is blue. That blue must show up in the snow."(98)

The blue shadows of the Impressionists had been justified the year before de Lostalot`s review of the Monet retrospective, in an article by Georges Gueroult in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts; after having reviewed the contrast of colors, a phenomenon he considered widely known--"everybody knows, at least roughly, what the contrast is"(99)--Gueroult added in a footnote: "The plein-air school is right to put blue or violet in the shadows. For yellow, whose complement is violet, dominates much in the sun, and, by contrast, violet dominates in the shadow."(100)

The texts cited here to support the idea that the knowledge of the law of contrast was widespread from the 1860s on among painters and critics are not "learned" ones. They refer to science as applied to painting, and would have been of interest for painters as well as for art critics: most of the texts were, in fact, explicitly destined for artists. Artists` handbooks gave similar information: Mme Cave`s method evoked the harmony of contrasts;(101) and Frederic-Auguste-Antoine Goupil-Fesquet`s manual, in the 1877 edition, succinctly presented the theory of color contrasts and referred to the Chevreulian color circles.(102) It is not surprising that in his first Salon review (1879), Huysmans wrote that Impressionism could be characterized by "an astonishingly exact vision of color" and "shadows made by complementary colors."(103) Indeed the shadow problem was one of the topics most discussed during the famous reunions at the Cafe Guerbois.(104)

Finally, Maurice Denis, in a critique of the Neo-Impressionists that also applies to the Impressionists, had already used a kind of "cognitive" interpretation avant la lettre: "who is not aware of the power of mental habits on vision?" Thus, for Denis, "one sees certain grays as violet very easily if one has been trying to find out for a long time whether or not they are violet."(105)

In the paintings themselves, it is not difficult to find everywhere the colors that so shocked the public, despite the attempts made to justify them "scientifically." Blue (and violet), sometimes used for the atmosphere, were essentially and systematically employed for shadows, above all by Monet. Haystack in Winter (1891)clearly shows a blue shadow; but already in Women in the Garden (1866-67) Monet had used for the shadows a violet blue that is particularly visible on the white dress of the woman in the foreground.(106) During the same period, Renoir also tinged shadows with violet blue in Lise with a Parasol (1867) and The Pont des Arts (1867).(107)

We are now in a position to proceed from the particular case of the blue shadows to the general heightening of complementary colors in juxtaposition that participates in the same paradigm. So numerous are the paintings using such a juxtaposition that it would be pointless to enumerate them here, especially given the excellent studies on this point.(108) The large number of examples confirms the fact that the use of complementary colors was not due to chance; the painter could deliberately choose his subject in order to enhance a couple of complementary colors, as is particularly obvious in the case of Monet`s predilection for poppy fields, which gave him the opportunity to oppose spots of pure red to the dominant green. Monet knew, as he himself said in the English interview cited above, that "primary colors look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries."(109) The problem is simply to determine whether or not this aesthetic rule governing the chromatic harmony comes from Chevreul. The observation of the importance of the juxtaposition of complementary colors within the Impressionists` works led the authors of the two most detailed studies of the Impressionist technique to concede the influence of Chevreul, despite the fact that Chevreul himself never recommended painting complementary color contrasts.(110)

At this point it is appropriate to return to Schapiro`s argument cited earlier, namely, that the Impressionists did the opposite of what Chevreul recommended, for they exaggerated on the canvas contrasts that occur anyway. As indicated above; the plates of Chevreul`s Principles of Harmony and Contrasts of Colors are a possible source for this mistake, insofar as the effect there was purposefully exaggerated, every circle of color being surrounded by an aureole of its complementary color (Fig. 3). (Fig. 3 omitted) On the other hand, the erroneous interpretation of Chevreul was, from the 1860s on, quite widespread. Blanc, for example, participated in it; and Blanc was far from alone. The idea credited to Chevreul and pervasive at the time was that since two complementary colors enhance each other when they are juxtaposed, painting contiguous complementary colors gives the work more brightness and constitutes the best color harmony. But no one ever seems to have acknowledged the fact that the effects of contrast occur anyway and that painting them in this manner contradicted Chevreul`s theory and advice. Auguste Laugel, for instance, in L`Optique et les arts (1869), after having described Chevreul`s research, concludes: "Every color is thus surrounded by its complement; from this, there arise simultaneous contrasts of all kinds, all the more striking since the juxtaposed tones have less common elements." And he adds: "The great colorists, Rubens, Rembrandt, the Venetians, boldly accentuate these contrasts with brushstrokes, force them and make them directly visible."(111)

