, Research Paper
They (the impressionists) have tried to render the walk, the movement, the tremor, the intermingling of passersby and the vibration of air inundated with light, and just as in the case of the rainbow colourings of the solar rays, they have been able to capture the soft ambiance of a grey day. Indeed the impressionists did focus on the ability to capture an event and much attention was given to the way in which the light constituted the scene. So much so that this investigation into painting light drew to it much controversy in all aspects of the work, one particular aspect of the works that was given a lot of criticism was the fond use of violet and blue hues. The understanding of the impressionist taste for these hues, and the critics dislike in impressionists use is found in understanding the artistic and social climate of the time, by which we shall find that much has to do with the science of colour and perception.
The first impressionist exhibition of 1874 is a signpost for the changing ways in which paintings were being bought and sold. The tradition of the salon shows dominance was now being challenged, as the artists found dismay both in the selection process and the overcrowded nature of the display. The artists struggle to gain selection into the salon was made more difficult by the lack of evolution in the style of the selected works, the tradition of the highly polished workman that left no trace of where they had been was the usual choice. These strict definitions of what was acceptable led to the first impressionists being met with much disgust by the critics and general public of the time. Why, was the word on every body s lips, why did they paint like this? Why did they exhibit what looked much like sketches or studies? Why did they use these colours? It is when we try to answer these questions that we find that much of what the impressionists were trying to achieve was to be found in the science of colour and light.
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 an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own na ve impression of the scene before you. A most famous quote of Monet that tells us the story of what he tried to achieve and shows how he saw painting. It is when we compare this to the tradition of the time we begin to see how the impressionists use of colour and the critics view of it are opposed to each other, which shall be elaborated on later.
The way in which Monet among other impressionists came to their theories on painting is much debated, as the ideas which they express often comes back to the science of what constitutes light and how the eye perceives it. This much is agreed, that of what they did some must have come from colour and light theory of the time, however debate begins on the extent of what they and the critics new of it. 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. Georges Roque wrote this in his essay on Chevreul and the impressionists. Here we find the crux of the confusion surrounding the knowledge of the artists and of the critics in relationship to the science of light and colour. This understanding leads us to why artist and critic were opposed in their view of the use of violet and blue in the impressionists artworks.
There were many colour and light theorists published by the time of the impressionists, Chevreul being perhaps the origins of much of what the impressionists followed. The connection between this science and the neo-impressionists is much published but the connection with impressionism is a little less certain. One major part of Chevreul s theory however is to do with complementary colours. The most important to us is the use of violet and blue in the impressionists which is directly linked to this. The science of colour contrast suggests that the shadows given by object shall be tinged with the colour of the light that hits it. I.e. if we place an object on a white piece of paper direct a red light at it the shadow it casts shall have green tonal qualities. If we consider this for a moment we find that the use of blue and violet in the works of the impressionists were mainly of use in shadows and were being used depending on the light that was being captured. Knowledge on this science would not have been an in depth study by either artist or critic but part of their common knowledge, as we don t find links to this type of connections in the writings of either. However a common belief of the impressionists was that they painted what they saw: under the summer sun, with reflections of green foliage, skin and clothing take on a violet tint. This was evident in Monet s Women in the garden 1867 it was this painting that first brought the critics and himself against each other as the year prior he had been met with much acceptance at the salon with his work Woman in green. The women in the garden however shows the beginning of his experiments into the divisions of colour and he was noted on working at effects of light and colour which ran counter to accepted conventions. This is seen in the way the dresses show tints of the colour that was to be attached to impressionism violet, it is this tint that we are interested in, as if this work (which is considered to be the beginnings of impressionism) was met with such outrage due to its difference to accepted conventions then it easy to see why the impressionist works themselves were criticized. The technique employed in Women in the garden that we have established to be rooted in common knowledge of light theory, was yet to be so obviously adapted into painting. This adaptation was to much for a highly traditional audience that were not ready to accept this new direction.
