Research point: Michel-Eugène Chevreul, French (1786 1889, Paris)

Find out more about the colour theories of Michel-Eugene Chevreul and make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.


Chevreul’s colour circle

Michel-Eugène Chevreul, French (1786 1889, Paris)

Chevreul’s work on colour theory, published in 1839 in France and 1854 in Britain as The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application in the Arts represents a milestone in art history. His was the first systematic study of colour perception and principles of colour design. His theories influenced many 19th century painters including Matisse. Bauhaus teachers including Paul Klee and Joseph Albers further developed his theories.

Chevreul, a chemist known and respected for his work with fats and waxes, changed career direction when he accepted  a position at the Gobelins textile factory in Paris where he worked for 28 years (1824-52). His work, often based around dyes, showed how juxtaposed colours can enhance or diminish each other’s intensity and described many ways to produce colour effects. He wrote: “If two color areas are seen close together in space or time, each will shift in hue and value as if the visual complementary color of the neighboring or preceding color were mixed with it.”

Chevreul brought together all the colours in the visible spectrum into the wheel which is so familiar to artists and designers today (a development of J W von Goethe’s earlier circle). He also produced scales of thousands of tints. He applied his findings to Gobelin tapestries and textiles, wallpaper, horticulture, mapmaking, colour printing, mosaics and painting.

How Chevreul’s work has influenced artists through the ages

Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Seurat, 1884, Oil on canvas

The impressionists in their search to make light and colour more brilliant followed Chevreul’s advice to apply separate brushstrokes of pure colour to a canvas and allow the viewer’s eye to combine them optically. This is the theory from which post impressionist painters such as George Seurat (French, 1859 to 1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) developed pointillism. Signac developed a style involving small, mosaic-like squares of color, quite different from the tiny, variegated dots previously used by Seurat.


Capo di Noli, 1898, Paul Signac

Chevreul wrote: “What happens when two adjacent hues are complementary, 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 was valuable knowledge for artists such as Henri Matisse (1869 to 1954) who sought to make their paintings every more vibrant.


The Roofs of Collioure, Matisse, 1905

Matisse started experimenting with colour in Collioure, a coral-hued French fishing town on the Spanish border, during the summer of 1905. Matisse invited André Derain (1880-1958) to stay with him there for a few months, and the two began using neighbouring patches of bright complementary colours without worrying that they weren’t the natural colours they were observing. This technique made their colours sing out. These two, together with Maurice de Vlaminck (1876 – 1958), were dubbed the Fauves, or wild beasts, by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, in 1905.


Abstract Colour Harmony in Squares with Vermillion Accents, Paul Klee, 1924

Swiss German Painter Paul Klee’s (1879 –1940) paintings which form the Magic Square series divide the Tunisian  landscape into abstract squares assembled to form a kind of mosaic. The work reveals Klee’s interests in color theory. His Bauhaus teachings on colour were informed by the theories of Goethe, Chevreul and others.





The work of artist and Bauhaus educator Josef Albers further explored colour theory. His Homage to the Square series comprises more than 1,000 works created over a period of 25 years, including paintings, drawings, prints, and tapestries. The entire series is based on squares that appear to be overlapping or nested within one another. Through this means Albers investigated the subjective experience of color and the effects that adjacent colors have on one another, and the illusion of flat planes of colour advancing or receding in space.

What a fascinating topic!  I’ve only skimmed the the surface of Chevreul’s influence, which also extends to Van Gogh and more recently to Op Art artists such as Bridget Riley who explores optical phenomena and juxtaposes color so that her work appears to flicker, pulsate and move.


References | |

Metropolitan Museum of Art

MoMA – Museum of Modern Art |


2 thoughts on “Research point: Michel-Eugène Chevreul, French (1786 1889, Paris)

  1. Pingback: Existentialism and Modern Art – daohaison

  2. Pingback: Fauvism and the use of colors – daohaison

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