Helmholtz, in his important lecture on optics and painting, went still farther. After describing the phenomena of simultaneous and successive contrasts in reference to Chevreul,(112) he too recommended the painting of contrasts. Here, however, it was not a matter of a misunderstanding of Chevreul by Helmholtz--the father of the physiological optics--but of a conscious and deliberate interpretation, whose point of departure was the enormous difference in the luminosity of nature on one hand and painting on the other. On the basis of studies of variation of light intensity realized with photometers, Helmholtz concluded that

such bright contrasts, as they are observed in strongly colored and strongly lighted objects in nature, cannot be expected from their representation in the picture. If, therefore, with the pigments at his command, the artist wishes to reproduce the impression which objects give, as strikingly as possible, he must paint the contrasts which they produce.

And he added: "If the colors on the picture were as brilliant and luminous as in the actual objects, the contrasts in the former case would produce themselves as spontaneously as in the latter,"(113) thereby demonstrating his awareness that his interpretation was opposed to the consequences that Chevreul drew from his own law.

One might add that Brucke, ten years before, had already given the same account in his treatise Des Couleurs au point de vue physique, physiologique, artistique et industriel (1866), most precisely in the chapter devoted to simultaneous contrast, which started, of course, with a reference to the observations of the famous chemist.(114) These ideas were known and accepted; we can find them also in the 1882 article by Gueroult, published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. After having explained why "the artist is obliged to paint the contrasts themselves," the author added this detail about the Impressionists: "These considerations may present a certain interest for the new plein-air school."(115) These texts, aesthetic as well as scientific, contemporary with the Impressionists, conform quite closely to the paradigm of complementary colors, and even reinforce it: if the idea that two complementary colors are harmonious and enhance each other was already pervasive, Brucke, Helmholtz, and therefore others, provided the scientific justification for the painter`s desire to paint complementary contrasts. On this precise point, the Impressionists were in agreement, if not directly with Chevreul, at least with the consequences that other scientists and popularizers had drawn from the law of simultaneous contrast. Of course, nothing proves that the artists read these specific recommendations, but there evidently existed a parallel between painters` practice and scientists` advice.

In conclusion, one might raise the following question: why have these facts, despite the impressive number of publications devoted to Impressionism, been left, so to speak, in the dark? One reason probably involves the importance of the myth of Impressionism as an empirical process--"to paint all that the eye sees"--such that this so-called faith in the eye would have made any reference to the scientific understanding of the accidents of visual perception seem idle. This myth of the Impressionists` confidence in the eye has probably played the role of what Gaston Bachelard called an epistemological obstacle,(116) preventing a careful study of their chromatic theories. Notable is the symptomatic absence of a general overview of these theories, despite the enormous bibliography on the movement, and despite the fact that the Impressionists` chief doctrine, the famous optical mixture,(117) was always presented and legitimized by means of science in the writings of some of the first defenders of the movement, such as Duranty, as well as in those of art historians during the first third of our century.(118)

Finally, to pay a last tribute to Chevreul, let me apply the law of simultaneous contrast to this matter. At the very end of his book, Chevreul indeed extended his law to the phenomenon of understanding: "The brain perceives and judges ideas as it judges colors which it perceives by the medium of the eye."(119)

In fact when certain persons regard two objects under a relation of difference, does it not happen that the difference exaggerates itself, so to speak, unknown to them, precisely as it happens in regarding two juxtaposed colors, in which all that is analogous between the two colors disappears in a greater or less degree?(120)

The contiguity of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism may have contributed to an exaggeration of the differences between the two movements: insofar as Neo-Impressionism was characterized by a strong claim for a theoretical base, the importance of scientific color theories for Impressionism was, by contrast, overlooked.

