Impressionism, Love, etc.

by robert consoli / May 16, 2011 / 0 comments

In the last year or so we in the United States have been treated to two large shows of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The d'Orsay has been closed for renovation and so the Directors have taken advantage of this hiatus to allow their holdings to travel and give them much broader exposure. This is a real favor to us in the US; the French love their Impressionists and won't breathe easily until these wonderful treasures return to France. I saw both of these shows and was deeply impressed; I've been to the d'Orsay and while these shows are not a substitute for the original ~ so what? It's time once again, therefore, to make a few remarks about the Impressionist painters; most people have a hazy idea that the Impressionists painted 'more emotionally' or that they painted out of doors or .. something.  I think that we can do better.


Impressionism resulted from the fortuitous convergence of a number of developments, intellectual and otherwise, in France in the first half of the nineteenth century.  I'd like to look at several of these in coming posts but today I only want to talk about the Laws of Simultaneous Contrast of Color and Tone.


In 1824 a certain Michel Eugene Chevreul, a professor of chemistry, was appointed Director of Dyeing in the tapestry works of Gobelins. It fell to Chevreul, therefore, to deal with many complaints about the fading of dyes in the Gobelin tapestries. It was clear, or it seemed clear, from looking at the tapestries, that something was wrong with the dyes but Gobelins knew that they had used the dyes stipulated. What had gone wrong? This led to Chevreul's important research in colors; the problem, he decided, was not chemical in nature but optical. It seems, according to Chevreul, that light colors next to dark colors simultaneously make the light colors look lighter (faded) and the dark colors darker. This is the so-called 'Principle of Simultaneous Contrast of Tones'.


Chevreul didn't stop there. In continuing research he was able to show that a color placed next to its complement (blue next to orange, say) had the simultaneous effect of making the blue more intensely blue and the orange more intensely orange. Chevreul didn't express it quite this way; what he actually said was this: Any color placed next to another color will have the effect of driving the colors, simultaneously, away from each other along the color wheel. This effect is most intense with complements.  This law he called 'Simultaneous Contrast of Color'.


Painters use the results of these laws to achieve effects which are obtainable in no other way. To darken a patch of paint they often paint a brighter patch next to it. To intensify a color they paint the complementary color next to it. By using these laws of perception they trick the viewer's brain into supplying an intensity which they, the artists, would not otherwise be able to supply. These laws of color and tone have deeply informed artistic practice to the present day but it was the Impressionists who first made use of them.


All art is more intense when it is the audience that does the bulk of the work. The painter's job is to trick the viewer into doing precisely that; to conspire in creating the work of art which he or she ostensibly views from the outside. Inside each of us who is capable of being moved by a Van Gogh is an artist greater than Van Gogh could ever be. Likewise, the passion that we call Love consists of what we do to ourselves, it is what we allow ourselves to feel or gradually convince ourselves to feel in the presence of the beloved; it is not something imposed on us from outside as is supposed by the young. What we feel, and suffer, in Love is entirely our own creation. In that same way the viewer (or listener) who creates the work of art internally experiences it much more intensely than anything a painter or composer could possibly force on us.   This is not rhetoric; I mean exactly what I say.  It is when we see a painted glowing sun far more intensely yellow than any yellow producible by the laboratory or when we continue to hear the high attenuated violin note without seeing that the bow has stopped that we experience in that same way, and just for a moment, an experience of art which has the intensity of love.