science, art, and technology > self guides > COLOR AND PIGMENT IN IMPRESSIONIST PAINTINGS

Color and Pigment in Impressionist Paintings

In the late 19th century, the group of artists known as the Impressionists defied traditional painting techniques by echoing modern subjects and painting in the open air using raw, unmixed paints, spontaneous brushstrokes and loose compositions. While their individual styles, tastes, lifestyles, and techniques varied widely, the members of this group shared a common concern for representing their ordinary surroundings—their own time—which they portrayed through fleeting shadows, shifting colors, and reflected light. Some of these artists painted the same subject more than once, at different times of day, in order to illustrate how changing light and color are perceived.

Take time to look carefully, think about what you see, and consider the questions below. Your tour begins with a painting by Edgar Degas, a young member of this group during its early years in the 1870s. Using an Art Institute floor plan, proceed to Gallery 201, at the top of the grand staircase.

Science students on this tour should pay attention to how color and composition convey mood and meaning in each work. After their tour, they may return to their classroom and conduct a lab experiment about pigment and colored light (The Connection Between Pigment and Light Colors, Parts I and II).

Uncle and Niece, 1875-78
(Henri de Gas and his niece Lucie de Gas)
French, Hilaire Germaine Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Oil on canvas
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis L. Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.429

Degas was interested in human behavior, captured in subtle gestures and fleeting expressions. In this work, he shows his uncle and niece together, as they mourn the death of the artist’s father. The figures’ bold black forms stand out against the brighter yellow background and white newspaper. Degas seems to have caught them mid-movement, just as the uncle has ceased reading and the child has tentatively placed her hands on the back of his chair.

What is the dominant color in this painting? What is the range of colors? Describe the artist’s brushstrokes. What mood do the colors and brushstrokes create? What information is conveyed about the identities, emotions, and relationship of the two people portrayed? The child seems to have interrupted her uncle. Is he pleased at being interrupted?.

The Crystal Palace, 1871
French, Camille Pissarro (1830–1903)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. B. E. Bensinger, 1972.1164

Pissarro was the oldest of the Impressionists and the only one to exhibit works in all eight of their group exhibitions. In this painting, Pissarro depicts the world’s largest building (at the time) and a great feat of architecture and technology, The Crystal Palace in London (on the left). Originally, the building was an exhibition hall, and at this time it was a center of entertainment as well. On a cloudy day, people line the streets in leisurely strolls around this renowned piece of modern architecture.

Describe the action in this painting. Is there a focal point? If so, where is it? If not, why do you think the artist avoided creating a focus? How are the people in the street dressed? What types of people are present? Describe the Crystal Palace. What kind of architecture is this? How has the artist successfully represented that the building is made of glass? Describe the space, light, and color of the landscape. What time of day and year is it? How has Pissarro indicated this atmosphere?

Compare this work to:
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1735/40
Italian, Michele Marieschi (1710–1743)
Oil on canvas
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1946.375

How is this artist’s depiction of people and the presence, location, and importance of architecture within his composition different from that of Pissarro? Compare the sense of space, color, and light in these two works. How are these two works similar? How are they different?

Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rower’s Lunch), 1875-76
French, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
Oil on canvas
Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.437

The Rower’s Lunch presents a group of boaters relaxing in an open-air restaurant after a good meal that includes fruit and wine. Two men lounge at the table while a younger woman, dressed in a blue flannel boating dress, sits upright between them. The colors and brushwork that flicker across the forms in Renoir’s painting are both airy and relaxed, so much so that those who saw it in the second Impressionist exhibition thought that it was unfinished.

Describe the colors in this painting. What hue is almost completely absent from the artist’s palette? Describe the mood and atmosphere. How are they created through color, light, and shadow? What time of day and year do you think it is? Why? Compare the color, light, and atmosphere present in this painting to those in Degas’ Uncle and Niece across the room. How are the moods different? How would the works change if the artists had used each others’ painting techniques?

The Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877
French, Claude Monet (1840–1926)
Oil on canvas
Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson, 1933.1158

This painting is one of seven compositions by Monet of the same subject—the Parisian train station serving the northern and western suburbs of Paris and destinations beyond. This head-on perspective of the train from inside the station shows off the billowing cloud of steam emitted by the engine and the crowd of passengers about to board the cars. This work was executed rapidly and has the appearance of a quick sketch rather than a finished work.

Describe the colors and the qualities of light and shadow in this work. How does the artist create the effect of steam rising? How are the people represented? How did the artist apply his paint to the canvas? What kind of scene is this, landscape or cityscape? What time of day or year is this? How do you know? Compare this work to Renoir’s The Rower’s Lunch. How are these images of Parisian life different? How have each of these artists used color and style to create a certain impression of their surroundings?

Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte1884, 1884-86
French, Georges Seurat (1859–1891)
Oil on canvas
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.224

Seurat’s enormous work was shown in the last of the Impressionist exhibitions, in 1886. During the two years in which he worked on the composition, Seurat, the youngest member of the group, sought the advice of Camille Pissarro, the oldest of the circle. Seurat depicts city dwellers strolling, lounging, sailing, and fishing on an island in the River Seine outside Paris. Using a newly discovered color theory, Seurat created forms, light, and shadow by painting tiny dots of complementary colors adjacent to one another. It was thought that this placement of complementary colors next to each other would intensify the hues of both, in an effect called simultaneous contrast. This labor-intensive technique, known as Pointillism, creates both vibrant colors and precise, measured contours and proportions.

Examine Seurat’s color placement closely. How many different color combinations can you find? What is the most common? When you stand back from the painting, what color is most dominant? At what point do the colors appear to blend together? (Estimate your distance from the painting in feet.) How are the light and shadows different in this work compared to Renoir’s or Monet’s paintings? How are the mood and atmosphere different? Why do you think Seurat took such a different approach to painting his environment? What can you tell about the people in the painting from their clothes, gestures, and expressions? What kind of day it is? What season is it? Find the few places in the painting that show a sense of motion.

We hope that you have enjoyed using this self-guide. Come again to the Art Institute to see other Impressionist works in the permanent collection, including Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte.