Georges Seurat - Biography and Legacy
French Draftsman and Painter
Biography of Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat was born in Paris December 2, 1859, the youngest of three children. His father, Chrysostome-Antoine Seurat, was a bailiff; his mother, Ernestine Faivre, came from a prosperous family that had produced several sculptors. Seurat's eccentric father had already retired with a small fortune by the time Seurat was born, and he spent most of his time in Le Raincy, some 12 kilometers from the comfortable family home in Paris. The young Seurat lived with his mother, his brother Émile, and his sister Marie-Berthe.
In 1870 the family temporarily relocated to Fontainebleau, where they stayed during the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune rebellion. Seurat began to take a serious interest in art as a boy and was encouraged by informal lessons from his maternal uncle, Paul Haumonté, a textile dealer and amateur painter.
Seurat's formal training began around 1875, when he entered the local municipal art school under the sculptor Justin Lequien. There, he made a friend of Edmond Aman-Jean (1858-1935) and together they entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts run by Henri Lehmann, a disciple of the Neo-Classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Seurat attended the Academy from February 1878 until November 1879. The curriculum placed particular emphasis on drawing and composition, and most of Seurat's time was spent sketching from plaster casts and live models.
Seurat spent his free time conducting his own artistic studies and frequently visited museums and libraries throughout Paris. He also sought instruction from the painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose specialty was large-scale classical, allegorical scenes. Seurat's sketches dating to 1874 include copies of Holbein's drawings, a sketch of Nicolas Poussin's hand from the acclaimed self-portrait in the Louvre, and figures from drawings by Raphael.
Charles Blanc's The Grammar of Painting and Engraving (1867) and Michel-Eugène Chevreul's The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors (1839) introduced Seurat to color theories and the science of optics that became central to his thinking and practice as a painter. Chevreul's discovery that by juxtaposing complementary colors one could produce the impression of another color became one of the bases for Seurat's Divisionist technique.
In April 1879, Seurat visited the Fourth Impressionist exhibition. This was the first time he had seen their paintings and the work of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, artists liberated from the rigidities of academic rules, greatly influenced his later experimentation. But in November his military service started in Brest, where he devoted all his spare time to reading and filling sketchbooks with studies of fellow recruits, seascapes, and street scenes.
In the following years, Seurat extended his understanding of color theory and the effects of color on the human eye. He also studied the brushwork of Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix and read Ogden N. Rood's Modern Chromatics (1879), which proposed that artists should experiment with color contrast by juxtaposing small colored dots to see how they are blended by the eye.
Seurat began to apply his theoretical research to compositions executed between 1881 and 1884, culminating in his first major painting project, the Bathers at Asnières (1884). This monumental canvas depicted a group of workers relaxing by the Seine and was based on numerous small oil sketches and figure studies. The final composition is an accomplished rendition of the light and atmosphere of high summer. It is largely rendered in a criss-cross brushstroke technique known as balayé and was later re-touched by Seurat with dots of contrasting color in certain areas.
Seurat submitted Bathers to the state-sponsored Salon in 1883, but the jury rejected it. Subsequently, Seurat and several other artists founded the Société des Artistes Indépendants, enabling him to exhibit Bathers in June of 1884. There he met and befriended fellow artist Paul Signac who was greatly influenced by Seurat's techniques.
After the Bathers Seurat began work on Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, a mural-sized painting that took him two years to complete. Many times the artist visited La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine located in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly, making drawings and more than thirty oil sketches to prepare for the final work. In the winter of 1885-86 he reworked the painting in the technique that he called "chromo-luminarism", also known as Divisionism or Pointillism. This technique uses dots of contrasting color that, when viewed at a distance, interact to create a luminous, shimmering effect. He also repainted sections of the Bathers in the same style around 1887.
Seurat exhibited La Grande Jatte at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in May 1886. Its visual effects of light and color, as well as its complex representation of different social classes established Seurat as the leader of a new avant-garde.
The exhibition of La Grande Jatte in 1886 unexpectedly aroused interest in Seurat's work internationally. Soon after the exhibition, Seurat was mentioned in an avant-garde review and some of his paintings were shown by the renowned art dealer Paul Durant-Ruel in both Paris and New York City.
During this time he began associating with a very enclosed group of Symbolist artists and writers based in Paris. His new associations troubled his friends Pissarro and Signac, who believed he was forsaking the pure study of color and light in favor of idealized subjects. Seurat's last major works depict Paris nightlife and all share a similar muted palette that differs greatly from the vibrancy of his earlier paintings.
Apart from a brief period of renewed military service in summer 1887, Seurat spent his summers on the Normandy coast, painting seaside scenes of Honfleur in 1886, Port-en-Bessin in 1888, Le Crotoy in 1889 and Gravelines in 1890. In winter he finished these paintings and produced large figure compositions. Although executed in his Pointillist style, the dots tended to be finer and more spaced out, giving the paintings a more spontaneous appearance.
In 1889, Seurat traveled to Belgium, where he exhibited at the Salon des Vingt (XX) in Brussels. After returning from this trip, he met Madeleine Knobloch, a 20-year-old model, and started secretly living with her. Knobloch gave birth to a son in February 1890, unbeknownst to his friends and family.
At his exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants the same year, Seurat showed his only known portrait of Madeleine Knobloch: Young Woman Powdering Herself.
Madeleine Knobloch was pregnant again at the beginning of 1891, while Seurat was at work painting The Circus. This painting would remain unfinished. On March 26, Seurat fell suddenly ill with a fever and died three days later. His son died of a similar illness in 2 weeks, and was buried alongside Seurat at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
The Legacy of Georges Seurat
Seurat was only 31 when he died, yet he left behind an influential body of work, comprising seven monumental paintings, hundreds of drawings and sketches, and around 40 smaller-scale paintings and sketches. Although his oeuvre is relatively small in quantity, it had a lasting impact. He was among the first artists to make a systematic and devoted use of color theory, and his technical innovations influenced many of his peers. When the term Neo-Impressionism was coined by art critic Félix Fénéon in 1886, it was to describe Seurat, Signac and Pissarro's new style of painting and their rejection of the spontaneity of Impressionism.
Poised between Impressionism in the 19th century, and Fauvism and Cubism in the early-20th, Neo-Impressionism brought with it a new awareness of the surface qualities of painting, and of decorative effects, thereby contributing to the development of abstraction.