Abstract Canvas Prints No 65 : Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Delacroix
Isaac Newton’s book ‘Opticks’ (1704) was (and still is) the standard starting-point for the student of colour theory.
This is the one in which the great scientist explains how white light dispersed through a prism breaks down into a spectrum of seven colours.
A hundred or so years later the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his take on the subject in a book called theory of colours (1810).
And in 1839 a French chemist called Michael Eugene Chevreul wrote The Laws of Simultaneous Colour Contrast.
Seurat’s studied them all and many others.
What modern art needed, he thought, was to combine the precision of the old masters with the Impressionists’ study of colour and modern life..
Degas (who had nicknamed the conservatively dressed Seurat ‘the notary’) had the same idea but, as we know, came up with a different solution.
Seurat’s answer was to dispense with the improvised brushstrokes of the Impressionists and replace them with a series of meticulously applied dots of colour, which he often select from opposite sides of the colour wheel to increase the vibrancy of both.
This was a trick he had learnt from reading all those books on colour theory.
The idea being that although red and green sit opposite one another on the colour wheel, when placed adjacently on canvas they become complimentary, in that the red would appear redder, and the green will appear to be greener, they bring the best out in each other.
Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Delacroix all knew this when they elected not to mix the contrasting colours on a palette, instead applying them directly to the canvas where they would touch each other unblended.