He was born into a bourgeois family in Saint-Quentin, Aisne and was educated at Dominican colleges in Saint-Sébastien. After completing his education he returned to Saint-Quentin and began painting in watercolour and pastels.
In 1904 he attended a drawing course run by Jules-Alexandre Patrouillard Degrave at the Ecole Municipale de Dessin Quentin Delatour in Saint-Quentin. In 1905 he travelled to Paris, where he studied the decorative arts, first with Maurice Verneuil and later with Charles Cottet. He also befriended Roger de La Fresnaye and André Dunoyer de Segonzac.
A second Purist exhibition was held at the Galerie Druet, Paris, in 1921 in which Ozenfant again exhibited. In 1924 he opened a free studio in Paris with Fernand Léger, where they both taught with Aleksandra Ekster and Marie Laurencin. Ozenfant and Le Corbusier wrote La Peinture moderne in 1925 and in 1928 Ozenfant published Art. This was subsequently published in English as The Foundations of Modern Art in 1931. In this he fully expounds his theory of Purism, and it is remarkable for its idiosyncratic and aphoristic style.
In the early Purist manifestos, colour was deemed secondary to form, and this could be seen in the careful placing of colour to reinforce discrete architectural elements by Le Corbusier in his work of the mid-1920s. However, by the time he was in England, Ozenfant had refined his ideas about colour and outlined many of these in the six articles on the subject that he wrote for the Architectural Review. Colour was now regarded as an essential element of architecture, rather than something considered by the architect while his work was being erected. Colour always modifies the form of the building and should receive more careful attention.
We must endeavour to introduce a little order into this business, or at least sense into a great deal of it. But what is sense without order? We must try to find some method of arriving at some sort of order—one that will at least enable us to escape from this vagueness in the design of colour.
Ozenfant’s revised thoughts on the importance of colour were partly due to the influence of the artist Paul Signac and his theories on Divisionism. Signac maintained that the Neo-Impressionist technique of applying brushstrokes obtained the maximum brightness, colour, and harmony. Unlike the techniques used by the earlier Impressionists, patches of colours remained distinct, blending when viewed at a distance. In this instance, when no fusion of the colours takes place, the interaction is called “simultaneous contrast”, a condition in which colours merely influence one another by proximity. This technique prevents the muddiness or darkening that result when patches of colour actually run into each other. It was an extension of this technique that was recommended by Ozenfant for achieving “colour solidity” in architecture, altering colours visually by contrast to create the illusion of solidity.
In 1937 Ozenfant had said:
I believe that an immense service would be done to architects, decorators, house-painters etc., if a chart especially adapted to their particular requirements were established. This chart might contain about a hundred hues.
Ozenfant’s articles on colour were read with interest, particularly by:
…the students at the Architectural Association (AA), for example, but even for David Medd, a student at the AA who later authored the color standards for British schools, Ozenfant had already gone to the United States by the time he inquired about the course at the Academy.
The effect of his words can be seen in a number of articles on colour published in England shortly after the Second World War. Indeed, we are told in 1956 that they had a direct influence on the decoration of some of the early post-war schools.