Charles Blanc’s color wheel, which was influential in divisionist theory

Divisionism (also called Chromoluminarism) was the characteristic style in Neo-Impressionist painting defined by the separation of colors into individual dots or patches which interacted optically.[1][2]

By requiring the viewer to combine the colors optically instead of physically mixing pigments, divisionists believed they were achieving the maximum luminosity scientifically possible. Georges Seurat founded the style around 1884 as chromoluminarism, drawing from his understanding of the scientific theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Charles Blanc, among others. Divisionism developed along with another style, pointillism, which is defined specifically by the use of dots of paint and does not necessarily focus on the separation of colors.[1][3]


Theoretical foundations and development

Divisionism developed in nineteenth century painting as artists discovered scientific theories of vision which encouraged a departure from the tenets of Impressionism, which at that point had been well-developed. The scientific theories and rules of color contrast that would guide composition for divisionists placed the movement of Neo-Impressionism in contrast with Impressionism, which is characterized by the use instinct and intuition. Scientists or artists whose theories of light or color had some impact on the development of divisionism include Charles Henry, Charles Blanc, David Pierre Giottino Humbert de Superville, David Sutter, Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Hermann von Helmholtz[2].

Beginnings with Georges Seurat

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Artist Georges Seurat
Year 1884–86
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 207.6 cm × 308 cm (81.7 in × 121.3 in)
Location Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Divisionism, along with the Neo-Impressionism movement as a whole, found its beginnings in Georges Seurat's masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat was classically trained in the École des Beaux-Arts, and, as such, his initial works reflected the Barbizon style. In 1883, Seurat and some of his colleagues began exploring ways to express as much light as possible on the canvas[4] . By 1884, with the exhibition of his first major work, Bathing at Asnières, as well as croquetons of the island of La Grande Jatte, his style began taking form with an awareness of Impressionism, but it was not until he finished La Grande Jatte in 1886 that he established his theory of chromoluminarism. In fact, La Grande Jatte was not initially painted in the divisionist style, but he reworked the painting in the winter of 1885-6, enhancing its optical properties in accordance with his interpretation of scientific theories of color and light[5] .

Color theory

Charles Blanc's Grammaire des arts du dessin introduced Seurat to the theories of color and vision that would inspire chromoluminarism. Blanc's work, drawing from the theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul and Eugène Delacroix, stated that optical mixing would produce more vibrant and pure colors than the traditional process of mixing pigments[4]. Mixing pigments physically is a subtractive process with cyan, magenta, and yellow being the primary colors. On the other hand, if colored light is mixed together, an additive mixture results, a process in which the primary colors are red, green and blue. The optical mixture which characterized divisionism — the process of mixing color by juxtaposing pigments — is different from either additive or subtractive mixture, although combining colors in optical mixture functions the same way as additive mixture, i.e. the primary colors are the same[2]. In reality, Seurat's paintings did not actually achieve true optical mixing; for him, the theory was more useful for causing vibrations of color to the viewer, where contrasting colors placed near each other would intensify the relationship between the colors while preserving their singular separate identity[4].

In divisionist color theory, artists interpreted the scientific literature through making light operate in one of the following contexts:[4]

  • Local color: As the dominant element of the painting, local color refers to the true color of subjects, e.g. green grass or blue sky.
  • Direct sunlight: As appropriate, yellow-orange colors representing the sun’s action would be interspersed with the natural colors to emulate the effect of direct sunlight.
  • Shadow: If lighting is only indirect, various other colors, such as blues, reds and purples, can be used to simulate the darkness and shadows.
  • Reflected light: An object which is adjacent to another in a painting could cast reflected colors onto it.
  • Contrast: To take advantage of Chevreul’s theory of simultaneous contrast, contrasting colors might be placed in close proximity.

Paul Signac and other artists

Portrait of Félix Fénéon
Artist Paul Signac
Year 1890
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 73.5 cm × 92.5 cm (28.9 in × 36.4 in)
Location The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Self-Portrait with Felt Hat
Artist Vincent van Gogh
Year 1888
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 44 cm × 37.5 cm (17.3 in × 14.8 in)
Location Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Seurat’s theories intrigued many of his contemporaries, as other artists seeking a reaction against Impressionism joined the Neo-Impressionist movement. Paul Signac, in particular, became one of the main proponents of divisionist theory, especially after Seurat’s death in 1891. In fact, Signac’s book, D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, published in 1899, coined the term divisionism and became widely recognized as the manifesto of Neo-Impressionism[3].

In addition to Signac, other French artists, largely through associations in the Société des Artistes Indépendants, adopted some divisionist techniques, including Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross and Hippolyte Petitjean[5]. Additionally, through Paul Signac’s advocacy of divisionism, an influence can be seen in some of the works of Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso[5] [6].

In Italy, artists of the futurist movement who read Signac’s book also took up divisionist techniques as part of a separate Italian Divisionism movement. This movement either characterized or influenced the work of many Italian artists, including Vitorio Grubicy, Angelo Morbelli, Giovanni Segantini, Emilio Longoni, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Gaetano Previati, Plino Nomelli, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carrà and Gino Severini[1].

