from Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism – Signac
For half a century Delacroix tried hard to achieve more brightness and luminosity, thereby displaying to the colourists who would succeed him the path to follow and the goal to attain. He still left them much to do, but thanks to his contribution and his teaching, their task was made easier.
He proved to them all the advantages of a sound technique, of planning and logic, not hindering the passion for painting but strengthening it.
He gave them the secret of the laws governing colour: the harmony of similarities, the analogy of opposites.
He showed them how a unified and dull colour scheme is inferior to the colour produced by the vibrations of different combinations of elements.
He secured for them the resources of optical blending, which gives rise to new colours.
He advised them to banish dark, dull and drab colours as much as possible.
He taught them that it is possible to modify and reduce a colour without tarnishing it with mixtures on the palette.
He showed them the moral influence of colour which could contribute to the effect of the painting; he initiated them into the aesthetic language of colours and tones.
He incited them to dare everything, never to fear that their harmonies might be too colourful.
The powerful creator is equally the great educator; his teaching is as precious as his work.
Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that the paintings of Delacroix, despite his efforts and his knowledge, are not as light nor as coloured as the paintings of his followers. The Entrance of the Crusaders appears dark beside The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and Circus by Seurat. Delacroix seized the Romantic palette, overloaded with colours, some brilliant, others, too numerous, earthy and dark; everything it could give him.
He could not have had a more perfect instrument to suit his ideal. In order to create this instrument, he had only to exclude from his palette the darker colours which were a useless encumbrance. He did violence to them in order to extract from them some brightness, but he never dreamt of painting only with the pure and virtual colours of the prism.
This progress had to be made by another generation: that of the Impressionists.
Everything is both connected to and develops from its own time: first one complicates, then one simplifies. If the Impressionists simplified the palette, if they achieved greater colour and luminosity, it is thanks to the investigations of the Romantic master and his struggles with the complicated palette. * * *
It was in 1886, at the last of the exhibitions of the Impressionist group, that works appeared for the first time that were painted solely with pure, separated and balanced colours, mixing optically according to a rational method.
Georges Seurat, who instigated this step forward, exhibited there the first separated painting. A Sunday on the Grande-Jatte was a decisive canvas which testified to the very rare qualities of the painter; grouped around him were Camille Pissarro, his son Lucien Pissarro and Paul Signac, who also exhibited works painted in a more or less similar technique.
The unexpected vividness and harmony of these innovators’ paintings was immediately noticed, if not exactly welcomed. These qualities were thanks to the fundamental principles of separation. Since then, this technique has not stopped developing, thanks to the research and contributions of Henri-Edmond Cross, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Maximilien Luce, Hippolyte Petitjean, Theo van Rysselberghe, Henry van de Velde and others; this is in spite of cruel deaths, of attacks and desertions. […]
If these painters, who would be better described by the epithet Chromo-Lumi-naristes, adopted the name Neo-Impressionists, this was not to court success (the Impressionists were still in full flight), but to pay homage to the efforts of their precursors, and to emphasize in spite of the differences, the common aim: light and colour. It is in this sense that the title Neo~Impressionist must be understood, for the technique used by these painters is not at all impressionistic; to the extent that that of their precursors was based on instinct and the instantaneous, theirs was by contrast based on reflection and the permanent.
The Neo-Impressionists, like the Impressionists, only had pure colours on their palette. But they totally repudiated any mixing of colours on the palette, except, of course, the mixing of colours which were contiguous in the chromatic circle. These, shaded off between each other and lightened with white, tend to reinstate the various colours of the solar spectrum and all their tones. An orange mixed with a yellow and a red, a violet shading into red and blue, a green passing from blue to yellow, are, together with white, the only elements they used. But, by the optical blending of these pure colours, and by varying their proportions, they obtained an infinite quantity of colours, from the most intense to the most grey.
They not only banished from their palettes any mixed colours, they also avoided spoiling the purity of their colours by putting contrary ones together on a canvas. Every touch made purely on the palette remains pure on the canvas.