The Neo-Impressionists were the first to minimize the role of scientific color theories on Impressionist painting, the better to promote their own innovations; this was particularly true of Signac. In his historical defense of Neo-Impressionism of 1899, however, Signac admitted that "he felt himself to be a zealous disciple when he studied, in Chevreul`s book, the straightforward laws of simultaneous contrast."(121) In addition, Signac mentioned that, during his formative years, he had been put on the right track by a few lines by Huysmans, published in "L`Exposition des Independants en 1881." There, in a critique of a pastel by Pissarro (a view over the Boulevard de Rochechouart), Huysmans had written that the painter "limited himself to putting roughly into practice the theory according to which the light is yellow and the shadow violet, so that all the boulevard is absolutely drowned by these two hues."(122)

Referring to this text, Signac (using the third person) recalled that "speaking of Monet and Pissarro,


discussed complementary colors, yellow lights, and violet shadows,

and this

led Signac to assume that the Impressionists understood the science of color."(123) Ironically, the same text that revealed to Signac the importance of complementary colors for the Impressionists, and that modified his own practice, was used by him to minimize the Impressionists` knowledge of color science. Once he had acquired this knowledge of the harmony of complementary colors, he then felt empowered to deny all that I have here tried to establish. He was thus the first to question systematically the scientific knowledge of the Impressionists, opening the way to a important and long-lived misunderstanding.

Frequently Cited Sources

Bomford, D., et al., Art in the Making: Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 1990.

Bouillon, J.-P., et. al., eds., La Promenade du critique influent: Anthologie de la critique d`art en France, 1850-1900, Paris, 1990.

Chevreul, M.-E., The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts, trans. Charles Martel, London, 1854.

Helmholtz, H. von, "On the Relation of Optics to Painting," in Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1881), 2d series, new ed., London, 1895, 73-138.

Huysmans, J.-K., L`Art moderne; Certains (1883;1889), Paris, 1975.

Lemonte, G., 1890, Camille Pissarro, Les Hommes d`Aujourd`hui VIII, no. 366. --,1992, Camille Pissarro, Paris.

Nochlin, L., Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874-1904: Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966.

Pissarro, C., Correspondence de Camille Pissarro, ed. J. Bailly-Herzberg, 5 vols., Paris, 1980-91, I: 1865-1885; II 1886-1890.

Rewald, J., 1962, Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh in Gauguin, 2d ed., New York.

--, 1973, The History of Impressionism, 4th ed., New York.

Riout, D., ed., Les Ecrivains devant l`impressionnisme, Paris, 1989.

Taylor, J.C., ed., Nineteenth-Century Theories of Art (1987), Berkeley, 1989.

This text, completed in late 1993, represents one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, devoted to Chevreul`s law of simultaneous contrast and its relationship to painters and art critics. All translations from French are my own, unless otherwise noted. I thank James Oles for his review of my English text, and for the stylistic corrections he suggested.

1. E. Blemont, "The Impressionists," trans.J. C. Taylor, in Taylor, 437.

2. H. von Helmholtz, "L`Optique et la peinture," in E. Brucke, Principes scientifiques des beaux-arts, Paris, 1878, 209-10; trans. in Helmholtz, 121-22.

3. E. Zola, The Masterpiece, trans. T. Walton, London, 1950, 305.

4. Chevreul, sec 8. To facilitate the location of the quotations in different editions, I refer to the paragraph and not to the page. Chevreul used "tone" to mean what we would today call brightness (i.e., the degree of clarity or darkness of a hue). I have respected this use, which was very common during the last century. Finally, to standardize the present essay, I use "color" and not "colour," even if I quote from a text published in England, e.g., as in the Chevreul translation.

5. See W. I. Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting, Cambridge, Mass., 1964; and J. Gage, "The Technique of Seurat: A Reappraisal." Art Bulletin, LXIX, no. 3, 1987, 448-54.

6. P. Francastel, L`Impressionnisme (1937), Paris, 1974, 29, 30. For a translation of excerpts from Duranty`s La Nouvelle Peinture, see Nochlin, 3-7.

7. Francastel (as in n. 6), 28, 30. Francastel later returned to this issue, nuancing his position by stating that there was no influence of science on art, but rather a rigorous parallelism between them (Art et technique aux XIXe et XXe siecles


, Paris, 1964, 137ff).

8. C. Blanc, The Grammar of Painting and Engraving (first French ed. 1867), trans. K. Newell Dogget, New York, 1874; the chapter on color is reprinted in Taylor, 468ff. I will refer to this latter edition.

9. Additive mixture concerns colored light, subtractive mixture pigments; see P. D. Sherman, Colour Vision in the Nineteenth Century: The Young-Helmholtz-Maxwell Theory, Bristol, 1981, 81ff.