Criticism and controversy

Divisionism quickly received both negative and positive attention from art critics, who generally either embraced or condemned the incorporation of scientific theories in the Neo-Impressionist techniques. For example, one critic, Joris-Karl Huysmans, spoke negatively of Seurat’s paintings, saying “Strip his figures of the colored fleas that cover them, underneath there is nothing, no thought, no soul, nothing” [7]. Leaders of Impressionism, such as Monet and Renoir, refused to exhibit with Seurat, and even Camille Pissarro, who initially supported divisionism, spoke negatively of the technique eventually[7].

While most divisionists did not receive much critical approval for the majority of their careers, some critics were loyal to the movement, including most notably Félix Fénéon, Arsène Alexandre and Antoine de la Rochefoucauld[6].

Scientific misconceptions

Although divisionist artists strongly believed their style was founded in scientific principles, some people believe that there is evidence that divisionists misinterpreted some basic elements of optical theory[8]. For example, one of these misconceptions can be seen in the general belief that the divisionist method of painting allowed for greater luminosity than previous techniques. Additive luminosity is only applicable in the case of colored light, not juxtaposed pigments; in reality, the luminosity of two pigments next to each other is just the average of their individual luminosities[8]. Furthermore, it is not possible to create a color using optical mixture which could not also be created by physical mixture. Logical inconsistencies can also be found with the divisionist exclusion of darker colors and their interpretation of simultaneous contrast[8].


  1. ^ a b c Tosini, Aurora Scotti, "Divisionism", Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T022975 .
  2. ^ a b c Homer, William I. Seurat and the Science of Painting. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1964.
  3. ^ a b Ratliff, Floyd. Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism. New York: Rockefeller UP, 1992. ISBN 0874700507.
  4. ^ a b c d Sutter, Jean. The Neo Impressionists. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1970. ISBN 0821202243.
  5. ^ a b c Smith, Paul. "Seurat, Georges." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. [1].
  6. ^ a b Rapetti. Rodolphe. "Signac, Paul." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. [2].
  7. ^ a b Rewald, John. Seurat: a biography. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990. ISBN 0810938146.
  8. ^ a b c Lee, Alan. "Seurat and Science." Art History 10 (June 1987): 203-24.

Further reading

  • Blanc, Charles. The Grammar of Painting and Engraving. Chicago: S.C. Griggs and Company, 1891. [3].
  • Block, Jane. "Neo-Impressionism." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. [4].
  • Block, Jane. "Pointillism." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. [5].
  • Broude, Norma, ed. Seurat in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978. ISBN 0138071152.
  • Cachin, Françoise. Paul Signac. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1971. ISBN 0821204823.
  • Clement, Russell T., and Annick Houzé. Neo-impressionist painters: a sourcebook on Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Théo Van Rysselberghe, Henri Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, and Albert Dubois-Pillet. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1999. ISBN 0313303827.
  • Chevreul, Michel Eugène. The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors. London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden, 1860. [6].
  • Gage, John. "The Technique of Seurat: A Reappraisal." The Art Bulletin 69 (Sep. 1987): 448-54. JSTOR. [7].
  • Herbert, Robert L. Neo-Impressionism. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1968.
  • Hutton, John G. Neo-impressionism and the search for solid ground: art, science, and anarchism in fin-de-siècle France. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1994. ISBN 0807118230.
  • Rewald, John. Georges Seurat. New York: Wittenborn & Co., 1946.
  • Signac, Paul. D’Eugène Delacroix au Neo-Impressionnisme. 1899. [8].
  • Winkfield, Trevor. "The Signac Syndrome." Modern Painters Autumn 2001: 66-70.
  • Tim Parks on divisionist movement of painters in Italy

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • divisionism — [di vi sioniz΄əm] n. POINTILLISM divisionist n., adj …   English World dictionary

  • divisionism — divisionist, n., adj. /di vizh euh niz euhm/, n. (sometimes cap.) pointillism. [1900 05; DIVISION + ISM] * * * ▪ art       in painting, the practice of separating colour into individual dots or strokes of pigment. It formed the technical basis… …   Universalium

  • divisionism — noun Usage: often capitalized Date: 1901 pointillism • divisionist noun or adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • divisionism — noun In art, the use of small areas of color to construct an image. Syn: pointillism …   Wiktionary

  • divisionism — n. pointillism, painting technique developed by the neoimpressionists and characterized by the juxtaposition of dots of pure color in a way that creates the appearance of blending …   English contemporary dictionary

  • divisionism —    A system of painting in small dots of color placed in relation to each other based on certain color theories. Also see neo impressionism, pointillism, and Segantini stitch …   Glossary of Art Terms

  • divisionism — noun another term for pointillism …   English new terms dictionary

  • divisionism — di·vi·sion·ism …   English syllables

  • divisionism — /dəˈvɪʒənɪzəm/ (say duh vizhuhnizuhm) noun → pointillism …  

  • divisionism — zhəˌnizəm noun ( s) Usage: often capitalized 1. : the theory or practice of breaking color in painting compare neo impressionism 2. : the neo impressionist use of small strokes or dots of pure color juxtaposed on a canvas compare …   Useful english dictionary

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