Georges Seurat is seen as the founder of Neo-Impressionism, known for his shimmering pointillist paintings and light diffused conté crayon drawings.Read More
Seurat's large hazy paintings are sometimes referred to as divisionist, meaning he used tiny dots of colour juxtaposed so that from a distance they optically mixed to create another hue. Seurat tried to use the latest scientific theories on optics with debate about aesthetics, and his interest in the precise spatial organisation of vertical forms (using the Golden Section) made his paintings precursors to modernist abstraction.
Raised in the tenth arrondissement of Paris, Georges' father was a property speculator. In the early 1870s, the family, with the rise of the rebellious Paris Commune, wisely withdrew to Fontainebleau. After the civil war they returned and Seurat studied at École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin. In 1878 he shifted to an École des Beaux-Arts, where he was taught by Henri Lehmann, a disciple of Ingres. From the library he obtained a copy of Michel-Eugène Chevreul's book on colour theory and complementary optics.
At art school the emphasises was on drawing plaster casts of antique sculptures, copying old master drawings, and studying the organisation of contrasting formal elements. The school emphasised Classical values, discipline and intellectual rigor over impulsive spontaneity.
After an interrupting year of military service in November 1880, Seurat rented a studio in Paris and studied monochrome drawing and how to render through conté forms in both dark and light. (An example is Portrait of Edmond François Aman-Jean, 1883.) Seurat also studied the colour theories of the painter Eugène Delacroix found in Delacroix's dairy.
In 1883 Georges Seurat began work on Bathers at Asnières, his first real painting statement, seemingly inspired by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes' Massilia, Greek Colony (1869).
Seurat created many preparatory studies, but after it was completed it was then rejected by the Salon. He joined the Independent Artists' Group, but found them disorganised. Consequently, Seurat and various friends formed The Independent Artists' Society, and Paul Signac joined him in using the pointillist methodology.
In 1884 he started painting the three metre long A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, again based on copious drawings and colour studies, and more fully consistent with his developing research. Utilising diminishing perspective on the Seine River bank, Seurat carefully controlled the tonal dot density around the edges of each form.
The rigidity of the profiled figures can be seen as satirising the bourgeois classes, and the presence of certain animals (monkeys) or actions (fishing) interpreted as discreet symbolism for activities such as prostitution.
La Parade de Cirque, (1887—88), is like a rhythmic frieze with its gridded rectangular divisions of the canvas and silhouetted, mysteriously hooded musicians and multi-hatted audience.Seurat's late works—such as Against the Enamel of a background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and colours, Portrait of M. Félix Fénén in 1890, 1890; Le Chahut (The Can Can) (1889-90); The Circus (1891)—became increasingly decorative and influenced by Art Nouveau, and are not so admired as his calmer earlier outdoor works. However Seurat's divisionism and finely calculated compositional planning later became influential on many branches of 20th century painting.
Georges Seurat died young at 31, probably of diphtheria.
Georges Seurat has been the subject of many solo and group museum exhibitions.
Solo exhibitions include George Seurat: The Drawings, MoMA, New York (2007), and George Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago (1935).
Group exhibitions include Loan Exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2021), The Courtauld Collection: A Vision for Impressionism, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2019), and Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, Seattle Art Museum (2015).
John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021