The Movements Behind “Color Space”

Starting this week, Lily Pad | West will shed its walls of the ethereal works of “Into the Mystic” and turn its eyes toward the evocative styles of “Color Space” via the hands and minds of colorist painters Leya Evelyn and Peter Batchelder.

To appreciate the artwork of “Color Space” is to know the history of crucial art movements through the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. The impetus for colorist painting was forged by French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the late nineteenth century and brought to the forefront by the Fauvists of the early twentieth century. 


In 1874, a group of artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., organized an exhibition in Paris that launched the movement called Impressionism. Its founding members included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro. The group was unified only by its independence from the official annual Salon, for which a jury of artists from the Académie des Beaux-Arts selected artworks and awarded medals. Despite their diverse approaches to painting, the independent artists appeared to contemporaries as a group. While conservative critics panned their work for its unfinished, sketchlike appearance, more progressive writers praised it for depicting modern life. Edmond Duranty, for example, in his 1876 essay La Nouvelle Peinture (The New Painting), wrote of their depiction of contemporary subject matter in a suitably innovative style as a revolution in painting. The exhibiting collective avoided choosing a title that would imply a unified movement or school. However, some of them subsequently adopted the name by which they would eventually be known, the Impressionists. Their work is recognized today for its modernity, embodied in its rejection of established styles, incorporation of new technology and ideas, and depiction of modern life.

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” not a finished painting. It demonstrates the techniques many independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions. This seemingly casual style became widely accepted, even in the official Salon, as the new language to depict modern life.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

In addition to their radical technique, the bright colors of Impressionist canvases were shocking for eyes accustomed to the more sober colors of academic painting. Many independent artists chose not to apply the thick golden varnish that painters customarily used to tone down their works. The paints themselves were more vivid as well. The nineteenth century saw the development of synthetic pigments for artists’ paints, providing vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow that painters had never used before. Édouard Manet’s Boating, for example, features an expanse of the new cerulean blue and synthetic ultramarine. Depicted in a radically cropped, Japanese-inspired composition, the fashionable boater and his companion embody modernity in their form, subject matter, and the very materials used to paint them.

Édouard Manet, Boating, 1874

Its many facets and varied participants make the Impressionist movement challenging to define. Indeed, its life seems as fleeting as the light effects it sought to capture. Even so, Impressionism was a movement of enduring consequence, as its embrace of modernity made it the springboard for later avant-garde art in Europe.


Breaking free of the naturalism of Impressionism in the late 1880s, a group of young painters sought independent artistic styles for expressing emotions rather than simply optical impressions, concentrating on themes of more profound symbolism. Through the use of simplified colors and definitive forms, their art was characterized by a renewed aesthetic sense and abstract tendencies. Among the budding generation of artists responding to Impressionism, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and the eldest of the group, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), followed diverse stylistic paths in search of authentic intellectual and artistic achievements. These artists, often working independently, are today called Post-Impressionists. Although they did not view themselves as part of a collective movement at the time, Roger Fry (1866–1934), critic and artist, broadly categorized them as “Post-Impressionists,” a term that he coined in his seminal exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists installed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910.

In the 1880s, Georges Seurat was at the forefront of the challenges to Impressionism with his unique analyses based on then-current notions of optical and color theories. Seurat believed that by placing tiny dabs of pure colors adjacent to one another, a viewer’s eye compensated for the visual disparity between the two by “mixing” the primaries to model a composite hue. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte embodies Seurat’s experimental style, dubbed Neo-Impressionism. This painting depicts a landscape scene peopled with figures at leisure, a familiar subject of the Impressionists. But Seurat’s updated style invigorates the otherwise conventional subject with a virtuoso application of color and pigment. In Circus Sideshow, he uses this technique to paint a rare nighttime scene illuminated by artificial light.

