Venetian Colourists

Defining “Venetian Colourists”

In a previous Post, I compared three 20th Century artists all of whom who have been described as “colourists” despite having very different ideas on the place of colour in their painting. I also suggested that these represent only three among many possibilities.

In this related Post, I comment on the meaning art historians’ give the word “colourist” when writing about two different groups of pioneer artists, one that flourished in the  the Italian Renaissance and the other that overturned all sorts of preconceptions in the last part of the nineteenth century.  The two groups are:

  • The Venetian Colourists (Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, etc.) and other, later artists, who kept within the same tradition (Vermeer, Turner, etc.).
  • The Modernist Painter Colourists of the late nineteenth century (Cézanne, Gauguin, etc) and early twentieth century (Matisse, Bonnard, etc.).

Why Venetians Colourists were not colourists in the sense of the word as used to describe Modernist Painter Colourists

At the time of the Italian Renaissance contemporary commentators were claiming the superiority of Venetian artists in the domain of what they characterised as colour, while giving the laurels to Florentine artists in matters of drawing. However, when we examine what they meant by the word “colour” in this context, we find that it was more about the range and subtlety of lightness relations (“Chiaroscuro”) than about colour in the Modernist Painter sense. For these later artists the word “colour” meant combinations of hue, saturation, lightness and texture.

One way of describing the uniqueness of the Venetian Colourists is to say that they were well on the way to making paintings according to a rule which says that “no two regions of colour in nature are of the same lightness”, and that by following it when depicting whole-field lightness relations, they were achieving new levels with respect to creating subtle effects of space and light. This being the case, it would be more accurate to call them the “Venetian Lightists”.

Actually, the Venetian Colourists used colour in the same way as did the Florentines

Although it cannot be denied that, on occasion, some Venetian Colourists  produced extremely subtle and sensuously beautiful colour effects by using sophisticated glazing techniques (Titian was reputed to have used up to 30 glazes), they were by no means unique in this respect. In fact, the main use of different pigment colours in their paintings was the same as for the Florentines and probably every artist before them, namely denotatively, as a means of distinguishing surfaces, materials and object-types from one another.

Venetian colourists
Titian : Venus of Urbino


It is also relevant to point out that Italian Renaissance painters as a whole used very restricted palettes. Although they contained a good selection of earth colours (ochres, earth reds, browns, etc) they were severely limited in other parts of colour space. In particular, they had very few more fully saturated pigment colours.  It is also significant that they seldom  made use of paint mixtures containing complementary colours, except when, on occasion, they created them by glazing one colour on top of another, as in the case of the dress of the Virgin Mary in the “Madonna and Child” by Titian illustrated above.

Venetian Lightists versus Modernist Colourists

In contrast to their predecessors, Modernist Colourists, like Cézanne, Gauguin and Bonnard, extended the rule of non-repetition in nature to include all dimensions of colour (hue, saturation and lightness and texture). Accordingly, their rule became “no two regions of colour in nature are ever the same”. Also, to achieve the consequent variety and for reasons explained below, they made extensive use of paint mixtures containing complementary colours.*

Modernist colourist
Pierre Bonnard – a painting that illustrates a mixture of complementaries in all colours used


A new conception of the use of colour in painting

There were several reasons for this watershed development. All related to the new understandings of colour coming as a result of the paradigm shift that occurred when the scientists’ of visual perception realised that colour is not a property of surfaces in the eternal world, as we all experience it, but a creation of the eye/brain taking place inside the head.

The key figure in the process of  updating the Venetian Colourists’ approach to painting light was Georges Seurat, and it was his notion of “painting with light” that set the ball rolling. In arriving at this unprecedented idea, he was inspired by a diagram along the lines of the one below, which he found in a physics book. What inspired him was what the diagram told him about the white light that reflects from surfaces, without changing its wavelength composition (the black arrows). He saw that, if he wanted to represent this reflected light, he would have to characterise the fact that white light always contains the full gamut of wavelengths. It was this realisation that led him to his “Pointillist” method.

separating off ligh
The diagram that inspired Seurat. It shows a beam of light: (1) reflecting off a surface and (2) entering into it and interacting with pigments found inside, such that some of its wavelengths are absorbed before the remainder are scattered back out again.