10. Helmholtz, 73ff.

11. E. Brucke, Des Couleurs au point de vue physique, physioloque, artistique et industriel, Paris, 1866, 152ff.

12. See the useful clarification by J. Carson Webster, "The Technique of Impressionism: A Reappraisal," College Art Journal, IV, no. 1, 1944, 3-22; though written half a century ago, Webster`s main arguments remain valid.

13. E. Duranty, La Nouvelle Peinture (1876), reprinted in Riout, 122; Nochlin, 4 (translation slightly modified). The New Painting: Imressionism, 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1986, contains an annotated translation of Duranty`s text, 37-49.

14. Newton discovered not only that white light breaks into seven colored rays when passing through a prism, but also the reverse, namely that the colored rays become white light after passing through a convergent lens. See M. Blay, La Conceptualisation newtonienne des phenomenes de la couleur, Paris, 1983, 76.

15. On this point, I cannot agree with Marianne Marcussen, "Duranty et les impressionnistes, II," Hafnia Copenhagen Papers in the Histoy of Art, no. 6, 1979, 27-49, esp. 34ff, who seeks to demonstrate that because Duranty bad reviewed Hippolyte Taine`s De l`intelligenee, a book influenced by Helmholtz, he would therefore have been conscious of the distinction between additive and subtractive mixtures. Marcussen also asserts (40) that Duranty read Chevreul around 1870, and that Chevreul provided him with an excellent introduction to Taine, Brucke, Helmholtz, Blanc, and A. Guillemin (author of the treatise La Lumiere, 1874). However, Marcussen`s assertion rests solely on the fact that Duranty alluded to the "Traite des Couleurs de M. Chevreul" in his review of the 1870 Salon, concerning a canvas by Degas (this excerpt is reprinted in Bouillon et al., 170). There is no evidence that Duranty actually read the book.

16. P. Pool, Impressionism, London, 1967, 14-15.

17. I have mentioned Pool, but the idea that Chevreul would have "influenced" the Impressionists is reiterated in a great number of popular books, as well as in some encyclopedias, without ever being adequately demonstrated.

18. Rewald, 1973; in the annotated bibliography that ends the book, Rewald criticizes Francastel for "overemphasizing the role of science" in his analysis of Impressionism (615).

19. Despite its title, this paper was in fact limited to Seurat and Delaunay.

20. M. Schapiro, in Problemes de la couleur, ed. I. Meyerson, Paris, 1957, 250.

21. Letter quoted in L. Venturi, Les Archives de l`impressionnisme, Paris/New York, 1939, II, 23, n. 1.

22. Pissarro, II, 75, no. 358; Nochlin, 54-55 (translation modified).

23. Signac was the same age as Lucien, Pissarro`s eldest son, and Seurat was four years older than Lucien.

24. Firmin Javel, for instance, wrote that "M. Georges Seurat works in the same way as M. Pissarro the father" (L`Evenement, May 16, 1886). Later, Seurat would complain to Signac (letter of Aug. 26, 1888) about an article in which he was "considered a pupil of Pissarro," quoted in H. Dorra and J. Rewald, Seurat, Paris, 1959, LXV.

25. See Rewald, 1962, 103.

26. Letter from Pissarro to Signac, Aug. 30, 1888, quoted by Rewald, 1962, 114, who mentions this incident; Rewald`s translation slightly modified. See also Dorra and Rewald (as in n. 24), LXIV-LXV.

27. Schapiro (as in n. 20), 248.

28. Chevreul, sec 333.

29. Blanc (in Taylor, 470) indeed writes that "it is the reciprocal heightening of complementary colors in juxtaposition that M. Chevreul called `The law of simultaneous contrast of colors.`"

30. See Chevreul`s letter to his English translator, dated June 18, 1853, in Chevreul, XII.

31. Chevreul, sec 180ff. When Cheureul writes: "In the Harmony of Contrast the complementary assortment is superior to every other" (sec 237), he simply means that the complementary colors are the best of the three types of harmonies of contrasts. However, Chevreul generally prefers the other group, i.e., the harmonies of analogous calors.

32. Chevreul, sec 43. Note that the translation gives more details than the original French, for this first English edition was published without illustrations. An anonymous reviewer of this translation rightly complained about the lack of plates; Art-Journal, Sept. 1, 1854, 283.

