Neo Impressionism

TO Impressionism has already succeeded Neo Impressionism. One of its adherents, Paul Signac, has summarized the objects of the latter in his “D’Eugène Delacroix au Neo Impressionnisme”: “By means of the suppression of all impure mixing, by the exclusive use of the optical mingling of the pure colors, by a methodical division and the observation of the scientific theory of colors, it guarantees a maximum of luminosity, coloration and harmony, which have not yet been attained.” In a word, the new movement re-lies more fully upon science. It has already been mentioned that Georges Seurat, after reading one of Professor Rood’s experiments, was induced to apply the principle of division of color to his brushwork. At. an exhibition of the Impressionist group held in 1886 this new influence became apparent. Georges Seurat was represented by Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte, while works closely akin to it in technique were shown by Camille Pissarro, his son Lucien Pissarro, and Paul Signac. Among other Frenchmen who later became identified with Neo Impressionism, advancing the application of its principles by their independent researches and experiments, were Henri Edmond Cross, Albert Dubois Pillet, Maximilian Luce, Charles Augrand and Hippolyte Petit jean.

The Neo Impressionists, to quote Paul Signac, are like the Impressionists in having on their palettes only pure colors. But “they repudiate absolutely all mixing on the palette, except, of course, the mixing of colors that are contiguous upon the chromatic circle. The latter, graded to one another and cleared with white, will tend to reproduce the variety of the hues of the solar spectrum and all their tones. For example, an orange mingling with a yellow and a red, a violet graded toward red and toward blue, a green passing from blue to yellow, are with the white the sole elements which they em-ploy. But by the optical mixing of these several pure colors, and by varying their proportions, they obtain an infinite quantity of hues, from the most intense to the most gray.” . . . “Each touch, taken pure from the palette, remains pure upon the canvas.” Thus the Neo Impressionists “can claim to surpass in luminosity and color the Impressionists who sully and gray the pure colors of the simplified palette.”

They might have been more appropriately called “color luminists”; but adopted the other name to acknowledge their indebtedness to Impressionists who lead the way in the search for light and color. But, as M. Signac adds, while the Impressionists rely upon instinct and aim at fugitive or instantaneous effects, the Neo Impressionists aim at permanence of effect and reach their results by reflection, based on scientific principles. “The Impressionist,” as M. Theodore Duret has said, “sits on the bank of a stream and paints what passes before him.” But the Neo Impressionist, to quote M. Signac, “following in this aspect the counsels of Delacroix, will not commence a canvas until he has fixed upon the arrangement. Guided by tradition and science, he will harmonize the composition to his conception. That is to say, he will adapt the lines, their directions and angles, the dark and light of the tones and the hues to the character that he wishes shall prevail. The dominant lines will be horizontal to express calm; ascending for joy; and descending for sadness, while the intermediary lines will figure all the other sensations in their infinite variety. A polychrome play, not less expressive and diverse, is wedded to his play of line. To ascending lines will correspond warm hues and light tones; with descending lines cool hues and deep tones will predominate, while an equilibrium more or less perfect of warm and cool hues and of pale and intense tones will add to the calm of the horizontal. Thus submitting the color and line to the emotion that he has experienced, the painter will do the work of the poet, the creator.”

In fact, however much instinct may affect the character of his sensations, the Neo Impressionist will not permit it to affect his expression. The latter must be precisely organized; color as well as line being handled according to reasoned principles so as to secure a perfect harmony of ensemble. And the latter will correspond with a moral harmony in the artist’s mind ; the product of disciplined reasoning and organization. The artist as well as his work the one in consequence of the other rests upon the assurance of scientific basis.

In conclusion Signac reminds us that “division of touch” is an esthetic principle, the touch itself being merely the means to an end. This warning is directed against the common error of supposing that it is the touch which constitutes the principle of Neo Impressionism. But, except that the new school varies the size and character of the touch to the size and character of the composition, it is in no wise distinguished by the use of the touch. Delacroix’s touch took the form of cross hatches hatches, some Impressionists adopted a comma-stroke ; some have used the point and are the only ones to whom the term pointilliste is proper; others have adopted the square touch of a mosaic; Segantini wove his touches together side by side like stitches in wool-work. The touch, in fact, is no novelty of technique, and has no significance of principle.

Signac’s book has been criticized because of its frequent reference to Delacroix, as if, says one critic very foolishly, the author imagined that the great Romanticist existed chiefly to supply an argument for Neo Impressionism. This, of course, is mere trifling with the matter. Signac’s obvious and excellent intention was to show the logical development of the new principles both from Impressionism and from Delacroix; and surely it is no detraction from the greatness of both that beside being potent in themselves they have proved to be sources of potency for further development.

The new principle has also been objected to as reducing the personality of its exponents. But this implies a very cursory or unfeeling study of the works of the several men. Nobody with any sympathy of appreciation could confuse the amplitude of feeling in Seurat’s scene of young men bathing, for example, with the exquisite delicacy of Signac’s river landscapes; or overlook the differences displayed by Luce’s street scenes of work a day life and by those of peasant life in the fields by Charles Augrand; or the color rhythm of Cross with the decorative canvases of nude nymphs by Petit jean.

Nor is the fact that by adopting the principles of Neo Impressionism a mediocre painter can realize his mediocrity, an adverse argument. For such a charge could be brought against every system of technique ; and it might as well be urged that systems of scientific instruction are fatal to the appearance of scientific genius. So far Neo Impressionism has produced no artist of preponderating ability; but this is no argument against it. Owing to the reluctance of the public to commit itself until time and authority have served to endorse a new movement with respectability, the present exponents of Neo Impressionism have perhaps scarcely had an opportunity to prove their full capacity. Signac is disposed to believe that the latter will only be rendered possible when they are given a chance to decorate large mural spaces, particularly in ill-lighted buildings. His surmise appears reasonable and, in view of what so often passes for decoration, the world could not be further wronged by putting the experiment to a test.