Sweet Harmony

A gouache by Wilhelm Ostwald.

A gouache by Wilhelm Ostwald, who won the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. John Wotiz Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation Archives.

Wilhelm Ostwald, winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on catalysis and an accomplished “Sunday painter,” refutes the two-cultures theory of the mutual incomprehension between the humanities and the sciences. Ostwald conducted extensive research into the nature of color, and his emergent theory was built around the notion of “Harmony,” achieved by a proper ordering of colors. He created prototypes for color trees and a color wheel, or Color Helm: such visual aids allowed artists to “match up” their colors for the greatest harmonious effect.

Ostwald’s aesthetic provided a stark contrast to the emerging artistic movements of the early 20th century. Expressionism prized a clash of violent colors, promoting apparent ugliness to the status of beauty. By 1907, when Ostwald’s Letters to a Painter on the Theory and Practice of Painting appeared in an English-language edition, the artistic vocabulary of painters like Wassily Kandinsky had changed to the point where surface harmony took a back seat to expressive qualities like anguish, exaltation, and fear. Nervous, contorted draftsmanship and keyed-up colors best expressed these artists’ feelings.

Ostwald’s oil paintings are fairly easy to pigeonhole as landscapes executed in the style of German Impressionism (a little darker and heavier than its French cousin), but his work in other paint media tells a different story. He claimed to have a special fondness for pastels, but his most visually arresting works are his gouaches—images with a disembodied, emblematic look. A study of a budding branch is more decorative than observed. (For example, the absence of a background immediately renders the image “unreal.”) This gouache demonstrates Ostwald’s theory of color harmony well enough and conforms to the values given by the Color Helm, but the work itself is far from harmonious, the brightness of the blossoms suggesting instead a certain acidic quality.

The fact that Ostwald reaches this point despite his devoutly scientific approach to art suggests that creativity blows where it will, regardless of artificial boundaries between disciplines and styles.