At the core Seurat’s theorising was the related facts that all three primaries are necessary to create white and that complementary pairs always contain all three primaries (for example, the complementary pairs blue + orange, green + red and yellow + violet will always be composed of blue + yellow+ red) and . This being the case, he came to the conclusion that he could create effects due to the light reflecting directly back  from surfaces by including adjacent complementaries within dot clusters. He speculated that, if the dots were sufficiently small and closely grouped, they could be made to blend optically into one colour when viewed from a given picture-viewing position (Pissarro suggested a distance of two and a half times the picture height). When he tried out his idea he found that he could produce the wonderfully luminous effects that so excited the critic Félix Fénéon (to a large extent lost to us because the colours Seurat used, particularly the yellows, have changed significantly due to their instability exacerbated by the passage of time).

Later artists such as Cézanne and Bonnard, discovered that they did not need all those dots for they could produce the same kind of luminosity if they followed the rule of ensuring that some component of complementary was mixed into every colour situated on the picture surface.** In combination with the new understanding that among the manifestations of the fact that colour is made in the head is its local and whole-field context-sensitivity (the reasons for Colour-Contrast and Colour-Constancy effects and much more), this all inclusive approach was a main factor in the explosion of colourfulness in paintings associated with the Modernist Painters.

In summary, the word “Colourist” when applied to the Venetian Colourists and the inheritors of their ideas, such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya,  Turner, etc., has a significantly different meaning to the one it has when it is applied to Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse or Bonnard. The consequent difference in appearance should be evident to anyone who compares their works. It also helps us to understand why 1886, the year Seurat exhibited “La Grande Jatte”, is one of the most significant dates in art history.***


pointillist influence"
Vincent Van Gogh : L’Itallienne : The influence of Pointillism evolving


* For more on the rule and the admixture of complementaries, see the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour.

**The dots are still there in the form of pigment particles, but they are now imperceptible to the conscious eye.

*** Another reason why 1886 was an “annus mirabilis” in the history of painting was that it was the year that Vincent van Vogh joined Emile Bernard,  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and John Peter Russell (see post on Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran) as students in the studio of Fernand Cormon. All three of these key pioneers of Modern Art were experimenting with ideas coming from Pointillism before the year was out.



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15 thoughts on “Venetian Colourists”

  1. Extremely helpful as always a subtle but clarifying review of what we think we know which allows seeing a painting in a new more meaningful way…

  2. Thank you for this brilliant explanation of how the use of colour in Western paintings evolved over the past several hundred years. The pictures highlighting the extraordinary shift are startling! Fascinating!

  3. I am really enjoying reading these short chunks of the history of using colour in painting, with insights into different ways of looking at and using colour.

    1. Glad you are enjoying these Posts. The next one will be a chapter from my book “Painting with Light and Colour. It will set the scene for the paradigm shift brought about by the Early Modernist Painters (Manet, Monet, Morisot, Cézanne, Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, etc.). Look out for it at the end of next week.

  4. Thank you Francis. It really helps explain what is so magical about Bonnard’s paintings in particular.

  5. Thank you for sharing your insights on colour. They have revolutionized the way I will approach colour-mixing from now on.

  6. What a fascinating way to view color and light in painting. This provides a completely new approach to distribution and combinations to achieve a desired effect. Physics and art. . .an amazing pair.

  7. Thank you, Francis, you open up a discussion on thoughts that almost always lurk around the periphery of my mind during visits to the work of artists you mention here in this post. These artists are compelling and now I know a little more about why. Thank you for these posts.

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