Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_247


Neo-impressionism is an artistic movement coming after  Impressionism. It started as a section of the eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition in 1886. Its founding figure was Georges Seurat (1859–1891), whose monumental painting, A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, reworked for its presentation in the 1886 exhibition, is a kind of standard bearer of the whole movement. Seurat died in 1891 at his early 30s. His death corresponds more or less to the end of Neo-impressionism first life, all the more since Camille Pissarro gave up the new technique around the same period. After Seurat’s death, Paul Signac (1863–1935) became the leader of the movement and his chief publicist. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Neo-impressionism had a revival during the Fauve period; most of the pioneers of abstract art also had a Neo-impressionist phase in their way to abstraction. The main features of Neo-impressionism are a faith in science and color science, the use of bright colors and of a special technique (optical mixture) aimed at giving more luminosity to colors; this technique, which implies a mechanical application of the brushstroke, was also intended to suppress the skill of the hand as characteristics of the individualism dear to the Impressionists.


The term “Neo-impressionism” was coined by the critic Félix Fénéon, who was the earliest and one of the best spokesmen of the movement. The Neo-impressionist artists did not want to break with the  Impressionists (one of them, Camille Pissarro, was himself one of the leading Impressionist painters) but continue it in a more rigorous and scientific way. However, one of the differences between the two movements is that, unlike the Impressionists, the Neo-impressionists wanted to render permanent features and not ever-changing moments. A superficial characteristic of their brushstroke is the use of small dots of color, hence the term of pointillism in order to describe their technique.

The main firsthand sources of information to understand Neo-impressionism are (a) an unpublished letter of Seurat to Maurice Beaubourg (1890) of which different drafts are known ([1], pp. 113–114), (b) a letter of Pissarro to his dealer Durand-Ruel (1886) ([1], pp. 54–55), (c) the book written by Signac in order to champion the movement (1899) [2], (d) an article written by the critic Félix Fénéon, and based on information provided by the artists (1886) ([1], pp. 108–110); this article is sometimes considered as the Neo-impressionist manifesto.

Art and Science

According to these writings, the main sources for Neo-impressionist color practice are  Michel-Eugène Chevreul [3], basically known through Charles Blanc [4], and Ogden Rood [5]. Now these sources are contradictory, at least concerning  color harmony, as Chevreul used pairs of  complementary colors popularized through Blanc’s color star (Fig. 1), while Rood used new pairs of complementary colors based on Helmholtz’s researches (Fig. 2). This explains Seurat’s hesitation between the two color systems.
Neo-impressionism, Fig. 1

Color star from Charles Blanc, Grammaire des arts du dessin, 1867

Neo-impressionism, Fig. 2

Rood’s color wheel, 1879

The Neo-impressionists used scientific sources and were very interested in what science could bring them; for this reason, they visited Chevreul on one occasion and his assistant on another, in order to understand better the “division of light” (on the importance of Chevreul for them, see [6], pp. 350–377). Their interest for color science raises the issue of whether or not they had a scientific approach to color. This is a very debated topic, as answers have been completely opposed: some specialists think Seurat and his fellow painters used a “scientific” method based on color science; on the contrary, others consider that the Neo-impressionist artists misunderstood the scientists’ advices, so that their practice was pseudoscience. Why are there so different positions? It depends on the (implicit or explicit) conception of the relationship between art and science that frames the specialists’ thinking. For those who want to bridge the gap between art and science, Seurat’s practice is obviously applied science. Conversely, those who hold that science remains out of the scope of artists will emphasize the gap between scientific data and artistic practice and will insist accordingly on the artists’ misunderstanding of science. In order to avoid these difficulties, the distinction between color science and color theory might prove useful ([6], pp. 12–17; [7], pp. 44–46). Their function, indeed, is different: color science is a set of experiments and principles aiming at understanding chromatic phenomena and expressing their properties, while color theory is a set of principles, doctrines, rules, and formulas directed at artists and suggesting recipes for choosing, preparing, organizing, and matching colors on the canvas. From this point of view, the difference between an artistic and a scientific approach to color can be more easily understood. For example, Chevreul had noticed that two areas of  complementary colors tend to enhance each other when juxtaposed ([3], § 237), but he never recommended this effect to be deployed in painting, despite what is usually assumed. In fact, for him, the enhancing effect was not especially desirable. However, for painters preoccupied with luminosity and saturation, enhancing colors by the juxtaposition of complementary hues soon became an excellent recipe. Examples like this show that “misunderstanding” science is not a mistake that can be avoided by the better-informed artist, but is instead the inescapable result of a difference of aims between the painter and the color scientist.