33. M.-E. Chevreul, Atlas, Paris, 1839, n.p., comment on pl. II; emphasis in the original.

34. Chevreul, sec 324; emphasis in the original.

35. J. Laforgue, "L`Impressionnisme," in Melanges posthumes, Paris, 1903, 133ff; Nochlin, 14-20.

36. Lilla Cabot Perry, "Reminiscences of Claude Monet, 1889-1909," American Magazine of Art, Mar. 1927, 119-25, reprinted in C. F. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospetive, New York, 1985, 183; see also Nochlin, 35.

37. See H. Barlow, "What Does the Brain See? How Does It Understand?" in Images and Understanding, ed. H. Barlow, C. Blakemore, and M. Weston-Smith, Cambridge, 1990, 5-25; and M. Imbert, "La Place des neurosciences dans le champ des sciences cognitives," in Introduction aux sciences cognitives, ed. D. Andler, Paris, 1992, 48f, and about visual perception, 65ff.

38. See A. Sheon, "French Art and Science in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Some Points of Contact," Art Quarterly, no. 34, Winter 1971, 434ff.

39. The publication of B. Berlin and P. Kay`s Basic Color Terms (1969), 2d ed., Berkeley, 1991, stimulated research on this matter: see esp. H. C. Conklin, "Color Categorization," American Anthropologist, LXXV, 1973, 931-42; M. Sahlins, "Colors and Cultures," Semiotica, XVI, no. 1, 1976, 1-22; and S. Tornay, "Introduction," in Voir et nommer les couleurs, ed. S. Tornay, Nanterre, 1978; IXff. See also U. Eco, "How Culture Conditions the Colors We See," in M. Blonsky, ed., On Signs, Baltimore, 1985, 157-75.

40. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed., Chicago, 1970, 113.

41. See G. Roque, "Les Couleurs complementaires; Un Nouveau Paradigme," Revue d`histoire des sciences, XLVII, nos. 3-4, 1994, 405-33.

42. About Georges Lecomte (1867-1958), see the short biographical note in Bouillon et al., 353-54. See also S. Monneret, L`Impressionnisme et son epoque, Paris, 1987, I, 431-32.

43. F. Feneon, letter to Pissarro, Jan. 30, 1890, in Pissarro, II, 333, n.1.

44. See R. L. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1968, 81.

45. On the relationships between Impressionism and Symbolism (as articulated in the critical writings of Octave Mirbeau, Gustave Geffroy, and Lecomte), see R. Shiff, "`Il faut que les yeux soient emus`: Impressionnisme et symbolisme vers 1891," Revue de l`art, no. 96, 1992, 24-30. Shiff had previously shown that the text written by Jules-Antoine Castagnary for the first Impressionist collective exhibition of 1874 was already a Symbolist interpretation, and he adds: "the accumulation of documentary evidence will indicate that symbolism and impressionism, as understood around 1890, were not antithetical, especially if the term `impressionism` is to signify the art of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro"; R. Shiff, Cezanne and the End of Impressionism, Chicago, 1984, 7 (emphasis in the original). However, in his review of this book, J. House, "Impressionism and History: The Rewald Legacy." Art History, IX, no. 3, 1986, 372-73, proposed a somewhat different understanding of the passage from Impressionism to Symbolism.

46. Lecomte, 1922, 64.

47. Lecomte writes that he was nineteen when he first met Pissarro (ibid., 10); but if he was really born in 1867, hewas at least twenty-two in Feb. 1890.

48. J. Bailly-Herzberg notes that, if this biography was indeed written by Lecomte, "on sent derriere chaque ligne, la pensee et memes les instructions suggerees, sinon directement transmises par Camille Pissarro"; Pissarro, II, 341, n. 2. Since Pissarro had already given up Neo-Impressionism when Lecomte wrote his first monograph, a point the writer emphasizes at the end of his text, we cannot suspect that Pissarro, if he indeed inspired Lecomte`s lines, would have insisted too much on the scientific contribution, since he was just putting it aside, considering it too restrictive.

49. Lecomte, 1890, n. p. (emphasis in the original).

50. The letters Rewald, 1973, 258, quotes in this regard are not necessarily to be taken literally: they could well be a reaction of painters "accuses d`etre de simples disciples du lyrique Anglais," as Jean Clay suggests in L`Impressionnisme, Paris, 1971, 38.

