I find the work of the impressionists and later the Neoimpressionists fascinating, in particular the way the artists explored visual perception. The act of ‘pure seeing’ and the relationship between physics, psychology and physiology in the study of colour. Below are a few notes gathered from Painting Light by Andreas Bluhm and James M. Bradburne.

Key artists: Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renpir, Berthe Morisot and followed by Neoimpressionists Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaguin.

I think its relevant to dissect the word impressionism a little because there are a few different possible interpretations. As outlined by the book, the term impression “describes the first layer of paint, which is applied to a canvas or a wood panel, in other words the ground or priming. Additionally, the term impression indicates a sensory impression.” The term is also linked to sensation and personal feeling; “They are Impressionists in the sense that they do not reproduce a landscape, but rather the feeling, which this landscape evokes.” The terms impression and sensation are fairly synonymous, sensation “emphasizes the individual and thus highly subjective perception or feeling.” In other words “A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament” Emile Zola.  Around the same time that impressionism was gaining traction the scientific field of optics under went massive growth with regard to theories of colour. Optics “as the study of light, was concerned not just with colors, but also with the visual and perception processes of the human eye.” Optics also employed the use of the term impression, using it to describe “the image formed on the retina, before it is transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain to be interpreted.” Taking all these definitions in to account the author noted that impressionism could be seen as an illustration of both subjective and objective reality.

Around Impressionism the idea of the “pure eye” developed, Jules Laforgue suggested “The Impressionist is a modernist painter gifted with an exceptionally sensitive eye who has succeeded in re-adjusting this eye to a natural, vision in order to see naturally and to paint what is in front of him without artifice. The Impressionist painter accomplishes this by forgetting all the paintings stockpiled in museums over the centuries and the curriculum of optical education (drawing, perspective, and coloration), and by abandoning precise forty-five -degree studio lighting, to live and see in an honest an unfettered fashion amidst the luminous spectacle of the plein air in the streets, the countryside, or in the interior settings.” Or more simply put impressionists sought to “paint what they saw and felt, without mystery…” attaching importance to the “purity and sincerity of perception. To capture impressions of fleeting moods…” Light was the central focus, by seeing everything as light shadows were no longer just dark but had there own colors through analyzing reflected light. Likewise things that are seen in nature as colorless like water, air are also just as colored as solid objects. One of the biggest complaints about impressionism is the way they use colour, in the book it mentions that there was speculation about the artists have visual defects. Impressionists and even more so the Neo-impressionists did not apply colour randomly, there is a system the guides what goes where. Study of the effects of different lighting situations led to a natural understanding of ideas that were at around the same time being analyzed in the scientific field of optics. Whole essays could and have been written about these ideas but for the purpose of my investigation I have simplified the key ideas into bullet points below:

–       Light strikes the eye as a colour stimulus and is then converted into a perception of colour in the brain. Illustrated by the fact that we cant see colours in the dark.

–       Isaac Newton created a rainbow by shining white light through a prism so that the light refracted showing seven colours. What we see as colour is reflected light on a surface, an apple looks red because the surface ‘absorbs’ all the other colours in the spectrum and reflects the rays of light that appear red to us.

–       Different lighting conditions can cause an object to “change” colour, green light shone on an apple makes it appear black, red light at sunset changes the colours we see in the surrounding landscape

–       When there is more than one light source in the right conditions shadows appear coloured.

–       Michel Eugene Chevreul developed the 72 part colour wheel, and the law of simultaneous contrast. This helped to describe the effects that occur when viewing adjacent areas of different color simultaneously. Complimentary colors are those that lie across from each other on the color wheel. When complimentary or opposite colors are placed next to each other they appear more intense. Simultaneous contrast occurs in our brains it is physiological in nature, green is not actually brighter when it is seen next to purple but to us it appears to be. Perceived brightness and saturation is affected by the same phenomenon, something that looks bright on a dark background will appear less bright as the background is made lighter. Likewise a weak color looks stronger and more vibrant when placed in a grey background than if it was surrounded by strong colors.

–       These principles were employed by the impressionists, allowing them control over how intense or understated colour appeared. These colour contrast strategies allowed them to generate effects of light and create luminous paintings.

–       The impressionist style of painting is characterized by application of many brightly colored strikes of paint. Retreating a few meters and viewing the painting unites the strikes into a lively a vibrant scene. The pure strikes of colour mix in the eye, this, in conjunction with the impressionist’s knowledge of colour relationships is what made the paintings so luminous.

Impressionists gathered some of these ideas by observation of nature and study of colour. Within the works themselves, plein air images or ‘maps’ were then, often if not always, shaped and augmented by the artists through retouching and harmonizing of the colours later in the studio.

The last point I would like to make is about this idea of painting what is seen, Georges Gueroult wrote “The leaders of this new group simply wish to reproduce what they see. Now, it is certain that at a distance of ten metres, the great majority of details of modelling, the change of colour in the face and in the clothing can no longer be perceived. In order to reproduce purely and simple what he sees, the Impressionist painter must logically suppress the fine details of modelling and coloration. If he sees a splodge from a distance he must paint a splodge…” The idea of a point of view based on what the human eye sees is interesting, I plan to elaborate on this further in my next post. In addition to describing how the ideas of the impressionists link to other artists I have studied and my own work.


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