The Light and Color of Impressionism
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
'Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight', 1893 (oil on canvas)
Impressionism was a modern style of painting that emerged in France at the end of the 19th century. The Impressionist artists were interested in trying to capture the changing effects of light on the landscape by using a more exact analysis of tone and color. Their ideas were inspired by Eugene Chevreul's scientific research into color theory.
The Impressionist artists abandoned the old idea that the shadow of an object was made up from the color of the object with some brown or black added. Instead, they enlivened their canvases with a new idea that the shadow of any color could be mixed from pure hues and broken up with its opposite color. For example, the shadows on a yellow surface could have some strokes of lilac painted into it to increase its vitality.
As the Impressionists had to work quickly to capture the fleeting effects of light, they had to sacrifice some of the traditional qualities of outline and detail. Nevertheless, the freshness of the Impressionist technique instinctively appeals to most people, and most painting since has been profoundly affected by it.
Claude Monet, the greatest exponent of Impressionism, created several series of oil paintings analyzing the effects of light. The example above is from a series of around twenty paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94) which show the building at different times of day, at different times of year and under different weather conditions. Monet explored the effects of light through a series of still images but he was trying to communicate an experience of color that was only observable across a period of time.