Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786–1889) is one of the most important chemists of nineteenth-century France. A pioneer of organic chemistry, he was twice President of the French Academy of Sciences. His work changed dramatically after his appointment as director of the dyeing department of the Gobelins Manufacture in Paris, where he worked for almost 60 years. At the Gobelins, he developed a considerable amount of work on color, including color classification, color applied to industry, as well as his most famous book on simultaneous contrast of colors, which had a great impact on several generations of artists as well as on color teaching. His exceptional longevity helped him to publish many books and hundreds of scientific papers, most of them on color topics. His 100th birthday was celebrated as a national event; he finally died at 103. His book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and their Applications to the Arts  was once considered one of the 12 most important books on color .
Chevreul’s Life and Work
In 1824, thanks to his fame as a chemist, Chevreul was appointed at the Gobelins Manufactures, as Director of the Dyeing Department. The Gobelins usually appointed chemists, as one of the main tasks of the Department of Dyes was to take care of the dyes of wools and silks used by the three manufactures, the most important being that of tapestries (Gobelins). The Director of the Department had indeed among other tasks that of looking after the quality of the wool (that had to be cleaned from grease and bleached) and the quality of the dyes according to their stability, their brilliance, and the kind of cloth to which they had to be applied (basically wool, silk, and cotton). Another important issue was that of color classification.
Before focusing this essay on the law of simultaneous contrast of color, it is worth noting the wide range of interests Chevreul had for colors. He himself suggested a classification of his work on color. The two main categories are (a) means of naming and defining colors and (b) dyes (, p. 121).
Means of Naming and Defining Colors
In his classification of his own work on color, Chevreul divided the dye section into three parts: all that is relative to the simultaneous contrast of colors, all that concerns what he called the principle of color mixing (which corresponds to what is known today as chromatic assimilation), and finally chemical researches.
Indeed, long before being appointed by the Gobelins, Chevreul had worked on natural tints; on indigo, for instance, he devoted a dozen papers, the first being published in 1807, when he was 20 years old . His interest for animal fat also helped him to work on the process of degreasing and of bleaching dyes, to which he devoted numerous papers.
Although Chevreul’s work on color covers many aspects, his most important contribution to color is his law of simultaneous contrast of colors, as expounded in his book translated into English under the title The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application to the Arts (1st edition in French, 1839; 1st English translation, 1854). Its starting point was a complaint from the weavers of the Gobelins against the dyers of the Department of Dyeing that he directed. The complaint was in particular about the black samples of wool used for the shades of blue and violet draperies. As a chemist, Chevreul first tested the wools dyed in black in his workshop and compared them with those dyed in the best places from London and Vienna. After a careful comparison, he realized that the quality of the dyed material was not in question. This led him to raise a brilliant hypothesis: the lack of strength of the blacks was not due to the dyes or their uptake but was a visual phenomenon related to the colors juxtaposed to the blacks. This new discovery was all the more surprising as Chevreul, being a chemist, was not prepared to admit that the cause of the phenomenon he observed “is certainly at the same time physiological and psychical” (, p. 101).
If we look simultaneously upon two stripes of different tones of the same colour, or upon two stripes of the same tone of different colours placed side by side, if the stripes are not too wide, the eye perceives certain modifications which in the first place influence the intensity of colour, and in second, the optical composition of the two juxtaposed colours respectively. Now as these modifications make the stripes appear different from what they really are, I give to them the name of simultaneous contrast of colours; and I call contrast of tone the modification in intensity of colour, and contrast of colour that which affects the optical composition of each juxtaposed colour. (, § 8)
Red is complementary to Green, and vice versa;
Orange is complementary to Blue, and vice versa,
Greenish-Yellow is complementary to Violet, and vice versa
Indigo is complementary to Orange-Yellow, and vice versa. (, § 6)
So the modification perceived when seeing juxtaposed colors consists in perceiving each color as slightly tinted with the complementary color of the juxtaposed one. This is the clever way Chevreul had to understand and solve the problem raised by the weavers when complaining of the bad quality of the blacks dyed in the Dyeing Department of the Gobelins. When seen in isolation, the blacks are perfectly black, but when seen juxtaposed to violet, they are slightly tinted with the complementary color of violet, that is, yellow, and will look accordingly yellowish. In order to solve the problem, Chevreul suggested the weavers to mix a few threads of violet with the blacks, so that they neutralize the effect of yellow and make accordingly the blacks look blacker!
