Post-Impressionist Artists: Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)
Georges Seurat began as an “Impressionist,” or, at least he appeared in one of their last shows, but his goal was to reform Impressionism. In comparison to the older artists’ more direct approach to art, Seurat’s paintings are complex in source and in execution. In his attempts to extend the implications of Impressionism Georges Seurat also attracted his own band of followers, including Paul Signac. What made Seurat’s art compelling is his combination of the ancient and the modern, science and popular culture, and history and the present. A product of the traditional École des Beaux-Arts, Seurat admired Ingres and studied under one of his pupils, Henri Lehman, but he rebelled against the narrowness of the Academy. That said, Seurat took what he had learned from tradition and, instead of discarding it, used time-honored ideas to update Impressionism. Using an unlikely combination of classicism and science, Georges Seurat reconciled the constant change of Modernité with the need of Third Republic society to find its cultural center.
As a young student of contemporary life, Seurat studied the Goncourt brothers, who wrote acid-tongued observations of Paris and the exquisite line drawings of Hans Holbein. Learning from the preternatural calm of Holbein, Seurat followed the Impressionists in their interest in contemporary city life but he returned to structure and defined form. Well-versed in the art history written by Charles Blanc, Seurat observed the brushwork of Delacroix’s murals in the Chapel of Sainte Agnès at Saint-Sulplice (1861), noting the large separate brushstrokes. These painted marks made by Delacroix would become the technique favored by Seurat for his early works and for his sketches done from nature. The final application, however, consisted of thousands of dots of primary and complementary colors, contained within rigid shapes. Like many of the artists of the Post-Impressionist decades, the artist was interested in the so-called “primitive” art and ancient art, struck by the outlined forms, the static calm poses, and strong and simple compositions. The Louvre was a great art warehouse of Egyptian and Assyrian art, impervious to changing times and powerful over the centuries. It was this universal quality Seurat sought.
Seurat also looked towards a more scientific direction, than the other Post-Impressionists, exploring the implications of theories of color and light, suggested by Impressionist techniques of observation. The Impressionists used their brushes loaded with color to stand for colored light. On occasion, Renoir would occasionally use a brush with two colors. In contrast, Seurat made a long and careful study of the properties of color itself. During the decade of the 1880s a number of scientific books, both old and new, became available: Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Theory of Colors, Michel Eugène Chevreul’s On the Principles of Harmony and Contrast, Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics, David Sutter’s Phenomena of Vision and Charles Henry’s Introduction to a Scientific Aesthetics. Delacroix had separated his colors, putting color opposites next to each other to heighten chromatic intensity. Seurat took his idea of separating colors one step further and, instead of mixing colors; he placed colors that would optically mix together. For example, blue next to yellow mixes to green in the eyes. The idea of mixing color—mélange optique—came from Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin. Without getting too technical, there are several kinds of contrasts, simultaneous and successive, and the after image—all of which were exploited by Seurat.
Seurat created his own version of optical blending of color called pointillism, based upon laws of contrasting colors. The term pointillism came from the term “point,” meaning a stitch, in tapestry weaving. Delacroix could say that the “purity of spectral element being the keystone of my technique,” but Seurat and his followers, “purity” was relative. Unfortunately for Seurat, the colors of his time, particularly zinc yellow, were unstable, a condition that could be masked if colors were mixed, but if pure color was used, then deterioration would be noticeable within months. We appreciate Seurat’s craft, his careful method of application, and, yes, even his colors; but we cannot see his art the way it looked with he originally painted it. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte was retouched a number of time in his lifetime and the Bathers at Arsnieres was completely repainted in 1887. Nevertheless, Seurat’s methods attracted a number of followers, Paul Signac, Maximilian Luce, Henri Cross, and even, for a time, Camille Pissarro. Most of these artists used larger points of colors than Seurat’s technique, which was called “divisionism” or “neo-Impressionism.”
Charles Baudelaire pointed out that the Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix thought of nature as a “dictionary,” that is the artist selected elements from the real world (words) and put them together into a total work of art (a sentence, a story). But the modernism of Baudelaire was a single word, not a complete sentence. Seurat would have grown up with Baudelaire’s definition of modernity, but he was in a position to see the weak points of naturalism. First, naturalism was revealed to be limited and constrictive, forcing the artist to use the “innocent” eye and to be subservient to nature. The artist turned to science, understanding that science was more than mere observation: science was the creation of a theory, based upon the summation of particulars. Second, Seurat attempted to correct Naturalism/Impressionism by collecting the details and putting them together, or synthesizing them, into a whole that stood for a universal.
