Seurat, Georges

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la grande jatte
seurat's science and craft
the debut of neo-impressionism
seurat after la grande jatte
seurat's legacy

SEURAT, GEORGES (1859–1891), French neo-impressionist painter.

The outline of Georges-Pierre Seurat's short life can be recounted quickly. Born to a middle-class family in Paris on 2 December 1859, in 1878 Seurat enrolled at the École des beaux-arts, and in 1882 he began to submit works to the annual state-sponsored Salon. The Salon jury admitted a drawing in 1883, but the next year rejected Seurat's more ambitious entry, Une Baignade, Asnières (1883–1884; Bathers at Asnières). In this canvas—exhibited at an alternative venue, the Salon des Indépendants—Seurat referred to academic tradition, naturalist observation, and impressionist light effects. Yet he also hinted at something new, depicting his subjects, modern working-class or lower-middle-class men, as idealized, monumental forms.

la grande jatte

"The subject: the island beneath a scorching sky, at four o'clock, boats slipping along its flanks, stirring with a fortuitous Sunday population enjoying fresh air among the trees" ("VIIIe exposition impressioniste," p. 261). The young critic Félix Fénéon thus described Seurat's painting with a specificity that echoes the artist's title: Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte—1884 (Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte—1884). This tiny island in the Seine, a popular weekend destination just beyond Paris's city limits, was the focus of Seurat's attention for two years (1884–1886). Extant studies (twenty-six drawings, twenty-six panels, and three canvases) reveal much about the artist's evolving aims and methods. In keeping with impressionist practice, he produced numerous painted sketches on small wooden panels measuring 16 by 25 centimeters (6 ¼ by 9 ⅞ inches). Records of light effects at different times of day, experiments with alternate positions for shadows, trees, figures, boats—these on-site sketches served as research notes when Seurat entered the studio to work on his 2-by-3-meter (81-by-120-inch) canvas, which would synthesize many moments of observation and aspire to a new classicism.

Seurat explained to the critic Gustave Kahn in 1888: "I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those [Greek] friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color, by directions of the tones in harmony with the lines, and by the directions of the lines" (Kahn, pp. 142–143). Ostensibly describing his method, he also defined his subject. Seurat's figures are numerous but not diverse, most of them recognizably members of the lower-middle to middle class, perhaps including some artisans. While some have contended that the scene is a sociological sampling of Paris or an anarchist manifesto, it can also be interpreted as an allegorical ideal in which the artist presented many contrasts, but no conflicts.

seurat's science and craft

Seurat's innovative technique is usually described as "scientific," in keeping with the vocabulary used by the artist and his contemporaries, who lived in an age greatly enamored of science. Pissarro, for example, drew a distinction between "romantic" and "scientific" impressionism, implying a welcome eclipse of the former by the latter. But reference to science can mask the elements of intuition and craft so central to Seurat's achievement. The shimmering effect of his paintings results from careful juxtapositions of light and dark shades and of warm and cool colors, hence his own coinage, chromo-luminarisme. It is a myth that Seurat restricted himself to the three primary colors, pairing dots of blue and yellow (for instance) to form green. Seurat studied the principles governing solar or prismatic light as explained by scientists Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, but he adapted their theories to his own particular goals and materials.

Another myth about Seurat's technique claims that his surfaces are regular patterns of tiny dots or points. (In fact, the term pointillism comes from the language of craft, point being French for "stitch.") In some cases, a coarsely woven canvas support lends a texture to thin paint layers, but the individual marks vary widely from small dabs to long streaks, angled in all directions: Seurat once described his brushwork as bayalé (broom-swept). Only in comparison with the loose, gestural brushwork of his immediate predecessors, the impressionists, could Seurat's hand appear mechanical.

the debut of neo-impressionism

La Grande Jatte was shown in the eighth and last impressionist exhibition, which opened on 15 May 1886. Among the best known of the seventeen participating artists were Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and Berthe Morisot. Camille Pissarro had argued strenuously for the inclusion of Seurat, a newcomer. The relegation of Seurat's works to a separate gallery within the exhibition only emphasized his difference—and his influence. Paul Signac, Pissarro, and Pissarro's son Lucien

each declared their affinity for the new style, which Fénéon dubbed neo-impressionism, in major works of their own.

