Known for having the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, the Musee d’Orsay gave us an opportunity to view the impressionist paintings we had read so much about in class in person. The museum was filled with statues, furniture (?) and more paintings than I could count.
The moment I entered the museum, I headed straight for those famous impressionist paintings. Rows upon rows of paintings filled the gallery as I joined the people milling by. Not wanting to get too close to the crowd around the paintings, I initially decided to look casually at the beautiful scenery of landscapes or normal people out for an afternoon walk. I found myself being drawn to some of Monet’s works; his paintings all seemed to share a common theme of loose, delicate brushstrokes and unsaturated, pastel colors.
I enjoyed looking at them because it gave me such a sense of calmness, as I let my eyes take in the subtle flecks of colors and light. Soon, one among them in particular caught my eye.
Monet’s 1879 painting, Camille sur son lit de Mort, or Camille on her Deathbed, gives the audience a sense of Monet’s melancholy emotions for the death of his wife. The brushstrokes used for both these paintings all work together in harmony, in one given direction, to draw the viewer’s gaze down and to the right. When viewing this painting, I also noticed myself subconsciously tilting my head a little bit to my right, contemplatively. The features of his wife can be made out and seems at peace—almost as if she was asleep, as the cliché goes—but when looking at the lights and colors in the painting I was suddenly brought to mind of feelings of not only serenity, but also a deep sadness as it brought to mind a memory of one of my close relatives who had recently passed away as well before this trip. One could say that it was the similar situations of the subjects of the painting that triggered my own memory, but I was feeling a certain weight and despondency even before I knew what the painting was of—I felt that something about the mood that the painting evoked with its colors and textures was able to influence my own emotions and memory.
Emotion has been widely known to be influenced by color, and this concept has been applied to various studies. For example, color cues can affect the chemosensory perception of foods and drinks we consume, through an implicit connection with emotion. Gilbert et al found that people have “pre-existing expectations” regarding what their food and drinks should look and taste like, and that this expectation is modulated by how the color or appearance of these foods makes them feel (2016). In a study closer to home, it was shown that different colors in learning environments could also influence student moods and subsequently their learning performance. As expected, paler colors and colors towards the bluer end of the spectrum increased the students’ feelings of relaxation and positivity. However, they also found that more vivid colors such as red and yellow increased heart rate and helped to focus attention, resulting in higher comprehension test scores (Al-Ayash et al, 2015).
A recent study by Lisa Wilms and Daniel Oberfield published in 2017 expanded on that study, looking at how all the perceptual dimensions of color (hue, saturation and brightness) could also lead to changes in an individual’s emotional state, as measured by arousal and valence.
They found that bright, saturated colors induced higher arousal (as measured by heart rate and skin conductance) and valence (associated positive feelings) in the viewers, especially colors closer to red on the color spectrum compared to blue or green. In addition, achromatic colors such as white, grey, and black, caused a short-term decrease in heart rate, and vice versa for the chromatic colors. This was the first study that not only considered the actual hue of the colors, but also how the saturation and brightness of the colors interacted to produce a more nuanced response (Wilms and Oberfield, 2017). This was significant especially in terms of Monet, as he tended to use many different colors—his color palette was in no way wholly monochromatic, if you look closely—but the colors were very unsaturated and more muted. He also used a lot of achromatic colors, especially white and grey. According to Willms, both of these factors would have caused the viewer to feel lower valence (less pleasurable emotions) and more calm, which could have led to what I was feeling that day when viewing that painting.
Al-Ayash A., Kane R.T., Smith D., Green-Armytage P. (2015). The influence of color on student emotion, heart rate, and performance in learning environments. Color Research and Application. 41:196-205.
Gilbert A.N., Fridlund A.J., Lucchina L.A. (2016). The color of emotion: a metric for implicit color associations. Food Quality and Preference. 52:203-210.
Wilms, L. & Oberfeld, D. (2018). Color and emotion: effects of hue, saturation, and brightness. Psychological Research. 82: 896.
All images taken by me; June 2019.