The change from the Impressionist movement and the fleeting instant was significant and can be seen in the majestic Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte (1884 -1886), now at the Art Institute of Chicago. A large scale Golden Rectangle, this portrait of modern life in the Third Republic, presents a frozen moment in social history. Seurat worked from sixty sketches, called croquetons, for two years, showing the painting first as a pure landscape. Later he added in the figures, transferred and organized on a grid. All of the social types spread out in a frieze—this was an updating of the Parthenon frieze. The artist had seen a cast of the dignified Athenians marching towards their Goddess and, from the Louvre, he would have been familiar with the processional qualities of Egyptian art. Only at the center of the painting are they any figures seen from the front. All the rest are seen from behind or in profile. As with Gustave Courbet, individuality was wiped out and identification was impossible, creating a sense of timelessness. Only the mother and daughter, who are dressed in white, offer a point of contact for the viewer.
There was another artist in Paris who was also looking backwards, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes whose specialty was mural painting. “Puvis,” as he was called, was an approved official artist, given allegorical or historical subject matter, from Paris to Boston. However, Puvis created a striking new approach by archaizing his forms, returning to severe classicism combined with soft modulated colors. Sacred Grove, the Antique Vision was a typical recreation of the longed for Arcadia. Seurat’s scientific method of applying colors in small points or dots was combined with an appreciation of classical forms, copied from Puvis whose studio he visited. For Seurat, the island of the Grand Jatte was the modern Arcadia, a place where nature and humans could exit together in harmony. The art historian, Stephen Eisenman, has suggested that the utopian social harmony, the class mixing, seen in the painting, was a reiteration of the color mixing of pointillism. And vice-versa.
However, there is an added element to Seurat’s painting and that is the contemporary taste for the Rococo. Sunday Afternoon has the look of a Antoine Watteau, a fête campetre, where the idle classes are depicted at play. In the time of Seurat, however, leisure for the middle or even lower classes, was a novel concept and an earned privilege. The Bathers at Asnieres (1883 – 84)—now at the National Gallery in London—showed lower class men taking a swimming break in their busy day. Ansieres was a suburban town on the Seine and the spot selected by Seurat was the place where animals would be led for a good cleaning. This painting was submitted to the Salon of 1884 and was, of course, rejected. He removed the horses and changed a working scene to a scene of leisure. The Bathers takes place in a designated baignade, a bathing area. Like Gustave Caillebotte, Seurat updates the theme of bathing, regenders it as male, and, in the process, created, in the manner of Puvis, an allegory of summertime.
Although the pointillist effect was obtained through scientific ends, Seurat sketched and drew on the spot, bringing together a number of fragments into large carefully executed paintings: peintre au point. The synthesis of the particulars derived from these individual sketches and the final composition was done according to the laws of art, as imposed by the artist. The artist was in control of nature, reshaping it to his own formal ends. “Art-for-art’s-sake” had acquired a new meaning, redefining artistic freedom. The artist was now the creator, in total control, and nature was mastered and put in the service of a universal meaning. Lest Seurat’s art sound too solemn, it should be pointed out that the content of the artist was mostly that of popular culture and the lower classes. Once again, the composition is based upon a classical Golden Triangle, also seen in Parade de Cirque of 1887 – 1888. Even when a painting, like the Cirque (1891) shows action, there is a sense of action frozen, or forms being generalized into typical poses, while the artist made very specific statements of life among the lower classes.
Seurat’s father had been a collector of popular prints, imagerie popularie, and many of his late figure paintings reflect the interest in posters made by artists such as Jules Cheret. However, Cheret’s posters and full of centered and suspended action and frentic linear activity; Seurat stilled all action, and used strongly shaped forms to congeal activity. It should be noted that regardless of Seurat’s desire for class equality, he was independently wealthy and stood resolutely outside of his paintings and apart from his subjects. He eliminated the “being there” quality, so characteristic of Edouard Manet and replaced the spontaneity of modernité with the Renaissance window on the world, with color theory being substituted for perspective theory. There is no atmospheric perspective in Seurat’s work. All forms are equally clear and concise, containing the precise verticals and horizontals, which structure a grid composition. The viewpoint of the omnipotent observer, learned from Naturalism, remained intact, and Seurat took the part of the upper class male controlling nature and all its varied inhabitants.
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