La Grande Jatte established Seurat's celebrity, drawing positive and negative attention from commentators who made comparisons with early Renaissance art, Egyptian art, wooden toys, puppets, tapestries, broadsides, and illustrations by the English artist Kate Greenaway (best known for her children's book drawings). Undeniably, Seurat's quest to renovate impressionism struck a chord among a younger generation of artists, especially those who would become known as the symbolists. These painters and writers admired Seurat for going beyond the optical surface, eliminating haphazard contingency, and giving form to timeless ideals. "To synthesize a landscape in a definitive aspect which perpetuates its sensation, that is what the Neo-Impressionists try to do," summarized Fénéon in 1887 ("Le néo-impressionisme," p. 140). Many subsequent modernist movements embraced this same goal.

seurat after la grande jatte

Seurat's third major canvas, Les Poseuses (1887–1888; The models), self-consciously features its predecessor, La Grande Jatte, as a picture within the picture, hanging on the wall behind three young women. Alluding to the mythological Three Graces, Poseuses takes on the traditional art-historical subject of the nude, but these are not the voluptuous goddesses of Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) or Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Instead, they are modern girls who have briefly discarded their fashionable clothes. The French title, like its English cognate, refers to the models' task of posing for the artist, but also to the women parading fully dressed in the painting behind them. La Parade (1887–1888), Le Chahut (1889–1890), and Le Cirque (1890–1891) amplify this theme. Rather than emphasizing the provocative aspects of these popular urban entertainments, Seurat instead revealed the commercialization underlying the apparently uninhibited performance—just as he had pointed out the regimentation of leisure in La Grande Jatte.

seurat's legacy

On 29 March 1891 Seurat died of an acute respiratory infection at the age of thirty-one. His contemporaries immediately began to ponder his legacy; Signac, for example, did so both in his own painting and in the influential book From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899). This text encouraged artists such as Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, and Pablo Picasso to view Seurat as a pioneer who had liberated color from its descriptive role. In subject and form, Seurat's art embraces both contrast and harmony. He addressed his contemporaries, but cast an eye to the past and the future. In less than a decade, he changed the course of modern art, prompting critics to devise new vocabularies, painters to experiment with new techniques, and viewers to learn new ways of looking. Seurat's wholly original mode of aesthetic innovation draws upon the positivist, naturalist convictions of the nineteenth century while pointing toward the abstract, ironic attitudes of the twentieth.

See alsoImpressionism; Romanticism; Turner, J. M. W.


Primary Sources

Fénéon, Félix. "VIIIe exposition impressioniste." La Vogue 1 (13 June 1886): 261.

——. "Le néo-impressionisme." L'art moderne 7 (1 May 1887): 140.

——. Oeuvres plus que complètes. Edited by Joan U. Halperin. 2 vols. Geneva, 1970.

Kahn, Gustave. "Exposition Paris de Chavannes." La Revue indépendante 6 (February 1888): 142–143.

Signac, Paul. D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme. Paris, 1899.

Secondary Sources

"The Grande Jatte at 100." Special issue, edited by Susan F. Rossen. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 14, no. 2 (1988).

Herbert, Robert L., et al. Georges Seurat, 1859–1891. New York, 1991. Exhibition catalog.

Herbert, Robert L., Neil Harris, Douglas W. Druick, et al. Seurat and the Making of "La Grande Jatte." Chicago, 2004. Exhibition catalog.

Moffett, Charles S., et al. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., 1986. Exhibition catalog.

Britt Salvesen

Georges Pierre Seurat

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Georges Pierre Seurat

The French painter Georges Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was the leading figure in the neoimpressionist movement of the 1880s and in the development of the technique of pointillism.

The impressionist style, which marked a radical shift in the course of Western painting, blossomed for the most part in the 1870s. During the next 2 decades a number of young painters sought to work out the tenets of impressionism in terms of their personal styles. These artists are generally separated into two groups: the postimpressionists, which included Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne, and the neoimpressionists, which included Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In particular, Seurat wished to carry the theories of impressionism to their logical conclusions and to establish an art with a truly scientific base.

Seurat was born in Paris on Dec. 2, 1859. As a student, he worked in the school of the sculptor Justin Lequien, and, for less than a year during 1878-1879, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. During these years Seurat developed a deep respect for antique sculpture and Renaissance painting. In terms of his own century, he particularly admired the painting of J. A. D. Ingres, and he made a careful study of the new landscape tradition that had begun with the Barbizon school and culminated in impressionism.

