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The inventor of the colour wheel: Michel Eugène Chevreul

The French chemist formalised colour laws with his ‘chromatic circle’, inspiring some of the world’s most revolutionary painters

fabric and wallpaper colour wheel
Photographer: Lucky If Sharp Edit: Kiera Buckley-Jones

On the face of it, Michel Eugène Chevreul had an unlikely career for someone who would go on to profoundly influence the Impressionists, Post Impressionists and Fauves. But then again, perhaps the signs were there from the beginning.

Born into a family of scientists in 1786, his formative years were set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Despite the social upheaval, he followed family tradition and became a chemist. His interest in colours was probably piqued by his time assisting Nicolas Vauquelin, known for his work on the element chromium, progenitor of the chrome family of pigments.

a lithograph of chevreul
A lithograph of Chevreul
Wellcome Collection

This chromatic pedigree brought Chevreul to the Gobelin tapestry works. Based in Paris on the banks of the Seine, the acclaimed firm had been in business since the 15th century but suddenly found itself falling out of favour. The problem lay in its colours.

Fashionable 19th-century consumers desired saturated, bright hues and found the Gobelin’s naturalistic classical scenes and decorative foliage a little... grey. So when, in 1824, Chevreul became director of dyeing, spicing up the Gobelin palette was his priority.

The practice of contrasting complementary colours became hallmark of avant-garde art

It was at this point that things took an unexpected turn. Chevreul examined the dyes being used and concluded that they were just as bright as everyone else’s. The problem, however, lay in the way that they were woven together in the tapestries.

pr1gnc 3eme cercle chromatique de mr chevreul, des couleurs et de leurs applications aux arts industriels a l'aide des cercles
Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo

Gobelin designs often put varying tones and hues in close proximity to one another. The effect, when seen from a few paces back, added up to a kind of dull mistiness, no matter how bright the individual threads. The remedy, Chevreul concluded, lay in using blocks of complementary colours side by side.

This idea, first published in 1839, was expanded upon in Des Couleurs et de Leurs Applications aux Art Industriel (1864), a gorgeous work complete with a blended ‘chromatic circle’ that pushed printing technology of the era to its limit.

michel chevreul colour book
MoDA

Of course, artists and designers had long intuited that colours were influenced by those around them, but Chevreul’s work formalised these ideas, gave them a patina of scientific respectability and became enormously influential.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter that, ‘The laws of the colours are unutterably beautiful’

The practice of contrasting complementary colours to zinging effect – red vs green, blue vs orange, yellow vs violet – became a hallmark of avant-garde art. In 1884, Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter that, ‘The laws of the colours are unutterably beautiful’, and a year later, that he was ‘completely absorbed’ in them. Strangely enough, Chevreul’s own tastes remained conservative, nevertheless it was his ideas that helped instigate a chromatic revolution.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration October 2020

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