As they used colours prepared with more brilliant powders, and more sumptuous materials, these painters could claim that their luminosity and coloration surpassed that of the Impressionists, who had darkened and spoiled the pure colours of the simplified palette.
It is not enough for the technique of separation to assure, by the mixture of pure optical elements, a maximum of luminosity and coloration; it guarantees the integral harmony of the work by the proportion and balance of these elements, depending on the rules of contrast, shading and radiance.
These rules, which the Impressionists observed infrequently and instinctively, are always rigorously applied by the Neo-Impressionists. It is a precise and scientific method, which does not enfeeble sensation, but guides and protects it.
It would seem that the first question confronting the painter in front of a blank canvas is the decision as to which curves and patterns will divide the surface, which colours and tones should cover it. Quite an infrequent worry at a time when most paintings are instantaneous photographs or useless illustrations.
To reproach the Impressionists for having neglected these concerns would be puerile, for their obvious plan was to seize the patterns and harmonies of nature, as they presented themselves, without any concern for order and combination. ‘The Impressionist sits on the bank of a river,’ said their critic Theodore Duret, ‘and paints that which he sees before him.’ They proved that, in this way, one could create marvels.
The Neo-Impressionist, following the advice of Delacroix, will not begin a canvas without having finalized the composition. Guided by tradition and by science, he will harmonize the composition with his idea; that is to say, he will adapt the lines (directions and angles), the light and dark (tones), the colours (pigments) to the character he wants. The dominance of the lines would be horizontal for calm, ascending for joy and descending for sadness, with all the intermediate lines used to depict all the other sensations in their infinite variety. A polychromatic interplay, no less expressive and diverse, joins with this linear interplay: corresponding to the ascending lines are warm colours and clear tones; with the descending lines, cold colours and dark tones predominate; a more or less perfect balance of warm and cold colours, of pale and intense tones is added to the calm of the horizontal lines. Thus submitting colour and line to the emotion he felt and wants to translate, the painter does the work of the poet, of the creator.
In a general way, it is possible to admit that a Neo-Impressionist work is more harmonious than an Impressionist one. Firstly, thanks to the constant observation of contrast, the harmony of detail in it is more precise. Secondly thanks to the rational composition and to the aesthetic language of the colours, it leads to a harmony of the whole and a moral harmony with which the Impressionist work is deliberately unconcerned.
It is perhaps easy to paint more luminously than the Neo-Impressionists, but you would lose colour; you can have more colour, but at the cost of darkening. Their colour is located in the middle of the radius of the chromatic circle which goes from the centre – white – to the circumference – black. This location assures it the maximum saturation of power and beauty. A time will come when one discovers such a combination either from using a better type of colour than those which the painter has now, or from using better substances, or new processes like the direct application of light rays on sensitized surfaces; but it must be admitted that it was the Neo-Impressionists who knew how to exploit the current resources, rendering them at once more luminous and more coloured. Next to one of their paintings, and despite the criticisms which they still encounter, any painting, however great its artistic qualities, will appear dark or lacking in colour. It must be understood that we do not want a painter’s talent to depend on how much light and colour there is in his paintings; we know that with white and black one can create masterpieces and one can paint with colour and light without merit. But if this research into colour and light is not the whole of art, is it not at least one of the most important parts? Is he not an artist who endeavours to create unity in the variety of rhythms of pigments and tones, and who employs his knowledge in the service of his sensations?
Remembering the phrase of Delacroix: ‘Cowardly painting is the painting of a coward’, the Neo-Impressionists could be proud of their austere and simple painting. And if it is passion that makes artists, rather than technique, they can be confident: they have the fertile passion of light, of colour and of harmony.
In any case, they will not have repeated that which had been done before; they will have the risky honour of having produced a new way, of expressing a personal ideal.
They can develop, but always on the bases of purity and of contrast; they knew the importance and charm of these too well ever to renounce them. Gradually freed from the hindrances of their beginnings, the technique of separation, which permitted them to express their dreams in colour, became more supple and advanced, promising even more fertile resources.
And if there is no artist among them whose genius allows him to develop this technique further, at least they have simplified his task. The triumphant colourist has only to appear: his palette has been prepared for him.