Saturday, May 25, 2019

Seurat and the Science of Painting, by William Innes Homer

Seurat and the
Science of Painting
by William Innes Homer
At the turn of the 20th century, work by Max Planck on the odd properties of light led to a revolution in physics called quantum mechanics. But a generation before him, artists showed an understanding of light no less revolutionary.

I've been interested in the overlap of science and art for a long time, as I posted here after a visit to the National Gallery's 2007 exhibition, "Manet to Picasso". Some of that thinking was rekindled by reading The Pinball Effect last month, which cited the influence on Seurat of the chemist Michel Chevreul. An endnote directed me to Seurat and the Science of Painting, published in 1964.

Sifting through Seurat's surviving papers, accounts of his contemporaries and other sources, Homer pieces together the influences on two particularly famous paintings: "Une Baignade, Asnières" (usually translated in the plural as "Bathers at Asnières") from 1884, and "Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte" ("A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette"), painted 1884-86.

"Une Baignade, Asnières" by Seurat (1884)

"Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte"
by Seurat (1884-86)
The key idea is that Seurat followed the colour theories of Chevreul and Rood, among others. Those theories weren't exactly new. Chevreul had experimented with colour while director of the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, publishing his conclusions in 1839 - 20 years before Seurat was born. Nor were he and the Impressionists the first to use these theories in painting. Homer shows that Delacroix was well ahead of them; he died in 1863, when Seurat was not yet four.

The theories are fairly simple to grasp. In trying to make dyes brighter and more arresting, Chevreul found that it was less effective to mix colours physically than to place threads or fabrics dyed in contrasting colours next to one another. From a distance, our eyes do the mixing optically but to more dramatic effect. The contrasts shimmer and fizz.

Homer provides a range of different diagrams explaining colour contrasts and harmonies, as understood by different theorists. Take the three primary colours: yellow, red and blue (or, in some cases, blue-violet). The direct contrast to yellow is the mix of the other two, i.e. purple. Red then contrasts with green, and blue (or blue-violet) with orange. But that's just the start. Homer then details how the theories incorporate gradations of tone and hue. There are a lot of diagrams.

On one spread, radiating spokes are presented three times to show how the same basic idea passed from person to person - the last of them Seurat. There are also circles, grids, stars and triangles to demonstrate connections of colour, the spokes labelled variously in English or French. It's extraordinary that these diagrams explaining colour in such meticulous detail are all in black and white. We must imagine the connections. The colour plates offer just four small images, each a detail of one of the paintings under discussion. The paintings themselves are also shown in black and white.

Diagrams in Seurat and the Science of Painting (1)
Diagram in Seurat and the Science of Painting (2)

The result is that this academic study was all the more hard-going for this reader of limited brain. Homer goes into great detail but (I felt) repeats himself, giving ever more examples of the same basic idea. There's also little on what other science influenced these painters: the invention of photography, the development of new kinds of paint. And I think purists might question how "scientific" some of these theories really are - surely some of the conclusions are more a matter of taste.

But for the most part this is dizzyingly absorbing. The irony is that Seurat's work isn't realistic, yet that stylisation is based on direct observation, recording the strange, real effects of light - such as the colouring of shadows. The brushwork is surely also on to something ahead of its time. Previous generations of painters used delicate strokes to hide their artistry but Seurat favoured spots and strokes, discernable dabs of individual colour. 

It is light conveyed in discrete units, packets - quanta.

No comments: