Biography of Artist
Georges Seurat was the inventor and acknowledged leader of Neo-Impressionism. He considered his large-figure, programmatic Neo-Impressionist compositions such as “Bathers at Asnières,” “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” “Models,” “Circus Sideshow,” “Le Chahut” and “Circus” his masterworks and the fullest expressions of the new aesthetic. Born into a Parisian middle-class family, Seurat was more attached to his mother than his distant and eccentric father and dined at the family apartment his entire life. Seurat was a fulltime art student at age 15 and entered I’Ecole des Beaux-arts in 1878 as a student of Henri Lehmann, a disciple of Ingres.
He gravitated towards more progressive instruction under Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and pursued overarching interests in the expressive values of line and color, color theory, and the science of optical effects that became the central tenets of Neo-Impressionism. Seurat’s earliest oil paintings of rural landscapes and peasants (1881-82) owed much to Corot, Millet, and other painters of the Barbizon School. About this time his search for a scientific “optical painting” led him to the writings and work of Delacroix and contemporary theorists and aestheticians such as Chevreul, Blanc, Helmholtz, Maxwell, Sutter, Rood, and others.
Seurat experimented with pointillist techniques in a second large canvas, “La Grande Jatte”, in 1884 and 1885 by heightening his palette further and using finely divided colorpatch brushwork that he called “chromo-luminarism,” known later as divisionism (Wikipedia, 2005). The Impressionist Camille Pissarro converted to Neo-Impressionism after meeting Seurat in October, 1885. By the following spring, Signac and Pissarro’s son Lucien joined to form the nucleus of the new group. The four Neos exhibited side by side in the last Impressionist show in May, 1886. Seurat La Grande Jatte was the most controversial painting in the exhibition and brought him instant notoriety.
During the show, the room in which “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was exhibited was too narrow, and the spectators, unable to see Seurat’s painting from the distance he had intended, were much provoked by it. Among the few visitors attracted by Seurat’s large canvas was the Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren, who has recorded his impressions: “It covered a whole panel, flanked by the Bec du Hoc and the Harbor of Grandcamp. The novelty of this art at once intrigued me. Not for an instant did I doubt its complete sincerity or profound originality; these were patent in the work before me.
That evening I spoke of it to artists; they heaped me with laughter and ridicule” (Rewald, 1992:33). What added to the general confusion was the fact that the public was unable to distinguish between the works of Seurat, Signac and the two Pissarros. This is the less astonishing when it is recalled that the critics themselves had several times confused the paintings of Monet and Sisley and even could not always distinguish between the different art mediums. The novelty of the pictures produced by these painters working with an identical palette and relying on a common method was too striking for the public, which saw them all together for the first time, to take note of subtle differences of personal quality.
The fact was that personal quality seemed to be obliterated by “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, which dominated the room. The lyricism of Signac and the naive rigidity of Camille Pissarro were ignored, and the critics were able to claim that the new method had completely destroyed the personalities of the painters who employed it. There were many who thought the whole thing was a hoax, that the artist was merely “pulling the legs of honest folk,” and who consequently refused to take the canvas seriously. Even the avant-garde critic, Octave Mirbeau, despite the arguments of his friend Pissarro, confessed that the picture disappointed and exasperated him. He wrote: “Monsieur Seurat is certainly very talented, and I have not the courage to laugh at his immense and detestable painting, so like an Egyptian fantasy, and which, in spite of its eccentricities and errors, which I hope are sincere, shows signs of a true painter’s temperament.” (Rich, 1969:36).
There was only one critic who had the courage to proclaim his unqualified admiration for the new painting. This was Félix Fénéon. Ever since 1884 he had realized the importance of “La Baignade” and now he devoted a long article to Seurat’s new canvas in the review “La Vogue”. But instead of abandoning himself to enthusiasm, he attempted to do what no critic had yet done, to define clearly the new qualities and original traits of the canvas and to explain Seurat’s new technique by analyzing “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Some time later, the fledging Neo-Impressionist movement was adopted not only by Félix Fénéon, but also Paul Adam, Gustave Kahn, and other Symbolist art critics and writers who promoted it as the leading avant-garde style in the aftermath of Impressionism.
