Divisionism Art Movement: History, Elements, and Influences

Divisionism is a scientific approach to painting that was based on modern achievements in the field of optics in the 19th century.

These achievements are related to the unique qualities of the primary colors and their mutual relation in the image without prior mixing of pigments. This theory served as the basis for numerous painting methods that emerged after neo-impressionism and is present in contemporary painting experiments nowadays as well.

Scientific Background of the Development of Divisionism

Scientists whose discoveries are fundamental for the divisionist technique are: Michel Eugène Chevreul, James Clerk Maxwell, Ogden Rood, and Charles Blanc, among others.

The processes that the observer’s eyes go through when looking at an image are the focus of this theory. Scientists and later painters, inspired by their theory, insisted that properly arranged complementary colors on the painted composition could convey to the observer the qualities of colors and shades that do not exist individually on the canvas. So the process of mixing colors and nuances of tones would actually take place in the eye of the beholder, while the canvas itself would be the basis for the optical mixing.

Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin was of particular importance to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac who are the founders of Pointillism. The painting technique or the aesthetic position called pointillism is based on the divisionist understanding of the light potential of colors that are applied in characteristic small dots. Michel Eugène Chevreul’s book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts was also among the influential titles for the development of divisionism.

Chromoluminarism and Divisionism

Georges Seurat also studied the work of the famous painter Eugène Delacroix in order to shape the new role of color in painting. Although Seurat was not the first, since the Impressionists had used color in a similar way before, he was certainly the first to turn this experience into a new technique known as Chromoluminarism. As Seurat is a pioneer in this field chromoluminarism is often completely equated with the term divisionism. Certainly, the most famous work of this painter, which simultaneously defines chromoluminarism, neo-impressionism, and pointillism, is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86).

This famous painting reveals the capacities of a divisional experiment that applies to all elements of the painting, not just color. The pointillist approach to divisionism treats form, shape, space, and line in a special way. The vibrant relations of the painted surfaces create the illusion of movement in the image. It is also important to note that this image required the observer to determine the optimal distance he should make in order to observe appropriately.

The Role of Light in Divisionist Painting

Another special quality of divisionist application of colors on canvas is their light potential. The role of light was of exceptional importance among the painters of the divisionist orientation, as well as their impressionist predecessors.

However, the principles that earlier impressionist painters, as well as neo-impressionists, applied in order to achieve the illumination of the scene, were completely different.

While the impressionists, in search of the authentic natural quality of light, went out into nature and affirmed Plein air painting, neo-impressionist artists often painted in their studios guided by the scientific manner of the color organization on canvas. In this difference lies the reason for the conflict that arose between the representatives of these two approaches to painting. Creators prone to the impressionist tradition rebuked the divisionists for a sterile, unnatural approach that lacked the authenticity of an immediate natural experience.

Key Elements of Divisionist Painting Technique

The basis of the divisionist paintings creation can be summed up in two procedures. The first is the application of pure or unmixed color pigment on the canvas and the second is the confrontation of the desired pairs of complementary colors on the canvas in order to achieve maximum brightness. The fullness of the light capacity divisionist techniques strived for refers to individual painted surfaces, but also to the overall image.

However, later optical research confirmed that it is not possible to achieve a higher degree of illumination with this technique. That is, the light quality that a single color has in the image does not increase in relation to the confronted color according to the principle of complementary pairs. Unequivocally, divisionist paintings are perceived as images of extraordinary lighting, but as in impressionism, this is a consequence of the usage of brilliant and vivid colors and the absence of dark tones not due to juxtaposing dots of complementary colors.

Divisionism and Post-Impressionism

Divisionism as a painting experiment is one of the most important shifts in the transformation of painting in the history of modern art. The influences of this idea are visible both among the artists who created immediately after the neo-impressionists and among the artistic movements that operated a century later.

The notion of color could not be the same after the divisionist painting of Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri Edmond Cross and Maximilien Luce. The most famous post-impressionist artists such as Paul Cezzane, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin or Emile Bernard were influenced by these ideas.

Read more about Post-Impressionism.

Divisionism and Futurism

The vibrancy and illusion of movement that characterized the divisional images were taken over by members of Futurism. This avant-garde group celebrated the idea of ​​progress, modernity in all its manifestations,  technological progress, an artistic revolution that should break with traditional canons. It was the scientific component presented by divisionism that was the starting point for a new futuristic visuality that celebrated speed, movement, transformation. Examples of this are in the works of Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra or Gino Severini.

Divisionism and Fauvism

Fauvism is a painting movement whose members have achieved revolutionary results in the changing role of color in painting. Leaning on divisionist experience, painters led by Henri Matisse and Andre Derain managed to unleash the color of its traditionally imitative function.

Divisionism and Cubism

Cubist painters led by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso also adopted a divisionist approach to color. This approach remains present both in the analytical phase, which fragments the scene on the trail of different points of view, and in the synthetic phase, which experiments with emphasizing the authentic two-dimensionality of the image.

Divisionism and Abstract Art

The history of modern and contemporary art is largely marked by the development of abstract art. From the late 19th century until today, a large number of artists have created in this manner and used divisionist principles of complementary colors. By the absence or overcoming of figurality in a completely abstract composition, the focus is placed on the relation of painted surfaces. The most important abstract artists are Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Jackson Pollock.

Divisionism and Pop Art

The artists who created Pop Art used divisionist achievements in painting in order to shape social criticism in the most likable way. Popular motifs, objects, products, or personalities on the one hand and juxtaposition of complementary colors on the other have become an extremely successful combination for paradoxically popularizing subversive messages. The most famous artists of this movement are Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns.

Divisionism and Op Art

The art movement that took the ideas of divisionism as the basis of its theory is Op Art. By incorporating the experiences of Divisionists, Cubists, Constructivists, Dadaists, and other art movements, Op artists have created an authentic synthesis of previous achievements in the study of the nature of painting and given it a new dimension. Although initially predominantly using black-and-white opposing fields, Op artists turned to color and vibrancy, expressing movement and flashing with divisionist means. The most famous artists of this movement are Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Vera Molnar, Bridget Riley, Omar Rayo, and Edna Andrade.

Notable Divisionist Artists:

  • Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
  • Paul Signac (1863-1935)
  • Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
  • Maximilien Luce(1858-1941)
  • Paul Cezzane (1839-1906)
  • Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
  • Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
  • Emile Bernard(1868-1941)
  • Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
  • Giacomo Balla(1871-1958)
  • Carlo Carra(1881-1966)
  • Gino Severini(1883-1966)
  • Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
  • Andre Derain (1880-1954)
  • Georges Braque (1882-1963)
  • Pablo Picasso(1881-1973)
  • Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
  • Piet Mondrian(1872-1944)
  • Joan Miro (1893-1983)
  • Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
  • Gerhard Richter (1932-)
  • Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)
  • Richard Hamilton (1922-2011)
  • Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
  • Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)
  • Jasper Johns(1930-)
  • Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)
  • Richard Anuszkiewicz(1930-2020)
  • Vera Molnar (1924-)
  • Bridget Riley(1931-)
  • Omar Rayo(1928-2010)
  • Edna Andrade(1917-2008)

About Saša Vojnović, M.A.

Saša Vojnović is an art historian and filmmaker. His fields of research include the history of modern art and cultural history. He researched the phenomenon of Countervisuality in the artistic experiment of Belgrade Surrealists, as well as the anti-colonialism of the Non-Aligned Movement as a European cultural heritage. He is currently working on the topic of the endangerment of Uyghur cultural heritage in contemporary China.