The art of Paul Gauguin developed out of similar Impressionist foundations, but he too dispensed with Impressionistic handling of pigment and imagery in exchange for an approach characterized by solid patches of color and clearly defined forms, which he used to depict exotic themes and images of private and religious symbolism. Gauguin’s peripatetic disposition took him to Brittany, Provence, Martinique, and Panama, finally settling him in remote Polynesia, at first Tahiti then the Marquesas Islands. Hoping to escape the aggravations of the industrialized European world and constantly searching for an untouched land of simplicity and beauty, Gauguin looked toward remote destinations where he could live easily and paint the purity of the country and its inhabitants. In Tahiti, he made some of his career’s most insightful and expressive pictures. In Two Tahitian Women and Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, Gauguin employed simplified colors and solid forms as he built flat objects that lack traditional notions of perspective, particularly apparent in the still-life arrangement atop a white tablecloth pushed directly into the foreground of the picture plane.

Striving toward comparable emotional intensities as Gauguin, and even working briefly with him in Arles in the south of France in 1888, Vincent van Gogh searched with equal determination for a personal expression in his art. Working in Arles, Van Gogh completed a series of paintings that exemplify the artistic independence and proto-Expressionist technique he developed by the late 1880s, which would later strongly influence Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and his circle of Fauvist painters, as well as the German Expressionists. L’Arlésienne and La Berceuse feature Van Gogh’s style of rapidly applied, thick, bright colors with dark, definitive outlines. After his voluntary commitment to an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889, he painted several pictures with extraordinarily poignant undertones, agitated lines, brilliant colors, and distorted perspectives, including Corridor in the Asylum.

Through their radically independent styles and dedication to pursuing unique means of artistic expression, the Post-Impressionists dramatically influenced generations of artists, including the Fauves.


Fauvism was the first of the avant-garde movements that flourished in France in the early years of the twentieth century. The Fauve painters were the first to break with Impressionism as well as with older, traditional methods of perception. Their spontaneous, often subjective response to nature was expressed in bold, undisguised brushstrokes and high-keyed, vibrant colors directly from the tube.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and André Derain (1880–1954) introduced unnaturalistic color and vivid brushstrokes into their paintings in the summer of 1905, working together in the small fishing port of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast. When their pictures were exhibited later that year at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, they inspired the witty critic Louis Vauxcelles to call them fauves (“wild beasts”) in his review for the magazine Gil Blas. This term was later applied to the artists themselves.

The Fauves were a loosely shaped group of artists sharing a similar approach to nature, but they had no definitive program. Their leader was Matisse, who had arrived at the Fauve style after earlier experimenting with the various Post-Impressionist styles of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, and the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, Cross, and Signac. These influences inspired him to reject traditional three-dimensional space and seek instead a new picture space defined by the movement of color planes.

Another major Fauve was Maurice de Vlaminck (1876–1958), who might be called a “natural” Fauve because his use of highly intense color corresponded to his own exuberant nature. Vlaminck took the final step toward embracing the Fauve style after seeing the second large retrospective exhibition of Van Gogh’s work at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905, and the Fauve paintings produced by Matisse and Derain in Collioure.

As an artist, Derain occupied a place midway between the impetuous Vlaminck and the more controlled Matisse. He had worked with Vlaminck in Chatou, near Paris, intermittently from 1900 on and spent the summer of 1905 with Matisse in Collioure. In 1906–7, he also painted some twenty-nine scenes of London in a more restrained palette.

André Derain, Regent Street, London, 1906

The Fauvist movement has been compared to German Expressionism, both projecting brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork and indebted to the same late-nineteenth-century sources, especially the work of Vincent van Gogh. The French were more concerned with the formal aspects of pictorial organization, while the German Expressionists were more emotionally involved in their subjects.


Color Space highlights the greatest aspects of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Fauvism. Peter Batchelder combines Impressionist brushstrokes and subject matter with Fauvist concepts of color to depict new narratives from already heavily storied New England landscapes. And Leya Evelyn abandones subject matter entirely to introduce the viewer to an environment in which they decide the narrative based on the anchor points of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism color and gestural lines she provides for them.

“Color Space” opens Friday, March 4

We’ll see you there!

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