Membership Manager Dr. Genevieve Hill-Thomas explains how 3-D glasses are relevant to the museum’s permanent collection.
Since American Paper Optics was kind enough to donate 3D glasses to the museum, what else could we do but organize a member’s tour through the permanent collection that uses these optical devices? Gimmicky? Perhaps. Ironic? Definitely! Regardless, we’ll explore the science of art and optics throughout history, from the Renaissance to present day.
Although 3-D shades seem like a new thing, or at least new since the 1950s, complementary color (red-cyan) anaglyph glasses, or 3-D glasses, actually were invented in 1852 by Wilhelm Rollmann in Leipzig, Germany.[i] Yep, 1852, not 1952. Rollman realized that the human brain uses stereoscopic processing to compile two distinct images from each eye. Materials for 3-D viewing are printed as two overlapping images corresponding to the perspective of each eye, each using contrasting colors (such as red and cyan). They are superimposed upon each other so that when the proper filters are placed over each eye, your mind combines them in a manner so that you perceive depth. Of course, these types of images are specially designed to be used with anaglyph glasses—something that is not true of most art in major metropolitan art museums.
So what’s the point of wandering through the galleries with 3D glasses?
Although none of the art we’ll view was intended to be viewed with optical modifiers, we can use these devices to give us insight to the color theory that artists employed, as well as their process in imitating nature (or not). One approach is to peer through each lens of the red-cyan glasses individually. The red lens heightens the contrast between dark and light, by filtering out (or absorbing) blues and greens. The cyan lens has the opposite effect; it dampens contrast, darkens reds and oranges, and slightly lightens blues and greens. Viewing a painting through one lens or the other allows us to explore an artist’s use of shading and contrast. Looking through both lenses at once makes the blues and reds “pop.” The visual effect is nothing short of trippy, and a neat optical illusion that emphasizes some artists’ juxtaposition of these two colors.
Fortunately, for us, artists have used combinations of red and blue as far back as the early Italian Renaissance. This concurrence of color was known as cangianti, and it was used as a special painting technique to enliven the surface of a painting.[ii] Without 3D glasses, this effect is subtle. With the glasses, however, the effect is impossible to miss. But it wasn’t just the Italians. During the same historical period, northern European artists were using the addition of blue pigments to sections of their paintings that were meant to be perceived in the distance—a technique known as atmospheric perspective. Gazing through the blue lens highlights the effect that these artists were seeking.
Moving closer to the modern era, scientists really began think about the way the eye receives and the brain processes color and form. In 1893,Michel-Eugène Chevreul published his hugely influential De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (Of the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors), which was an entire book exploring the influence of color combinations upon optics. For example, because red absorbs green light, the greens next to red look “greener.” Today, we tend to call this type of juxtaposition “colors that pop” and “vibrating colors.” Chevreul also noted that when viewed from a distance, small areas composed of contrasting colors “appear as a uniformly coloured surface.”[iii] Observations such as Chevreul’s helped to advance post-Netwonian—yes, as in the same Newton involved with gravity, prisms, and falling apples—color theory, as well as the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
On Sunday, we’ll explore these theories in more detail while looking at works ranging from the Italian Renaissance masters to the French Post-Impressionists. Once we have a grasp on how 3-D glasses can be used to better understand the techniques of artists throughout history, we’ll just wander through the galleries seeing these works with new eyes. Well, not new, but at least temporarily altered. Sure, you’ve walked through the Brooks before, but you’ve never quite seen the permanent collection like this! Of course, a glass of wine doesn’t hurt the experience…
[i] Rollmann, Wilhelm. 1853. “Zwei neue stereoskopische Methoden,” Annalen der Physik. 166:186-187.
[ii] Kemp, Martin. 1990. The Science of Art: Optical themes in western art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 265-266.
[iii] Chevreul, M. E. 1839. De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, 2 vols, Paris. Trans: J. Spanton 1883. The Laws of Contrast of Colour and their applications to the Arts and Manufactures. London, 218.