Seurat exhibited every year with Les Indépendants and biennially with Les XX in Brussels from 1887. He belonged to elite Symbolist literary and artistic circles and cultivated the friendship of scientists such as Charles Henry. From 1886, he painted on the Normandy coast in the summers and spend winters creating monumental figure paintings. He also completed stunning tenebrist crayon drawings that he exhibited with his paintings. At the time of his sudden death of acute diphtheria at age 31 in March, 1891, Seurat had produced over 240 oil paintings and several hundred drawings.
Contemporaries described Seurat as reserved, methodical, firm in opinions, and protective of his role as Neo-Impressionism’s instigator and aesthetician. He was hostile towards Gauguin and voiced concerns that his technique was being corrupted by others. Near the end of his short life the Symbolists’ support declined and some critics criticized the increasingly anti-naturalistic quality of his work (Goldwater, 1941:117).
Historical background for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”
“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” characterizes to the very degree the controversy of Seurat as an artist and simultaneously his uniqueness. In a conversation with Gustave Kahn, Seurat once defined painting as the art of hollowing a surface. At the same time he explained that while the science of aesthetics was not the whole story, since there were intimate elements in art, even in its technique, which only the painter himself could recognize and deal with, for his part he was convinced of the absolute need to base his theories on scientific truths.
While Seurat the painter was indivisible from Seurat the theorist, there are certain sayings of his that may be considered to spring from the one rather than the other. It was Seurat the painter who said that he could only paint what he saw before his eyes and declared that the drawing was the fundamental element in painting, and also that harmony of color should flow from harmony of line (Rogers, 1934:463). But it was Seurat the theorist who attempted to generalize the laws of color and line.
The art of hollowing a surface became for Seurat the theorist a science to be studied by reading mathematical writings and to be developed by painting pictures. During the years which followed the completion of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte “ Seurat systematically attacked every one of the problems of painting. Only still lifes are lacking in his work, and even these can be located in sections of his large canvases. Having studied in “La Grande Jatte” the movements of people outdoors and reproduced in landscapes nature in repose, Seurat painted, in turn, immobile nudes in the studio ( “Les Poseuses“), the portrait (“Jeune Femme se poudrant“), immobile figures outdoors under artificial lighting (“La Parade“) and moving figures indoors, also under artificial lighting (“Le Chahut and Le Cirque“).
The figures in these paintings are dominated by monotony or joy (there is no sadness in the pictures of Seurat) and are, of course, governed by strict rules, being controlled by that play of line and color ‘whose laws Seurat had studied. In these canvases Seurat, without yielding in any way to the literary or the picturesque, rehabilitated the subject which had been relinquished by the impressionists. His works are “exemplary specimens of a highly developed decorative art, which sacrifices the anecdote to the arabesque, nomenclature to synthesis, the fugitive to the permanent, and confers on nature-weary at last of its precarious reality — an authentic reality,” wrote Fénéon (Rich, 1969:39).
To give more unity to his pictures, Seurat, in his studies for “La Grande Jatte,” had begun to cover the borders of his canvases with a fringe of little touches of color, clearly separated from the subject. These, varying in accordance with the tints near them, softened the otherwise abrupt break between the picture and the always white frame. In order to suppress entirely anything that might negate the cunningly calculated harmonies in his paintings, he decided, towards 1888, to dot the frame itself, and bring it into accord with the painting the colors of which would thus be at once prolonged and limited. Emile Verhaeren claims that having thought that at Bayreuth the hall is darkened in order to present the stage dowered with light as the single point of attention, this contrast of great lights and shadows caused him to adopt dark frames, although now too, as in the past, he observed the laws of complementaries (Rewald, 1992:34).
Seurat’s associate and co-follower Pissarro summed up the new theory which was to determine Seurat’s practice from then on, stating that what he wanted was “to seek a modern synthesis by methods based on science, that is based on the theory of colors… to substitute optical mixture for the mixture of pigments, which means to seek to decompose tones into their constituent elements; for this type of optical mixture stirs up luminosities more intense than those created by mixed pigments” (Rich, 1969:28).
