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What is the Significance of Color in Art?

Artists choose colors to produce a certain mood or atmosphere; to create space, light, and shadow; or to introduce symbolic associations. In some cases color choice is the result of cost and availability of pigments. In this self-guided tour, you will explore how color in works of art from different historical periods is used to create meaning, direct the viewer’s eye, or express emotion.

Take time to look carefully, think about what you see, and consider the questions below. Your tour begins a large stained glass window dedicated to America. Follow a museum floor plan to Gallery 150.

Science students may return to their class after completing this tour and conduct a lab experiment relating to pigment and color.

America Windows, 1977
French (b. Belarus), Marc Chagall (1887–1985)
Stained glass
A gift of Marc Chagall, the City of Chicago, and The Auxiliary Board of The Art Institute of Chicago, commemorating the American Bicentennial in memory of Mayor Richard J. Daley, 1977.393

Marc Chagall’s prolific career spanned more than eight decades and included the influences of the major movements of the 20th century, including Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Yet, his style was distinctly his own. This stained glass window was given to the Art Institute in celebration of America’s bicentennial in 1976. The six-part work celebrates the arts and America—music, visual arts, literature, freedom, theater, and dance.

Notice this artist’s medium and his monochromatic palette. What is the mood of this piece? What emotions do you feel as you look at it? How does color help convey mood? What mineral may be used to achieve this rich blue color? Do you think the mood might change with the weather outside the museum? Do you think that the light inside the museum play a role in the way the colors in the window are perceived? How do you think this work might be different if it were painted?

The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577
Spanish, (b. Greece), El Greco (b. Domenico Theotokopoulos, 1541–1614)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague, 1906.99

This monumental composition is inspired by intense spirituality and impassioned drama, and is an example of the Mannerist style, in which figures are elongated, cloaked in ample drapery, and twist and turn theatrically. The narrative here—the Virgin Mary’s ascension to heaven—unfolds in two halves, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm. El Greco is known for his use of flickering, saturated color and broad loose brush work: he used these techniques to create an ecstatic spiritual fervor in his paintings and to impart his sense of faith to the viewer.

As you walk through the galleries of European Art, you will notice that, as in El Greco’s painting, the Virgin Mary is often robed in blue. What mineral pigment was used to create this color? Why do you think this color is so commonly used for this person? Besides the color blue, how else does El Greco emphasize the importance of the Virgin? What other colors are used in the painting? How would you describe them—bright, supernatural, clashing, saturated? How do the colors make you aware of the religious theme? Describe the mood, atmosphere, and lighting.

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, 1837
English, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)
Oil on canvas
Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection, 1922.4472

Turner’s dramatic vision of the sea includes roiling waves, billowing sails, and a threatening sky. The main narrative takes place on the ship, where small figures, dwarfed by the surrounding ocean, negotiate the price of fish. Using translucent and opaque oil paints, Turner creates a sense of atmosphere and light that suggests nature’s mysterious and untamable power.

Describe how the elements of the painting are composed? What is the scale of the figures to their environment? What does this suggest? What kind of ship is on the distant horizon? What do you think the presence of this type of vessel indicates? What colors did Turner use to create the turbulence in the water. What colors are used in the sky? Where do they appear? Describe the brushstrokes. What is the mood created by color and brushstrokes? Choose one word to describe the emotional atmosphere of this painting.

At the Moulin Rouge, 1893/95
French, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)
Oil on canvas
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1928.610

Toulouse-Lautrec was known for his bold use of color and daring compositions. A regular patron of the night-club shown in the painting, the Moulin Rouge, he used his keen powers of observation to create a dramatic group portrait of other frequent visitors. The woman with the flaming-red hair in the central is the entertainer Jane Avril. The woman fixing her hair and reflecting in the sickly green mirror in the background is the dancer La Goulue. In the foreground, the shocking acid-green face of the dancer May Milton, which extends beyond the picture plane, dominates the composition. Toulouse-Lautrec’s Post-Impressionist style is a highly personal combination of the Impressionists’ interest in contemporary subject matter and his own expressionistic color and powerful line.

How do you feel when you look at this painting? What are the predominant colors? Do the colors give you a sense of the space and people in that space? What type of lighting would produce the colors present in the painting, and why is this significant? Do the colors seem real to you, or does it seem that the artist is using them to express some emotion? Compare Toulouse-Lautrec’s use of color to create space, atmosphere, and light to that of Turner’s.

The Old Guitarist, 1903/04
Spanish, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
Oil on canvas
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.253

In paintings from his Blue Period (1901–04), Picasso worked in a monochromatic palette. In this painting, a bent, sightless old man plays the guitar in a cramped, undecorated space. Almost the entire canvas is covered in shades of blue, except the guitar, which represents the only tonal shift to brown. In this period, Picasso often painted the impoverished and downtrodden of society. However, even though this old man appears poor, starved, and sightless, he seems unaware of his situation as he plays his guitar.

Compare Picasso’s monochromatic painting to Marc Chagall’s monochromatic window. What is the difference between their subjects? What are the differences between their moods, light, and atmosphere? Why are the differences so pronounced? Imagine this work in a different color. How might that change the emotion of the picture? Do you think the meaning of the work would change as well?

We hope that you have enjoyed using this self-guide. Come again to the Art Institute to see other works from the permanent collection that use color in interesting and uniquee ways. Next time look for works by such painters such as Paul Gauguin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Andy Warhol to see how they each use vibrant color to enrich your experience of their paintings.