French Draftsman and Painter
Summary of Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat is chiefly remembered as the pioneer of the Neo-Impressionist technique commonly known as Divisionism, or Pointillism, an approach associated with a softly flickering surface of small dots or strokes of color. His innovations derived from new quasi-scientific theories about color and expression, yet the graceful beauty of his work is explained by the influence of very different sources. Initially, he believed that great modern art would show contemporary life in ways similar to classical art, except that it would use technologically informed techniques. Later he grew more interested in Gothic art and popular posters, and the influence of these on his work make it some of the first modern art to make use of such unconventional sources for expression. His success quickly propelled him to the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde. His triumph was short-lived, as after barely a decade of mature work he died at the age of only 31. But his innovations would be highly influential, shaping the work of artists as diverse as Vincent Van Gogh and the Italian Futurists, while pictures like Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884) have since become widely popular icons.
- Seurat was inspired by a desire to abandon Impressionism's preoccupation with the fleeting moment, and instead to render what he regarded as the essential and unchanging in life. Nevertheless, he borrowed many of his approaches from Impressionism, from his love of modern subject matter and scenes of urban leisure, to his desire to avoid depicting only the 'local', or apparent, color of depicted objects, and instead to try to capture all the colors that interacted to produce their appearance.
- Seurat was fascinated by a range of scientific ideas about color, form and expression. He believed that lines tending in certain directions, and colors of a particular warmth or coolness, could have particular expressive effects. He also pursued the discovery that contrasting or complementary colors can optically mix to yield far more vivid tones that can be achieved by mixing paint alone. He called the technique he developed 'chromo-luminism', though it is better known as Divisionism (after the method of separating local color into separate dots), or Pointillism (after the tiny strokes of paint that were crucial to achieve the flickering effects of his surfaces).
- Although radical in his techniques, Seurat's initial instincts were conservative and classical when it came to style. He saw himself in the tradition of great Salon painters, and thought of the figures in his major pictures almost as if they were figures in monumental classical reliefs, though the subject matter - the different urban leisure pursuits of the bourgeois and the working class - was fully modern, and typically Impressionist.
- In Seurat's later work he left behind the calm, stately classicism of early pictures like Bathers at Asnières, and pioneered a more dynamic and stylized approach that was influenced by sources such as caricatures and popular posters. These brought a powerful new expressiveness to his work, and, much later, led him to be acclaimed by the Surrealists as an eccentric and a maverick.
Biography of Georges Seurat
“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science” was what Seurat said and his development as an artist was a similar progression away from the scenic and emotional, and into the calculated and analyzed.
Important Art by Georges Seurat
Seurat's first important canvas, the Bathers is his initial attempt at reconciling classicism with modern, quasi-scientific approaches to color and form. It depicts an area on the Seine near Paris, close to the factories of Clichy that one can see in the distance. Seurat's palette is somewhat Impressionist in its brightness, yet his meticulous approach is far removed from that style's love of expressing the momentary. The scene's intermingling of shades also demonstrates Seurat's interest in Eugene Delacroix's handling of shades of a single hue. And the working class figures that populate this scene mark a sharp contrast with the leisured bourgeois types depicted by artists such as Monet and Renoir in the 1870s.
Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte was one of the stand-out works in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, in 1884, and after it was shown later that year, at the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendents, it encouraged critic Félix Fénéon to invent the name 'Neo-Impressionism.' The picture took Seurat two years to complete and he spent much of this time sketching in the park in preparation. It was to become the most famous picture of the 1880s. Once again, as in Bathers, the scale of the picture is equal to the dimensions and ambition of major Salon pictures. The site - again situated on the Seine in northwest Paris - is also close by. And Seurat's technique was similar, employing tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint that allow the viewer's eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors blended on the canvas or pre-blended as a material pigment. The artist said that his ambition was to "make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies." But the classicism of the Bathers is gone from La Grand Jatte; instead the scene has a busy energy, and, as critics have often noted, some of the figures are depicted at discordant scales. It marked the beginning of a new primitivism in Seurat's work that was inspired in part by popular art.
La Seine à la Grande-Jatte of 1888 shows the artist returning to the site of his most famous painting - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte painted two years prior. This later composition demonstrates Seurat's continued interest in form and perspective, but reveals a much softer and more relaxed technique than La Grande Jatte. The soft atmosphere is made up of a myriad of colored dots that mix optically to mimic the effects of a luminous summer day.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Georges Seurat
- Seurat: A BiographyOur PickBy John Rewald
- Georges Seurat, 1859-1891: The Master of Pointillism (Basic Art)By Hajo Duchting
- Georges Seurat (Rizzoli Art Series)By Norma Broude
- Seurat and the Making of 'La Grande Jatte'Our PickBy Robert L. Herbert, Neil Harris
- Georges Seurat 1859-1891By Robert L. Herbert