Perhaps the violent opposition to the impressionists works use of violet and blue in their shadows was not as much to do with the use of these colour but the exaggerated use of them, meaning that it was the exaggerations of principles that occur naturally. 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. This shows two points as to the difference of opinions on impressionism s use of blues and violets, the first is that of how the critics even with this knowledge struggled with its exuberance in representation. Helmholtz concluded the second in a lecture he gave on the optics of painting. Such bright contrasts, they are observed in strongly coloured and strongly lighted object in nature, cannot be expected from their representation in the picture. If, therefore, with the pigments at his command, the artist wishes to produce the impression which the object gives, as strikingly as possible, he must paint the contrasts which they produce. To which he added: If the colours 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.
The impressionists techniques including their choice of colour was to be considered wretched by the critics of the time on many points yet we see much of why this is in examining the accepted practices of the time. It is from a critic Edmond Duranty, sympathetic to the impressionists that we get a better understanding of these ideas. In a well-known pamphlet entitled The new painting: concerning the group of artists exhibiting at the Durand-Ruel galleries, Duranty attempts to explain some new tendencies in painting. It was he who was one of the first to put into text the now familiar opposition between the innovations of the impressionists and the worn out practices of the academic and state sponsored artists: Thus the battle really is between traditional art and the new art, between old painting and new painting.
An example of what these impressionists were to be rebelling against is found in what were the select colour choices of some of their masters. Monet for example studied under Charles Gleyre who was independent from the academy yet still a conservative. He warned against the demon colour , despised visible brushwork ( the touch ) and even recommended ivory black as the base of all tones. This style and tradition is quite obvious in Sappho (le coucher de Sapho),a work of Gleyre s done at around the same time as Monet s women in the garden, Gleyre s work shows a refined finished with attention to detail most evident in the way drapery in the work is almost liquid in its fall, with out the hand of the artist becoming a notable factor. The tonal qualities of the piece show traditional contrast of light and shade with evident use of the base ivory black. In comparison to this work which is a show piece of Gleyre s and for this purpose of the accepted work of its time, we see in Monet s women in the garden a complete lack of the flowing aspect in the dresses its painting flattens out the dress into separate areas. The most interesting aspect to us however is the shading on the dress, which again we come back to and see has violet tints to it that also come across as separate areas of colour. When compared to Gleyre the technique is completely different, as he wishes to disguise the differences, Monet however has made them quite evident in the work. We can see in this comparison of these two works of the same time is that even work that had only under tones of the impressionists was quite different in its approach to the use of shade and tonal colour. It is therefore the difference that the critics did not approve of, many were not ready to adopt this new style just yet.
With an understanding of why the critics of that period were not so receptive to the colour use of the impressionists we turn towards what it was in their colour choices that drew the impressionists to this use of blue and violet. One reason that is not related to the science of optics is that of the introduction of synthetic pigments such as violet and ultramarine blue. The cost factor and quality of these pigment would have played some role in their decision, however this is likely to be just as much a part of it as the fact that these artists were creating a new art with all types of new methods. The impressionists style was to create works by using pure pigment and these new paints were to give them a larger range to create with. However we must not go past what was the organizing factor involved in the impressionists colour choice which was the science of complementary colours. 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. And indeed this is why they used the contrast of colour in the shadows as what better way to show the colour and effect of light then to contrast them with its opposite.
Colour owes its brightness to force of contrast rather than its inherent qualities; .. primary colours look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementary. Monet both said this and defined it in so many works, in his haystacks series we see brilliant use of contrasting colours in order to produce a luminous quality to the light of the works. It was blue and violet that played particular roles in these works as the light was always tones of either yellow or orange. With this strive to produce impressions the use of colour was to be dominant and though they were met without much praise, critics would with understanding and time warm to their work and use of colour. But perhaps Manet gives the greatest understanding on the impressionists fond colour choice, incorporating their quest for representations of single moments with colour, stroke and paint.
I have finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere. It s violet. Fresh air is violet.
Bomford,art in the making:impressionism, London 1990
Brettell, French Impressionists, New York 1987
Gage, Colour and culture: practice and meaning from antiquitty to abstraction, London 1993
Nochlin, impressionism and post impressionism 1874-1904, New Jersy 1966
Roque,G.1996 Chevreul and impressionism: a reappraisal . Art Bulletin, LXXVIII, pg26-39
Venturi, impressionists and symbolists, New York 1973