51. G. Geffroy, Claude Monet: Sa Vie, son oeuvre (1924), Paris, 1980, 263.

52. G. E. Finley, "Turner : An Early Experiment with Colour Theory." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXX, 1967, esp. 363ff:

53. Letter to Charteris of June 21, 1926, quoted by Rewald, 1973, 586.

54. Rewald, 1962, 32.

55. E. Bernard, "Louis Anquetin." Gazzette des Beaux-Arts, II, Feb. 1934, 111-12 (emphasis added).

56. E. M. Rashdall, "Claude Monet," The Artist, IX, July 2, 1888, 195-97; quoted in Bomford et al., 88.

57. A. de Lostalot, "Exposition des oeuvres de M. Claude Monet," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Apr. 1, 1883; reprinted in Bouillon et al., 248.

58. Lecomte, 1890, n.p.

59. Feneon well understood this when he noted the fact that the Neo-Impressionists had temporarily adopted the Impressionists` white frame, "excluding the golden frame that destroys the orange tones"; "Correspondance particuliere de L`Art moderne: L`Impressionnisme aux Tuileries." L`Art moderne, Sept. 19, 1886, reprinted in F. Feneon, Au-dela de l`impressionnisme, Paris, 1966, 77.

60. Chevreul, 1839, sec 571.

61. Letter to Lucien Pissarro, Apr. 24, 1883; in Pissarro, I, 198, no. 141.

62. Lecomte, 1890, n.p.

63. It is interesting to note, too, that the posters for this exhibition were "in bright red letters against a green background," (i.e., complementary colors), as Edgar Degas wrote to Felix Bracquemond; letter of Mar. 1880, quoted by Rewald, 1973, 439.

64. Letter to Lucien Pissarro, Feb. 28, 1883; in Pissarro II, 177. no. 120. On Whistler`s prior use of colored exhibition rooms, see I. Cahn, Cadres de peintres, Paris, 1989, 60ff. About the Impressionists` frames, see also Bomford et al., 102-4.

65. Huysmans, 98.

66.Chevreul, sec 568.

67. Huysmans, 223 (my emphasis).

68. This point confirms Lecomte`s words, which are not, in case there is still any doubt, a Neo-Impressionist reflection on Pissarro`s Impressionist practice.

69. Huysmans sent Pissarro his book L`Art moderne, a collection of the various texts that the Symbolist writer had devoted to the exhibitions of the Independents. See the letters of Pissarro to Huysmans, May 9 and 15, 1883; Pissarro, I, nos. 146, 149.

70. Huysmans, 223-24.

71. F. Feneon, quoted by D. Semin, "Note sur Seurat et le cadre," Avant-guerre sur l`art, etc., no. 1, 1980, 55.

72. Lecomte, 1922, 75.

73. See Bomford et al., 54-58, 64.

74. O. Reutersvard, "The `Violettomania` of the Impressionists," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, IX, no. 2, Dec. 1950, 106.

75. E. Duranty, "La Quatrieme Exposition faite par un groupe d`artistes independants." La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosite, Apr. 19, 1879; reprinted in Bouillon et al., 209. About the hesitation between blue and violet, Reutersvard (

as in n. 74

, 106) notes that some of the paintings were described by critics as violet, though we know they were painted with cobalt blue, which he explains by arguing that the critics were not used to seeing pure blue used as such.

76. Huysmans, 96-97.

77. "Observant que, dans un jardin, par exemple, l`ette, la figure humaine, sous la lumiere filtrant dans les feuilles vertes, se violace..., ils ont badigeonne des visages avec des grumeaux de violet intense, appuyant pesamment la ou la teinte etait a l`etat de soupcon, ou la nuance percait a peine"; Huysmans, 96.

78. That was, incidentally, the same position sustained by Emile Zola at the time: "The public stands open-mouthed before blue grass, violet grounds....The artist has, however, been conscientious; he maybe exaggerated a little the new tones that his eye recorded; but basically the observation is absolutely true"; E. Zola, "Le Naturalisme au Salon." Voltaire, June 19, 1880; reprinted in Riout, 174. On the scientific sources of Zola, see M. Marcussen and H. Olrik, "Le Reel chez Zola et les peintres impressionnistes: Perception et representation," Revue d`histoire litteraire la France, LXXX, no. 6, 1980, 965-77.

