In my ongoing class on Henri Matisse, we recently discussed Michel-Eugéne Chevreul's role in Matisse's development as an outstanding colorist. Chevreul (1786-1889) was initially trained as a chemist, yet throughout his long and varied career, he became a surprisingly influential figure in the fields of art and design. In 1824, he was hired by Gobelins, a Paris-based tapestry manufacturer, and he quickly became head of the dyeing department. Chevreul was immediately tasked with eliminating any existing color deviations in Gobelins' dyes. While working towards this goal, he found that the dyes were, indeed, reliable and consistent, but colors appeared altered depending what they were placed beside.
As he began to investigate why this was happening, Chevreul realized that the brain has a tendency to exaggerate color differences in order to better perceive shapes along the borders where two hues are juxtaposed. As he dug deeper, he stumbled upon the work of an earlier French scientist, Buffon, who discovered something strange in the 1740s: If one stares at a dot of red long enough, he/she will start to see a green halo around it, and then, when eventually turning away, he/she will notice a green circle transposed. Buffon called the green spot an “accidental color.” Test it out today and you will find that this law holds true: gaze at a red or green traffic light for the amount of time that it takes to change and you will see a faint circle of the complimentary color (red for green; green for red) hovering in your field of vision when you look away.
In 1839, Chevreul used Buffon's research as a springboard for his still-important text, On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors and its Applications to Art. In this text, he addressed the question: If juxtaposed colors always increase each otherʼs intensity, why not use colors which are already as far apart on the color spectrum as possible? He wrote, “What happens when two adjacent hues are complimentary, like green and red? According to the law of simultaneous colors the green will be tinted by the red and the red will be tinted by green. As a consequence, the green will be perceived as greener and the red will be perceived as redder.” This would become crucial to artists who sought to increase the potency of their already vivid compositions.
The scientist's theories became most important to Matisse when he started experimenting with color in Collioure--a coral-hued French fishing town on the Spanish border--during the summer of 1905. Matisse soon invited André Derain to stay with him there for a few months, and the two began using neighboring patches of brilliant complimentary colors that bear little relation to nature but work like “sticks of dynamite" on the viewer's rentinae. These two men, along with Maurice de Vlaminck, would be dubbed the Fauves, or wild beasts, by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, in 1905.
According to another critic, Maurice Denis, what Matisse did in Collioure was akin to the blinding nature of the sun on a very bright day. He argued that Matisseʼs paintings from 1905-8 recreate “the retinal trouble, the optical trembling, the painful sensation of dazzling... that a white wall or esplanade causes at high noon in the summer. Their aesthetic permits them to attempt to blind us.” Instead of capturing light directly, Matisse did it through intense color combinations.
Matisse claimed that he intended not to blind but to create harmony. In his 1908 Notes of a Painter, he writes, “A work must be harmonious in its entirety. If upon a white canvas I set down some sensations of blue, green, red, each new stroke diminishes the importance of the preced ones....The marks I use must be balanced so they do not destroy each other.”
Of course, Matisse was hardly the first or the last artist to become preoccupied with color relations. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were perhaps even more invested in the use of complimentaries in the decades preceding Matisse's Fauvist breakthroughs, and Vasily Kandinsky began writing about the spiritual values of color in 1911. Decades later, the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez launched his own experiments with color in his shimmering kinetic works. In 1965, he created Chromosaturations, brightly lit environments that "realized his goal of launching color into space" by creating artificial environments that "immerse the participant of the experience in a monochromatic situation."
When I recently experienced Chromosaturations in Mexico City, it was like walking into the color blocks of a Matisse masterpiece: first red, then green, then blue. When moving from the red room to the green, it at first appeared neon lime; however, as my retinae adjusted and the after-effect of the red wore off, the color mellowed into a cool mint. In a way that Chevreul never could have imagined, Cruz-Diez quite ingeniously applied his laws from 1839. Other artists are still playing around with with these theories today, forcing our overstimulated eyes to quiver and open wide.