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Once the Impressionists had burned the last bitumens of the Romantics (10) , everyone thought there would be a renaissance, or at least the appearance of a new art: the art of colour. It was a delusion. People would have sacrificed the Louvre, and all the museums of the world for a piece of cardboard stained with a cloudy pink and apple green. But we shouldn't mock. It is excesses of this kind that enabled us to join in an experiment that was both courageous and necessary.

(10)   Bitumen, a pigment derived from asphalt and used especially in the nineteenth century to render shadows. It was rejected from the palette of the Impressionists. 

Seurat and Signac envisaged developing a system for the palette and, sturdily breaking with a habit of the eye that had lasted a thousand years, they introduced the optical mix. 

Some noble canvases by Seurat, by Signac, Cross, or several others, prove how fertile the Neo-Impressionist method was; but it becomes questionable the moment we stop looking at it within the limits of superficial realism. 

Hoping to assimilate the colours on the palette to those of the prism, it is based on the exclusive use of pure elements. But the colours of the prism are homogeneous, while those of the palette - heterogeneous - can only provide pure elements to the extent that we are prepared to accept the idea of a 'relative purity'. 

Let us suppose that this is possible. White light is analysed into a thousand little touches of pure colour [teinte] which are supposed to produce a synthesis (11)  in the eye of the spectator. They are organised in such a way as not to destroy each other mutually through the optical fusion of complementaries; since outside the prism, whether we are talking about the optical mix or the mixture on the palette, the sum of the complementaries will yield, not a luminous white, but a muddy grey [gris trouble]. The contradiction stops us in our tracks. On the one hand we are using a special procedure which is aimed at reconstituting light; on the other hand we admit, implicitly, that such a reconstitution is impossible.

(11)   i.e. to reconstitute the impression of white light.

The Neo-Impressionists will not pretend that, rather than light, what they are dividing is actually colour. They know only too well that, in art, colour is a quality of light and a quality cannot be divided. What they are dividing is always light. If their theory were to be perfect, they would have to be able, using the seven fundamental colours, to give the sensation of white. Then, if all they did was to juxtapose a red and a blue, the resulting violet would be equivalent to the red and the blue. But it isn't at all. Whether the mix takes place on the palette or on the retina, the resulting composite is always less luminous and less intense than the components. But we should not rush to condemn the optical mix. It produces a certain stimulation [excitation] for the visual sense and we would not think of denying that that gives something that can be used to advantage. But in this last case, we only need to juxtapose elements of the same tint but of unequal intensity to give colour a very seductive appearance of life [une forte séduisante animation]. All that is needed is a degradation (12) of the colour. On this point, the Neo-Impressionists had no difficulty persuading us.

(12)   'Il suffit de dégrader'. To degrade the colour is to change the shade through the addition of a neutral tone - one that will not alter the colour itself. Black is notionally a neutral tone though as it is often in fact a very dark blue it will, for example, give yellow a greenish tinge.

 The most worrying aspect of the theory lies in a clear tendency to eliminate those elements that are called 'neutral' and which, on the canvas and everywhere else, convey an impression of indefiniteness (13) and whose presence has been discovered even in the spectrum itself through Fraunhofer's lines [les raies de Frauenhofer]. Has anyone the right so to suppress the innumerable combinations by which a cadmium yellow is separated from a cobalt violet? Are we permitted in this way to confine ourselves within the limits imposed by the colour manufacturers? Seurat, Signac or Cross, painters to the bone, never went quite that far; but others took it on. Striving after an absolute equivalence, which is the negation of any beauty that has life in it, they renounced all mixture, treated the degradation of colours with contempt and entrusted the job of endowing their paintings with light to the chromatic delights determined strictly by manufacturing industry.

(13)  'configurent l'indéfini' in 1912; 'infini' in 1947/80.

The law of contrast, as old as the human eye and on which Seurat insisted judiciously, was promoted with a lot of noise, and among those who most liked to boast of their sensibility none had enough to understand that to apply the law of complementaries without tact [tact] is to deny it, since it is only worth anything if it happens of its own accord; it can only be shown to advantage if it is used unobtrusively [ne demande qu'une délicate mise en valeur]. 

It was at that point that the Cubists emerged, teaching a new way of thinking about light. 

They say that to bring to light [éclairer] is to reveal; to colour is to specify the mode by which the revelation takes place [le mode de révélation]. Whatever strikes the mind [esprit], they say, is luminous, and anything that the mind is obliged to penetrate is dark. 

We do not automatically associate the idea of light with the sensation of white, any more than that of black with the idea of shadow. We know that a precious stone in black, and in a mat black, can be more luminous than the white satin or the pink of its jewel case. Since we love light, we refuse to subject it to measurement and we separate from it all those geometrical notions of the light source and the ray, which imply the repetition - the denial of the principle of variety which is our guide - of clear planes and dark intervals in a given direction. Since we love colour, we refuse to limit it and, dull or bright, fresh [fraîche] or earthy, we are open to all the possibilities that lie between the extreme points of the spectrum, between the cold tone and the warm tone. 

Thus a thousand tints escape out of the prism eager to be put in order in that region of light [lucide région] that is closed to all those who are blinded by whatever they find immediately in front of them [qu'aveugle l'immédiate].