A particular case must be mentioned: what happens when the two juxtaposed hues are complementary, for example, red and green? According to the law of simultaneous contrast, the red will be slightly tinted by the complementary color of green, that is, red, and will be perceived as redder. Conversely, the green will be slightly tinted by the complementary color of red, that is, green, and will be perceived accordingly as greener. In this case, the two hues are not modified in the sense of a transformation of the hue itself but enhanced.
In the simultaneous contrast of colours is included all the phenomena of modification which differently coloured objects appear to undergo in their physical composition and in the height of tone of their respective colours, when seen simultaneously. (, § 78)
Besides simultaneous contrast, Chevreul distinguishes successive contrast, which includes all the phenomena that are observed when the eyes, having looked at one or more colored objects for a certain length of time, perceive, upon turning them away, images of these objects offering the complementary color of that which is proper to each of them (, § 79). This distinction is very useful and helped to differentiate phenomena until then confused; it is still in use, even though simultaneous contrast is often related today to chromatic induction, while successive contrast is generally associated with chromatic adaptation; for this reason, the concept of afterimages is often used today instead of that of successive contrast.
Chevreul also distinguished a mixed contrast (, § 81), which combines simultaneous and successive contrast; it occurs, for instance, when, after having looked at one color for a certain length of time, another color is looked at. In this case, the resulting sensation is a combination of the second color and of the complementary of the first one. Finally, Chevreul also added later a fourth contrast, the rotary contrast obtained with colored spinning disks .
It is out of the scope of this essay to discuss the main critiques addressed to Chevreul in particular the fact that he would have confused mixture of lights and mixture of pigments or simultaneous contrast and assimilation (for a full account of these issues, see (, pp. 93–102)).
Chevreul’s Influence on Artists and Artisans
Another striking fact is the huge influence Chevreul had on generations of artists and artisans, even before the publication of his book on simultaneous contrast in 1839, thanks to the public lectures he gave and that were attended by painters, but also wallpaper fabricants and many other color practitioners. The range of his influence is indeed impressive, from tapestry to stained-glass restoration, shop signs to gardening. Many reasons explain the success of his book, soon printed out (the second French edition, published in 1889, as well as the third one, published in 1969, have also been quickly printed out). One is that by dedicating a copious volume to this matter, he gave wide public access to phenomena until then discussed only in specialized scientific journals. Another is that by meticulously studying the applications of his law to almost all the fields of art and crafts, he moved from pure science to applied science and addressed himself to almost all those who use color. One more reason is that by addressing the issue of how to match and harmonize juxtaposed colors, he provided artists and artisans with practical rules and harmony advices quite useful in the situation painters and tapestry-makers are constantly confronted with, that is, using juxtaposed colors. Finally, as he had a great prestige as a scientist, the color harmonies he proposed were avidly read and followed by artists anxious of matching their colors and enhancing them. Interestingly, unlike what is generally assumed (, p. 196), Chevreul was not a partisan of the harmony of color contrast and never recommended painters to juxtapose complementary colors on their canvases. The reason is that for him the effect of simultaneous contrast always occurs naturally so that if a painter tries to imitate what he sees, he will exaggerate the effect instead of rendering it accurately.
Even though Chevreul’s teachings gave rise to misunderstandings, he nevertheless had an enormous influence on painters, from the 1830s up to the beginning of abstract painting. If his influence on Delacroix remains controversial, it is important for impressionism and crucial for neoimpressionism and van Gogh. From the 1880s onward, his work was challenged by more up-to-date theories (Helmholtz, Rood); however, he still had an influence, in particular on Delaunay but also on color music, due to the usefulness of the rules of successive contrast he established. Even the most important books still used in color teaching (Itten and Albers) owe a lot to Chevreul. For a comprehensive account of Chevreul’s influence on artists, see .
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