THE ART OF COLOR: Local Color

Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1906 by Henry Matisse

Portrait of Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse, 1906 (from Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen.)

CONTRIBUTED BY S.W.M.

Art historians use the term “local color” to refer to the color of an object as it appears in nature–the yellow of a banana or the green of a leaf. When color is depicted, it’s something else entirely. Sometimes very surprising combinations of hues are required to produce the illusion of reality. [Refer to earlier post THE ART OF COLOR: Transparency]

Non-local color, on the other hand, may be purely expressive of mood or psychological state, or play a role in formal composition determined by the artist. This “arbitrary” use of color was the hallmark of Fauvism, whose critics accused the artist of painting like wild beasts.

Consider three examples, beginning with one of the most famous Fauve works–Matisse’s “Portrait of Madame Matisse” (1906), which features a wide, bright green line running down her forehead and the bridge of her nose. It may be arbitrary to her actual skin tone, but it is integral to the color structure of the painting. André Derain’s “Portrait of Henri Matisse” (1905) complicates the face with teals, lilacs, strong pinks, and an unexpected under eye orange that calls particular attention to the brushstroke, the act of painting itself. An even more extreme use of color is Ernst Kirchner’s “Blue Reclining Nude in a Straw Hat” (1908), in which the model’s body, outlined in salmon pinks and modeled in shades of bright blue, departs from any pretense of naturalism to reach an unsettling, heightened sensuality.

Blue Reclining Nude in a Straw Hat by Ernst Kirchner, 1908 and Portrait of Henri Matisse by André Derain, 1905.

Blue Reclining Nude in a Straw Hat by Ernst Kirchner, 1908 (Private Collection) and Portrait of Henri Matisse by André Derain, 1905 (photograph from Tate Museum web site.)

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