Optical Mixture

Different origins of the so-called pointillism can be traced from the sources given by the artists. The first is Charles Blanc, who coined the expression “optical mixture,” a technique already used by Delacroix, according to him, as well as by the Impressionists. The basic idea is to mix colors not on the  palette, but juxtapose them on the canvas, so that when seen at a distance, they fuse into the eye and produce a new color not present at such on the canvas. As Blanc put it:

If at a distance of some steps, we look at a cashmere shawl, we generally perceive tones that are not in the fabric, but which compose themselves at the back of our eye by the effect of reciprocal reactions of one tone upon another. Two colors in juxtaposition or superposed in such or such proportions, that is to say according to the extent each shall occupy, will form a third color that our eye will perceive at a distance, without having been written by weaver or painter. This third color is a resultant that the artist foresaw and which is born of optical mixture ([4], p. 475).

In order to make his suggestions more concrete, he added a drawing of little dots (Fig. 3, left) or little stars (Fig. 3, right) on a uniform ground: “A similar phenomenon will be produced upon a yellow stuff starred with violet and upon a blue stuff sown with orange spots” ([4], p. 475).
Neo-impressionism, Fig. 3

Drawing from Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin, 1867

A physicist, Ogden Rood, gave a more complete description of optical mixture in his book published in 1879 and translated into French in 1881. He first described a method given by Mile in 1838 in order to mix colors in the eye from small contiguous dots of colors ([5], p. 140). Rood also quoted John Ruskin, who recommended a similar method ([5], p. 140). It must be noted Monet as well as Signac praised a lot Ruskin’s book The Elements of Drawing.

Rood himself gave painters the same advice:

There is, however, another lower degree of gradation which has a peculiar charm of its own, and is very precious in art and nature. The effect referred to take place when different colours are placed side by side in lines or dots, and when viewed at such a distance that the blending is more or less accomplished by the eye of the beholder. Under these circumstances the tints mix on the retina, and produce new colours, which are identical with those which are obtained by the method of revolving disks ([5], pp. 279–280).


The end of the quote explains why the Neo-impressionists were so interested by the method suggested by Rood (after Blanc and Ruskin): Rood made a fascinating experiment in order to compare the luminosity of colors mixed on the  palette with the optical mixture of the same hues. For this purpose, he used two rotating disks. The larger disk was divided into two equal halves, painted with vermilion in the upper part and ultramarine blue in the lower part (Fig. 4).
Neo-impressionism, Fig. 4

Drawing of experiment from Rood’s Modern Chromatics, 1879

Now, an equal number of drops of the same washes of watercolor pigments were mixed on the  palette in order to paint the small disk with this mixture. After rotating the two disks, Rood realized that the smaller disk looked gray and dull, while the larger one looked brighter. So, in order to obtain a similar result on both disks, he had to add black to the larger one. But the surprising result of the experiment is that Rood had to add up to 52 % of black to the larger disk in order to match the mixture made on the palette (Fig. 5).
Neo-impressionism, Fig. 5

Compared result of color mixtures, Rood’s Modern Chromatics, 1879

Many artists were struck by this experiment, and Fénéon gave it as an example in order to explain the new technique and its superiority in terms of luminosity. Quoting the results of Rood’s experiment, Fénéon stressed that “the luminosity of optical mixtures is always superior to that of material mixture” ([1], p. 109) and justified accordingly the new Neo-impressionist technique.

However, the theory of “optical mixture,” as understood by painters, when suggesting that it should be possible to get an additive-like mixture by juxtaposing pigments so that they mix in the eye instead of physically, has been a source of enduring confusion. The point that often eluded painters is that this type of optical mixture does not add together the luminous energies of the individual colors; it merely averages them. Furthermore, there is a contradiction in the theory, when painters wished to combine the two principles:  complementary colors and optical mixture. In principle, both have in common to heighten colors: they heighten hues in the case of juxtaposing complementary colors; they heighten luminosity in the case of optical mixture. However, painters were not aware of the fact that both principles correspond to two different laws of perception. The  color contrast only functions if the samples of color are big enough. For when the juxtaposed zones are thin, what happens is exactly the opposite: instead of enhancing each other, that is, to exaggerate their difference, they tend to “assimilate,” that is, to produce visually a dirty gray.