79. In particular, Huysmans`s sentence (94): "L`Ecole nouvelle proclamait cette verite scientifique: que la grande lumire decolore les tons" takes up the statement by Duranty (

as in n. 13

, 4): "La decouverte de ceux d`ici

the Impressionists

consiste proprement a avoir reconnu que la grande lumiere decolore les tons" (Their discovery actually consists in having recognized that strong light decolors tones). One possible source, among others, could be A. Laugel, L`Otique et les arts, Paris, 1869, 39: "L`intensite de la lumiere a cependant beaucoup d`influence sur les impressions: ainsi, au grand soleil, toutes les couleurs se rapprochent pour ainsi dire du blanc."

80. See Marcussen (as in n. 15).

81. T. Duret, Les Peintres impressionnistes (1878); reprinted in Riout, 215-16; Nochlin, 9-10 (translation slightly modified).

82. On this point, I cannot follow J. A. Richardson, Modern Art and Scientific Thought, Urbana, Ill., 1971, 10-12, who thinks that the perception by the Impressionists of simultaneous and successive contrasts is nothing other than the passive acceptance of perceptive data. This is one of the most persistent myths about Impressionism. As Linda Nochlin has pointed out in another context, insisting on the importance of the social context for Pissarro: "The idea that there can be such a thing as a neutral eye, a passive recorder of the discrete color sensations conveyed by brilliant outdoor light is simply an element of Impressionist ideology"; L. Nochlin, "Camille Pissarro: The Unassuming Eye," in Studies on Camille Pissarro, ed. C. Lloyd, London/New York, 1986, 2. For a critique of Ruskin and the Impressionist "innocent eye," see J. Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Mass./London, 1990, 95-96. See also, more generally, N. Bryson, Vision and Pointing: The Logic of the Gaze, New Haven, 1983.

83. "I have observed very often the shadows, either during sunrise, or during sunset, and I have seen them only blue, sometimes a very vivid blue, sometimes a pale blue or a dark blue, but constantly blue"; Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, "Sur les couleurs accidentelles," Memoires de l`Academie des Sciences, 1743, reprinted in J.-L. Binet et J. Roger, Un Autre Buffon, Paris, 1977, 147.

84. "In Paris, during the sunrise, when the sky is pure, the color of the shadow varies from a faint greenish blue to a purple blue"; J.-H. Hassenfratz, "Premier Memoire sur les ombres colores," Journal de l`Ecole Polytechnique, l leme cahier, IV, messidor an X (1802), 273.

85.J. W. von Goethe, Farbenlehre (1810), in Goethe`s Color Theory, ed. R. Matthaei, trans. C. Eastlake (1840), New York, 1971, 220, sec 75.

86. Brucke (as in n. 11), 180.

87. On Chevreul`s understanding of colored shadows, see P. Lanthony, "Les Ombres colores," Points de vue: Revue d`information a l`attention des medecins ophtalmologistes, no. 28, May 1992, 15.

88. Brucke (as in n. 2), 125.

89. Recall at least his sentene: "Il est probable que je trouverai que cette loi s`applique a tout. L`ombre portee sur la terre, de quoi que ce soit, est violette," quoted in A. Piron, Eugene Delacroix: Sa Vie et ses oeuvres, Paris, 1865, 416-18. This edition, however, was limited to 300 copies; furthermore, it seems that the book was not distributed until 1868, and then only to Delacroix`s friends (see Bomford et al., 222). Delacroix`s important Journal was not published until 1893.

90. This date is given by Lecomte for Pissarro: "Depuis 1865, le peintre a expurge sa palette du noir, d`abord, cette non-couleur; peu apres, les ocres et les bruns ont ete proscrits: il ne peint plus qu`avec les six couleurs de l`arc-en-ciel" (Lecomte, 1890, n.p.).

91. See L. Johnson, Delacroix, New York, 1963, 104; and Rewald, 1973, 89.

92. M. Kemp, The Science of Art, New Haven/London, 1990, 311.

93. About Pissarro`s nav, brighter palette, e.g. the 1865 date (see n. 90), also given by Cezanne (Conversations avec Cezanne, ed. P. M. Doran, Paris, 1978, 121), has been contested; see Shiff, 1984 (as in n. 45), 299, n. 23; and Bomford et al., 71, 90.

