In this essay, I shall try to examine how great a role colour played in the evolution of Impressionism. Impressionism in itself can be seen as a linkage in a long chain of procedures, which led the art to the point it is today. In order to do so, colour in Impressionism needs to be placed within an art-historical context for us to see more clearly the role it has played in the evolution of modern painting. In the late eighteenth century, for example, ancient Greek and Roman examples provided the classical sources in art. At the same time, there was a revolt against the formalism of Neo-Classicism. The accepted style was characterised by appeal to reason and intellect, with a demand for a well-disciplined order and restraint in the work. The decisive Romantic movement emphasized the individual’s right in self-expression, in which imagination and emotion were given free reign and stressed colour rather than line; colour can be seen as the expression for emotion, whereas line is the expression of rationality. Their style was painterly rather than linear; colour offered a freedom that line denied. Among the Romanticists who had a strong influence on Impressionism were Joseph Mallord William Turner and Eugéne Delacroix. In Turner’s works, colour took precedence over the realistic portrayal of form; Delacroix led the way for the Impressionists to use unmixed hues. The transition between Romanticism and Impressionism was provided by a small group of artists who lived and worked at the village of Barbizon. Their naturalistic style was based entirely on their observation and painting of nature in the open air. In their natural landscape subjects, they paid careful attention to the colourful expression of light and atmosphere. For them, colour was as important as composition, and this visual approach, with its appeal to emotion, gradually displaced the more studied and forma, with its appeal to reason.
Impressionism grew out of and followed immediately after the Barbizon school. A distinctive feature of the work of the Impressionists was the application of paint in touches of mostly pure colour rather than blended; their pictures appeared more luminous and colourful even than the work of Delacroix, from whom they had learned the technique. To the modern eye, the accepted paintings of the salon artists of the day seem pale and dull. Like the paintings of the Barbizon school, much of their painting was done outdoors, in an attempt to capture the fleeting impression of the play of light at a certain moment. The first Impressionist Exhibition was held in 1874. Prominent among the Impressionists were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Eugéne Boudin, and Gustave Caillebotte.
Impressionism is thought to be ‘…the fruit of the scientific thought and research of the nineteenth century’ . One of the principles of the movement was that they substituted the natural chiaroscuro of the colour that was based on the solar spectrum for one that was based more on tones of black and white. It was this principle that has affected painting ever since and most profoundly . It was accompanied by the shock of discovering something new, although earlier paintings, such as those of the Barbizon School had been heading towards the same direction.
Most people, even today, relate light with the colour white and darkness with black. Painters of the past have used black in an effort to dim a specific colour, and white to order to lighten it. Scientific knowledge has left us with a complete understanding of how the human eye works, and optics has given painters the opportunity to manipulate light more effortlessly.
Thus, we have learnt that white light can be resolved into a scale of colours ranging from violet to red, that black is the reversal of the colour due to its ability to absorb all rays of colour, and that pure white and black exist only in theory . Even a surface that appears to be white to us has the slightest tint of yellow, purple or red; likewise, even the dimmest black has tints of colour in it.
It was the awareness of all these details that led the Impressionists into excluding black from their paintings; discard earthly tones and deal almost solely with the seven colours that comprise the solar spectrum. This change, that was about to turn into a revolution in painting, was most profoundly exhibited in the depiction of shadows. Painters of the past would have questioned the inclination of the colour grey towards black or white; the Impressionists questioned whether it was a bluish, greenish, or reddish grey.
Colours were no longer thought of as dark and light, or as warm and cool. What interested them was their relation to primary (yellow, blue) and complementary (green, orange, indigo, and violet) hues . This view of nature was emphasised by Monet, Pissaro and Renoir, although Delacroix had foretold Impressionism when he described the faces of two Moroccan boys as ‘[the]…yellow-complexioned [one] had violet shadows; the ruddy-faced one, green shadows.’
The Impressionists shocked the public with the way they placed colour on their canvas, though Watteau and Constable had already made use of broken colour to give variety to a painting, and praised from Chardin and Reynolds .
As we have seen, by the late nineteenth century much more was known about how colours work together and influence one another. Monet uses primary and complementary colours in Rose Path at Giverny. By piling the colours one on top of the other separately, Monet makes them react to one another so that they appear to shimmer and sparkle. There is a visual reference to perspective in the ochre and orange foreground, but essentially any sense of the distance is carried by in the recessive blues and purples, which dominate in the central section of the painting, and the reds at either side, which come forward. The light areas seem to correspond to sunlight filtering through the foliage and flowers, and the thick impasto technique plays an important role here. The paint has been built up until it stands off the surface of the picture and is made to suggest the rich appearance of texture created when light penetrates fitfully through a dense thicket. Unlike in paintings that are abstract, Monet wants the spectator to be aware of the subject, so that the imagination is stimulated to sense the atmosphere of what it must be like to stand in a tunnel of roses. The viewer is aware constantly that he is looking at paint on canvas, because the surface is so opaque.
In Manet’s Concert in the Tuileries, the artist uses strong, natural light, which falls directly on his figures. His use of white or pale-tinted ground strengthened the flat, pale areas in the painting. These contrast with the liberal use of black, employed here to portray the elegance of the dandies’ dresses. Straight black was something that academics were trying to avoid; its absolute presence disturbed gentle harmonies. Ambroise Vollard recalls Pissarro’s comments on Manet: “Manet was greater than us; he was able to make light out of black” .
The uneven feel in Manet’s work also stems from his use of colour. A surprising effect greets the eye as it moves unexpectedly over the canvas from white to black shapes, combined with primary hues. The figures are worked directly onto the white ground, with little preparatory under painting. The sharp wet-in-wet application of colours with a loaded brush contrasts with the thin translucent laying in of the background greens, and this helps the eye to distinguish between foreground and background. The heads are painted with lively brushstrokes in simple slabs of light and dark, which gives a dynamic immediacy to the form and captures the feeling of being in the crowded scene, and the mixed oranges provide a harmonizing contrast when put next to to the blues of the dresses.
Van Gogh’s understanding of colour came from the work of Delacroix and the Impressionists. In The Sick-Ward of the hospital at Arles, the artist controls a range of colours to create a very specific emotional impact on the viewer. He uses blue and gold to recreate an atmosphere of melancholy and claustrophobia by the precise shades and tints of the colours and the way he puts them together. There are reds and greens in the ends of the beds and their bedspreads, but in a submissive way, so that the dominant colours are a much colder series of blues. But the interesting point here is how the artist could manipulate a similar range of colours to express a completely different emotion.
By comparison, Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles produces an optimistic response. Blue is again dominant in the picture; its is used in the walls, the doors, the jug, the reflection in the mirror and the coats hanging on the wall in the background. The towel on the left is tinted with green and a red line runs across it. There are oranges and golds and yellows in the bed and picture frames and the red bedspread complements the window’s dark green. The optimistic response derives from the combination of all these colours.
As far as the new theory and newly found scale of colour was concerned, Impressionism was the outcome of the optical research of the nineteenth century. One could say that painting is about the expression of an emotion, but the visual language each artist uses differs depending on his chronology. The idea of painting developing in a historical way can appear to deny the notion that artists at different periods can be involved with similar concerns but carry them out according to the visual language of their time. Impressionism is the exact opposite to ancient Greek art with its well-defined lines and extreme clarity. The sense of the boundless in Monet’s work led some critics to describe his work as ‘pantheist art’ . Pantheism, one could say, is consistent with scepticism and philosophic doubt. Greek religion was fixed and boundless; Impressionism was vague and boundless, and an art that expressed the prevailing thought and scientific progress of its time.
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