This leads to a puzzling conclusion: if juxtaposing dots of  complementary colors, as the Neo-impressionist painters did, does not give the paintings more luminosity, how could the great luminosity of their paintings be explained? The answer has been given by Robert Herbert, the scholar most familiar with Neo-impressionism. As he explained, if the Neo-impressionist paintings are indeed very luminous, it is because the optical mixture does not work, that is, that the dots are big enough to be still perceived at the normal distance at which we look at the paintings! And it is precisely because the dots do not mix in order to produce new hues that they keep their luminosity ([8], p. 19). It is not the case to stress here that the painters were “wrong” in their use of theory, but only to understand that they were so fascinated by the possibility of obtaining a luminosity similar to that of color-light that they forgot scientists’ warnings against the danger of confusing pigments and light colors.

This means that the numerous misunderstandings arising from the notion of optical mixture are inevitable since they are due to the very ambiguity of the concept, which suggests a strong analogy between light and the eye, as opposed to pigment mixture. However, painters work with pigments and not with light but were eager to obtain through their pigments a luminosity similar to that of additive mixture. Hence, the opposition in Signac’s writings between mixtures on the  palette he considered disgusting and optical mixture “purity.”

The Neo-impressionist technique is then rather complex and cannot be limited to “pointillism.” The term “pointillism” is often considered as a synonym of Neo-impressionism but is not. Signac insisted a lot on the fact that the dots are just a means and cannot be considered as a characteristic of Neo-impressionism: far more important for its technique is the “divided touch.” As the painter wrote: “Division is a complex system of harmony, an aesthetics rather than a technique. The dot is only a means. To divide is to seek the power and harmony of color, through representing colored light by its pure elements and by using the optical mixture of these pure elements, separated and proportioned according to the essential laws of contrast and gradation” ([1], p. 121).


As results from this quote, the idea of harmony in Neo-impressionism goes beyond color, due to the Neo-impressionists’ adherence to symbolism. In his letter to Beaubourg in which he explained his main aesthetic ideas, Seurat also related harmony with tones and lines ([1], pp. 113–14). The idea of color harmony must also be associated with the concept of harmony in anarchism, whose ideals were shared by several of the painters. For the anarchists, indeed, the idea of harmony makes it possible to reconcile the individualism characteristic of the movement with collective life. Similarly, a parallel can be drawn between the individuality of colors and the painting as a whole, as all the single elements used (dots) interact with each other and contribute to the general harmony of the painting [9].

Neo-impressionism and Color Development in Twentieth-Century Art

It is striking to note that most of the painters that counted for the development of color in the first half of the twentieth century passed through a Neo-impressionist period. The list is quite impressive: Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich, Braque, Delaunay, Kupka, and so on. This raises the question of why Neo-impressionism was so important for the development of the practice of color in painting.

The first feature to be noted is the extraordinary homogeneity of the pictorial matter: the dots that serve to render nature are the same as used for a human body. And even in the human body, no difference is made between hair, skin, clothes, and so on. Everything is treated in the same way; besides color, this is also true for lines and spaces. This homogeneity is important for several reasons. First, it means the rejection of the skill of the hand as an expressive device. For the Neo-impressionists, what matters are the scientific bases of the technique. Furthermore, through the homogeneous construction of the surface, the touch becomes independent of the objects represented on a painting, since the same kind of dot is used on the whole surface of the canvas. From this point of view, the Neo-impressionists have emphasized special means, which are artificial devices that do not resemble nature.

Yet the fact of using artificial means has another consequence: the touch (as a means) becomes independent of the representation of nature, which was the traditional aim of painting. Finally, not only is the divided touch a technique in order to paint through color only, but it also contains a syntax, that is, a way of organizing the contiguous color dots, as well as a complex harmony system. The vocabulary (the dots), the syntax (the divided touch), and the harmony constitute a totality in itself, independently of the world of the objects the painting is supposed to represent. This is the main reason why the next generations of painters were so interested in Neo-impressionism, read avidly Signac’s book, and had a Neo-impressionist phase: the dots were a way of exploring the possibility of painting through colors only, which eventually led to abstract art [10].

Summing up, it must be emphasized that a lot has been written on Neo-impressionism. On color in particular, the interested reader can also refer to G. Roque [7], J. Gage [11], and P. Smith [12], who have developed different aspects related to Seurat, and G. Roque [13], who refers to Signac and color theory.



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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)ParisFrance