94. Blanc, in Taylor, 477. Note that most of these elements--in particular the harmony of complementary colors--had already been published in Blanc`s important obituary, "Eugene Delacroix," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Jan.-Feb. 1864, an article avidly read at least by van Gogh and Seurat.

95. C. Ephrussi, "Exposition des artistes independants," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May 1, 1880; reprinted in Riout, 236.

96. De Lostalot (as in n. 57), 346.

97. "You must all have observed the dark spots which move about in the field of vision, when we have been looking for only a short time towards the setting sun, and which physiologists call negative after-images of the sun....If the object viewed was colored, for instance red paper, the after-image is of the complementary color on a grey ground; in this case of a bluish green"; Helmholtz, 115-16.

98. Quoted by Rewald, 1973, 210.

99. G. Gueroult, "Formes, couleurs et mouvements," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 2d ser., XXV, 1882, 174.

100. Ibid, 176,n.1.

101. M. E. Cave, La Couleur: Ouvrage approuve par M. Eugene Delacroix pour apprendre la peinture a l`huile et l`aquarelle, 3d ed., Paris,


, 71.

102. F.-A.-A. Goupil-Fesquet, Manuel general de la peinture a l`huile, Paris, 1877, 128.

103. Huysmans, 51.

104. Rewald, 1973, 209-10.

105. M. Denis, "Definition du neo-traditionnisme," Art et critique, Aug. 1890, reprinted in Du symbolisme au classicisme: Theories, ed. O. Revault d`Allonnes, Paris, 1964, 34; Nochlin, 187.

106. Describing this painting, however, Zola saw the shadows as gray: "l`ombre tiede d`un arbre decoupait sur les allees, sur les robes ensoleillees, une grande nappe grise"; E. Zola, "Mon Salon: v. Les Actualistes." L`Evenement illustre, May 24, 1868, reprinted in Ecrits sur l`art Paris, 1991, 209.

107.A. Callen, Techniques of the Impressionists, London, 1982, 32. On the early works of the Impressionists, see G. Tinterow and H. Loyrette, Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994; unfortunately this text does not discuss the problem of the shadows.

108. The most complete account is in Bomford et al., 86-88. See also Callen (as in n. 107), 33, 56; and Kemp (as in n. 92), 311.

109. On this point, it is not acceptable to say that the painter simply contented himself with painting just what he saw, since he first selected the subject that interested him. For the interview, see n. 56.

110. Callen (as in n. 107), 63; and Bomford et al., 87.

111. Laugel (as in n. 79), 42.

112. Helmholtz, 113ff.

113. Ibid., 118

114. "It is well known that, to imitate objects, painters take into account the effects of contrast. If they have, for instance, to represent two walls of a brightly lit house, they accentuate the brightness of the lighted wall and the darkness of the other in the area where the two intersect. But it could be objected that this precaution is useless, since the contrast of opposition they try to imitate would naturally occur in the image. This is true up to a certain point, but not entirely, for the differences of brightness available to the artist are constrained by limits much narrower than those of nature....His oppositions being weaker, they also do not achieve a contrast so complete, and to preselve the illusion, to get closer to reality, he must ask for the help of his brush"; Brucke (as in n. 11), 182-83.

115. Gueroult (as in n. 99), 176.

116. G. Bachelard, La Formation de l`esprit scientifique: Contribution a une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective (1938), Paris, 1980, 13ff.

117. See R. F. Brown, "Impressionist Technique: Pissarro`s Optical Mixture," Magazine of Art, XLIII, no. 1, Jan. 1950, 12-15. Because this study focuses on only two paintings by Pissarro, its usefulness is relative.

118. See Carson Webster (as in n. 12), 8.

119. Chevreul, sec 1010; emphasis in the original.

120.Ibid., sec 993.

121. P. Signac, From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899), trans. W. Silverman, in F. Ratliff, Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, New York, 1992, 253.

122. Huysmans, 212.

123. P. Signac (as in n. 121), 253.

Researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Georges Roque is currently a visiting scholar at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. He has published several articles on color theory and practice, has organized three international colloquia on the topic, and awaits publication of Chevreul et les peintres

Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, Circuito Mario de la Cueva, Zona Cultural, Ciudad Universitaria, C.P. 045120, Mexico, D.F., Mexico


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