Development of Pointillism

But Seurat was interested in science as well as art, especially in scientific color theory. During the late 1870s and the early 1880s he read numerous treatises on this subject, including those by M. E. Chevreul, H. von Helmholtz, and O. N. Rood; he also studied Eugène Delacroix's writings on color.

Essentially, Seurat's aim was to separate each color into its component parts (this process is known as divisionism) and to apply each of the component colors individually on the canvas surface. In order to have the colors blend optically, each one had to be applied in the form of a small dot of pigment. The phenomenon whereby colors were allowed to blend optically instead of being mixed on the palette had been the discovery of the impressionists, but Seurat carried the process further. He analyzed it scientifically and developed a theory to explain it. The term "pointillism" refers to the actual application of these theories to painting.

His Paintings

Seurat's first major demonstration of pointillism was A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886). This is also his most celebrated painting. A large work, it is extremely complicated, consisting of numerous figures scattered both across and into pictorial space. The scene itself is typically impressionist in presenting an outdoor world. Yet the work departs radically from impressionism: it was painted entirely in the studio with each of its many elements being carefully calculated in terms of color, light, and composition. La Grande Jatte is thus a tour de force in revealing Seurat's painstaking method: like his academic predecessors, he made careful studies for each figure. As a result, each seems frozen in its position, but each scintillates because it is composed of a myriad of individual color spots. As a whole, the painting is at once both classical and modern.

Seurat, Signac, and Odilon Redon were instrumental in organizing the Société des Artistes Indépendants, which had its first exhibition in 1884. Like the impressionists before them, these artists originated their own shows because their radical art had been rejected by the juries of the official Salon. And although these shows contained a wide variety of individual styles, Seurat's ambitious demonstrations of pointillism clearly established him as the major figure of neoimpressionism. Between 1886 and 1890 his influence thus spread to numerous other painters, including Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, all of whom went through pointillist periods in their own work.

After completing La Grande Jatte, Seurat consciously sought to expand the expressive range of his work. He became interested in motion and in the emotional quality of linear rhythms. Seurat's friend, the esthetician Charles Henry, encouraged and shared these interests, which are reflected in La Parade (1887-1888), La Chahut (1889-1890), and the Circus (unfinished). In contrast to the formality of La Grande Jatte, these works contain moving figures, sparkling lights, and a generally lyric atmosphere. In spite of this expanded content, however, Seurat did not relinquish his methodical, scientific technique. He continued to work slowly, carefully developing his theories and producing numerous drawings and oil studies for each painting.

His Drawings

Because of his painstaking working process, Seurat completed relatively few major paintings. Throughout his life, however, he was a tireless and consummate draftsman. As a student, he made drawings of classical sculpture, architectural motifs, and the human figure. Many of these are reminiscent of the touch and style of Ingres. But by the early 1880s Seurat began to evolve a more personal style, generally employing Conté crayon and an unusually high-grain paper. The range of feeling in these drawings is extraordinary—and occasionally surprising in comparison to the rather cool tenor of his paintings. The master delicately used his materials to suggest figures, spaces, and atmosphere; frequently he allowed the grain of the paper to show through the Conté crayon and achieved a sense of quiet intimacy that has few parallels in the history of the medium.

Early in 1891 Seurat contracted infectious angina. He died on March 29 at the height of his artistic powers.

Further Reading

The most authoritative treatment of Seurat's techniques and color theories is William Innes Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting (1964). Monographs on the artist include Daniel Catton Rich, ed., Seurat: Paintings and Drawings (1958), and John Russell, Seurat (1965). For Seurat's drawings see Robert L. Herbert, Seurat's Drawings (1962). For a general survey see John Rewald, Post-Impressionism, from Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956; 2d ed. 1962). □

Seurat, Georges Pierre

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Seurat, Georges Pierre (1859–91) French painter and founder of neo-impressionism. From 1876 to 1884, he developed his theory of colour vision known as pointillism, which was based on the juxtaposition of pure colour dots. His paintings include Bathing at Asnières (1883–84) and Sunday in Summer on the Island of La Grande-Jatte (1886).;;

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