Now that the system had been set forth, it remained to produce paintings which by artist’s aesthetic value would show better than any argument advanced in words the degree to which science could further the art of painting. Seurat, Signac and Pissarro set to work. Seurat began the large composition which he had already meditated on for a long time and which, coming after “La Baignade” (see Painting 2), was to represent his completely worked-out technique. The artist made ready for this painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (see Painting 2), by doing a great number of drawings and sketches in oils, many more in fact than he had done in preparation for “La Baignade” (Nicolson, 1941:139).
But while “La Baignade” presented six principal figures in fixed attitudes, the new painting, which was no less than six and one half by ten feet in size, assembled some forty persons, seated or standing, clearly outlined in the full heat of the sun or enveloped by shade, as well as a number of animals and the river itself with its canoes and sailboats (Nicolson, 1941:140). This work occupied Seurat for almost two years, from the time when he completed the landscape of “La Grande Jatte”, already exhibited in December 1884, until the spring of 1886 (Rich, 1969:34).
During this time he not only painted the large canvas itself, but before he had finished it completed some twenty drawings on the spot or from models in his studio and also thirty odd paintings, for the most part rather small and rapidly executed. The exceptions are several large and fairly complete studies which were doubtless done in the studio. An enterprise of such scope is not only very rare in modern art, but was unique in its period, dominated as the time was by the impressionist vision which asked of the artist a spontaneous expression of his sensations.
From his studies for the large canvas it would appear that Seurat started with the site itself. He had already painted the landscape, in 1884, and had also made one important drawing of it. In animating the landscape with human beings and animals, he was no doubt inspired by those he had actually observed, but he subjected his impressions of them to the rigorous requirements of his composition (Rich, 1969:41). Therefore Seurat, and his procedure unaltered in this respect since painting “La Baignade,” preserved in more or less developed studies persons seen by chance in those typical costumes and postures which can also be observed in photographs of those days. When necessary, he had models pose in the studio until he had finally determined the attitudes he wanted.
Organized on vertical and horizontal planes, his composition of often repeated perpendiculars was enlivened with parasols, bustles, sails and so on. All these lines, these limits of planes, are at the same time the apexes of angles in which light and shade confront each other. According to Signac, “following the precepts of Delacroix [artist] would not begin a composition until he had first determined its organization. Guided by tradition and by science, he would adjust the composition to his conception, that is to say he would adapt the lines (directions and angles), the chiaroscuro (tones), the colors (tints), to the traits he wished to make dominant” (Rewald, 1992:26). In “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” the problem was not simply to achieve a certain rhythm of lines, but above all to harmonize the human figures with the landscape. It was a problem which could only be solved by color. In the determination of what colors to select and what roles to assign them Seurat now brought to bear all he had learned from his studies, meditations and experiments.
Preparing his composition in accordance with this technique and these new principles, Seurat nevertheless strove not to depart from his direct studies of nature. It was his complete grasp of the subject to the last detail which enabled him to state it in terms of such ordered lines and so complex a technique. A trifling episode, related by his friend Angrand, who in 1885 and 1886 often went to work with Seurat on the island of La Grande Jatte, testifies to the careful precision with which he approached his subject: “As in summer the grass grew high on the bank and prevented Seurat from seeing the boat which he had put in the very forefront… Although he was not the slave of nature, he was respectful of it, for he was not imaginative. His concern centered most of all on tints, tones and their interactions” (Rich, 1969:58).
In the end, Seurat seems to have renounced the boat. But on another occasion, when he observed a woman walking along the bank and holding a monkey on a leash, he did not hesitate to incorporate in his composition the graceful animal with spiral tail. As usual, he first studied the movements of the animal in a number of drawings. In general such drawings merely accentuated the silhouettes of the forms studied, while it was on the little panels of wood which he called croquetons that Seurat recorded his observations in colors.
Careful examination by art specialists and scientists of Seurat’s palette provides several important considerations on Seurat’s color arrangement, which, have carried significant weight in the popular understanding of Neo-Impressionism. First, evidence suggests, his palette was not limited to a few simple primary and secondary colors (e.g., red, yellow, blue; orange, green, and violet); on the contrary, he used eleven different colors ranging in gradual steps from green on one end to yellow on the other (Goldwater, 127). One may ask why he used this wider gamut of colors when he surely knew that, according to the laws of subtractive mixture, he could approximate all of the hues of the spectrum from varying combinations of the three primary pigments: red, yellow, and blue.
The answer lies in the fact that he realized, probably as a result of reading scientific sources, that mixtures derived exclusively from red, yellow, and blue were not equal in intensity to the colors already prepared in powdered or tube form, which could be purchased in hues that were equivalent to the short-interval steps from one color to the next in the solar spectrum. Secondly, while it is sometimes still maintained that he applied only dots of pure, unaltered pigment from the tube to the canvas, which were then supposed to create a luminous effect by mixing in the eye, an examination of this palette indicates that he often modified these spectral hues by the addition of white. Indeed, it is precisely this problem – the orderly introduction of white – that appears to be among the chief considerations that determined the way in which he set up the second two rows of the palette.
Although interesting in themselves, these facts take on additional significance when viewed as part of Seurat’s total creative process. It must be realized, in the first place, that his mature art was postulated on the creation of luminous, vibrating images,whether of indoor or outdoor subjects.
Precisely how and why he chose the colors he did has never been explained adequately, but the palette he left behind can help to shed some light on this question. After the completion of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, Seurat’s method was almost always synthetic; that is, by varying the hue, value, and intensity of his coloured dots, he was able to create an infinite variety of chromatic effects, provided that the observer was willing to stand far enough away from the picture to permit the phenomenon of optical mixture to take place. In believing that the canvas should operate according to the scientific laws of light and colour, Seurat was forced to abandon black, since black, as defined by the physicists he read, was non-light.
Also forbidden was the mixture on the palette of complementary colors – such as green and red – since such a practice would violate their belief in the purity of the component prismatic hues of white light. As a result of this kind of thinking, light and shadow, for the Neo-Impressionists, had to be transposed onto the canvas solely by means of spectral colours. Thus, when Seurat was called upon to represent shadows, he was obliged to do it without having recourse to the conventional muddy colours used by painters of the academic tradition. The only alternative – and a scientifically valid one – was to determine the colours which, when mixed optically, would approximate the desired effect in nature. For deep shadow tones, however, he was often able to omit white, since, in order to achieve sombre low values, he had to use his component colours at full intensity. But when it was a question of representing middle values and highlights, white was essential, and it becomes especially evident in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
Although scientists such as Helmholtz and Maxwell had demonstrated that all of the colors of the solar spectrum, as well as white light, could be recreated by the additive mixture of the primaries of light (red, green, and blue-violet), the Neo-Impressionists realized that artists’ pigments could not equal these in brilliance. Therefore, when lighter areas were called for in their paintings, white had to be added to their hues in order to raise their value sufficiently. When transcribing the effects of outdoor illumination, particularly where strong local colours were modified by the effect of distance, Seurat relied frequently on less intense, pastel tones of this type. The arrangement of the palette under discussion provided him with a consistent basis for mixing these tones without violating the chromatic composition of the remainder of the picture.
As Seurat’s “divisionism” does not demand a technique of tiny points of colors, his croquetons, done from nature in a few quick brush strokes, are not at all executed in the so-called pointillist manner; despite the speed with which they were done, the touch is pure, the elements are balanced and the laws of contrast are observed. Signac relates: “Confronting his subject, Seurat, before touching his little panel with paint, scrutinizes, compares, looks with half shut eyes at the play of light and shadow, observes contrasts, isolates reflections, plays for a long time with the cover of the box which serves as his palette” (Rewald, 1992:21).
The tints which Seurat used exclusively are those of the rainbow disc. The fundamental colors, blue, red, yellow and green can be related to one another by a host of intermediate tints in a circular system. Thus: blue, blue-violet, violet, violet-red, red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, yellow-green, green, green-blue and blue again. Besides these, Seurat also used white, which mixed on the palette with these tints permitted him to get an incalculable number of tones, from a tint with just a trace of white in it to almost pure white, and he did not hesitate to mix, two by two, tints next to each other on the color scale.
Near the thumb hole of his palette he invariably placed several bars of white, each one of which was set aside for mixtures with one of the fundamental colors. With this palette Seurat achieved the large composition in his “divisionist” technique. “Divisionism,” according to Paul Signac, “means to assure the benefits of luminosity, color and harmony: by the optical mixture of uniquely pure pigments (all the tints of the prism and all their tones); by the separation of various elements (local color, light, and their interactions); by the balancing of these elements and their proportions (according to the laws of contrast, gradation and irradiation) (Rewald, 1992:24), but as one may observe not geometry. As Niels Prak argues that when it comes to the illustration of human figures and tree-trunks, Seurat used “such simple geometrical shapes” (Prak, 1971:367).
Seurat patiently covered his canvas with those tiny multi-colored strokes which give it, from a distance, that intense life and luminosity which are the secret of his style. It seems, however, that Seurat did not cover his canvas exclusively by means of dots. Underneath the tissue of dots often lies apparently another layer of pigment, brushed in broadly, as if the artist had first covered the canvas with that same large technique which he applied to his small sketches. He used this preparation subsequently as the ground on which he put his meticulous dots. It is for this reason that the white of the canvas does not appear, although the dots do not always touch each other.
At his task, Seurat always concentrated on a single section of the canvas, having previously determined each stroke and color to be applied. Thus he was able to paint steadily without having to step back from the canvas in order to judge the effect obtained, which is all the more striking when we realize that he intended his pictures to be seen only from a certain distance. His extreme mental concentration also enabled him to keep on working late into the night, despite the treacherous character of artificial lighting. But the type of light in which he painted was unimportant, since his purpose was completely formulated before he took his brush and carefully ordered palette in hand.
It is evident that Seurat intentionally has seized the elements, stylizes them beyond all resemblance, even to caricature, without consideration for taste, prettiness, normality. Although the painting depicts nature, the appearance of Seurat’s picture is never compatible with that of nature. Seurat’s personages look like pictures of dummies full of straw.
The distortions in geometrical shapes have been addressed in the paper above. Interestingly, in Seurat, every form is a unity that he keeps through all transformation. There is not, in his picture a touch of the brush that will start on a hat, for instance, and farther become part of the hair. In “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” people-elements are contained within their gesture. They exist entirely in sight, no more referring to any possible existence outside the picture. The pictorial image has trespassed beyond the mission to make visible certain scenery.
In Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, the organization of the surface of the picture dominates all, fully, from edge to edge. Personages, monkeys, trees, spots of light, are each neatly shaped elements of the division of this surface. The division is complex but shows, when analyzed, clear progressions clearly rhythmed. The fat curve of an umbrella is perpendicular to its stick. The soft, curved tail of a dog sticks out of its mass, to divide a space between a sitting-with an-umbrella-man-element, and a small dog. The shadows on the ground make a neat figure together in one plan.
All sitting figures make one well-defined set. All standing figures, all trunks of trees, all hats, umbrellas, twisted tails, each taken as a character, simple or complex, fat or thin, oppose and combine their categories, with variations. Clear modulations everywhere, which can be perceived without strain, just by the process of looking. A high geometrical hat is grouped with a lady’s soft hat and a round cap. It is almost demonstrative. In the same way, some faces are up, others bent, some back, on one side, showing the other cheek.
- Painting 1. G. Seurat “La Baignade”
- Available <http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/seurat/baignade/>
- Painting 2. G. Seurat “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”
- Available <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Seurat.jatte.750pix.jpg>
- Nicolson N. (1941). “Seurat’s La Baignade” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 79(464):138-141
- Rich D.C. (1969). Seurat and the Evolution of “La Grande Jatte.” Greenwood Press
- J. Rewald (1992). Georges Seurat. New York, Harry N Abrams; Reprint edition
- Prak N.L. (1971) “Seurat’s Surface Pattern and Subject Matter” The Art Bulletin, 3:367-378
- Goldwater R.J. (1941). “Some Aspects of the Development of Seurat’s Style,” The Art Bulletin, 23(2):117-130
- Rogers D. “Optics and Modern Painting Rusk,” The Scientific Monthly, 38(5): 460-466, 1934
- Georges-Pierre Seurat. (2005). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved Oct.31, 2005. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Seurat