"The purity of the element of the spectrum is the keystone of technique. Since I first held a brush, I had been looking for a formula of optical painting."
George Seurat's primary contribution to the world of art was his attempt to develop a scientific approach to impressionist notions of color and light. Many of his paintings were experiments to this end. Through the course of these trials, he developed a technique known as pointillism. Seurat was highly respected by other artists of his time, and his work has been greatly influential in the development of modern painting. Several of his paintings, especially A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, have remained extremely popular over the years.
Georges-Pierre Seurat was born on December 2, 1859, in Paris. Friends and acquaintances of Seurat found him rather difficult to penetrate. From his father, Chrysostome-Antoine Seurat, he inherited a serious and quiet temperament. Chrysostome Seurat was a minor legal official in Paris, a position that afforded his family a comfortable, middle-class life. Seurat's mother, Ernestine Faivre Seurat, was also a quiet person, but quite affectionate. She devoted her life to homemaking and raising Seurat and his much older brother and sister. Seurat was close to his mother throughout his life. He was widely regarded as exacting, well organized, intelligent, and very private.
Abandoned prestigious art school
Seurat showed considerable talent for drawing when he was young. He was encouraged by an uncle and by the time he was fifteen, he had decided to focus on art as a profession. He left school and enrolled in a local academy of drawing, where he studied for roughly three years. The curriculum was traditional; Seurat spent much of his class time copying statuary and drawings by famous masters of the past. Then, his talent and skill earned him admission to the best art school in France, the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts). But he spent only a year there, perhaps realizing that there was not much more he could learn from the conservative orientation of the school. His real interest by then was outside school; indeed, Seurat was intrigued by the new style that had become the talk of Paris. It was called impressionism.
Seurat and other young artists at this time, around 1880, were fascinated by the innovations of older artists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The works of these "impressionists," which were distinguished by flickering brush strokes, vivid color, and an emphasis on the play of natural light on outdoor settings, was a far cry from the classical offerings he studied at school. Seurat spent much of his student days reading about the new science of color theory. He was fascinated by the relationships among color, light, and the way the human eye perceives images. He concluded that the color effects the impressionists were trying to achieve could be controlled by fixed, almost mathematical laws. Seurat devoted his career to establishing a system of "optical painting."
Works to master black and white
After serving a year of required military service when he was twenty, Seurat settled down to a methodical exploration of the theories he was developing. For two years he worked mostly in black and white. He was trying to master the exact contrasts and grades of tone in black and white before addressing color. These drawings already demonstrated a unique style. There are no obvious outlines, crosshatch markings, or even details. The figures seem little more than smudges, with areas of dark and light giving them form. Art critic and writer John Russell described Seurat's drawings as modulating "from the deepest, most velvety blacks right through to the natural white of the paper" and ventured, "no longer are we conscious of individual pencil-strokes, but merely of a process of uninterrupted becoming." The subjects of these drawings were ordinary ones: women sewing, farmers, simple landscapes. Seurat's friend and colleague Paul Signac, called them "the most beautiful painters' drawings there are." Seurat continued drawing throughout his life, but this early period was key to his development as a painter.
Representing form through color
The next phase of Seurat's artistic development centered on his work with oil paint and color. Around 1883 he began working on his first major painting to incorporate his theoretical formula. The large canvas, which he finished in 1884, was called The Bathers (Une Baignade). Seurat produced many drawings and paintings as studies in preparation for the larger work. Each of the five main figures and the riverside landscape were carefully planned. The painting presents many elements of impressionist style, but it also reveals early evidence of Seurat's representation of form through contrasts of complimentary colors, such as red/green, blue/orange, purple/yellow, and so on.
The Bathers was rejected by the government-run Salon exhibition of 1884. But it was shown at an exhibit organized by a group of independent painters. This assemblage, of which Seurat was a member, rejected the power that traditional painters and critics had over who could exhibit art. Another member of the group was Signac, an artist slightly younger than Seurat. The two became friends immediately and worked together for many years. It was Signac who persuaded Seurat to use only primary colors in his paintings. Others soon began to notice Seurat's work and discuss his ideas. Not a particularly social person, however, Seurat himself spent most of his time in the studio; Signac was the one who spread the news about his colleague's experiments.
La Grande Jatte
Seurat took his philosophies of light, color, and optics even further in his next and most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, often called simply La Grande Jatte. As soon as he had finished The Bathers, Seurat began producing studies of the landscape and people on an island in the River Seine, near Paris, known as La Grande Jatte. It was a popular place to spend an afternoon strolling, fishing, and relaxing. The huge canvas took Seurat more than a year to complete. It now hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago and is one of the most popular works there. In fact, what is perhaps Seurat's most enduring image has widely permeated contemporary popular culture, spawning reproductions on everything from calendars to coffee mugs and even inspiring a prize-winning Broadway musical.
The singular nature of La Grande Jatte is characterized by the rigid and methodical way in which it was painted. The canvas is covered with a surface pattern of small dots, the colors of which define the shading and outlines of the figures, trees, boats, and water. The discrete spots of color are mixed together by the viewer's eye to create a "magical atmosphere," in the words of art historian H. H. Arnason. The canvas seems to vibrate and shimmer much like the air would on a hot sunny day. Viewers and critics over the years have seized on various aspects of the painting: its spectacular illustration of contemporary color theories; its modern, geometric, abstract look; its observation of Parisian life in the 1880s. But perhaps the fundamental fascination with La Grande Jatte is the difficulty of comprehending that the artist could paint such a grand and beautiful painting with only tiny dots of color. Clearly, the work is more than just a collection of dots, or points. Indeed, an important critic of Seurat's time wrote that if just anyone "were to study treatises on optics for all eternity he could never paint La Grande Jatte." Its unique spirit and underlying creativity stem as much from Seurat's innate artistry as they do from scientific theory.
Other artists follow trademark style
As was the case with the impressionists, Seurat's ideas and paintings were considered radical. But in the mid-1880s, he began to acquire a following of artists who believed that his style, called pointillism, divisionism, or neo-impressionism, was an important new step in the development of modern art. Signac, Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin were among them. Each helped to spread Seurat's gospel. Neo-impressionist groups were formed throughout Europe, a great many in Belgium alone.
After completion of La Grande Jatte, Seurat painted other works that explored different aspects of pointillism. Les Poseuses, comprised of three women in varying poses, probed the intricacies of line and surface pattern. In La Parade and Le Chahut, Seurat's treatment of space and geometry became more abstract. His painting The Eiffel Tower, which depicts the Parisian monument under construction, embodies the modern use of flattened space and intense color. During this time Seurat also painted many landscapes and continued to expand the boundaries of contemporary painting through pattern and repeated imagery.
Toward the end of his life, Seurat developed suspicions about his followers; he believed they were borrowing his methods and not giving him due credit for the advances of pointillism. By the late 1880s many of them had gone on to modify Seurat's innovations, ultimately creating their own styles. Seurat died suddenly in Paris on March 29, 1891, when he was only thirty-one years old. It is now thought that he was stricken by meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Art historians have speculated widely as to what Seurat could have accomplished had he lived. Less uncertain is the immense influence his work has had on the art produced since his death. The great modern masters, among them Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, and many others found immeasurable inspiration in Seurat's work. To be sure, his elegant amalgam of science and art was critical to the development of twentieth-century art.
- 1884: The Bathers (Une Baignade)
- 1885: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
- 1888: Les Poseuses
- 1889: The Eiffel Tower
- 1890: Le Chahut
- 1891: Woman Powdering Herself
- 1891: The Circus
Courthion, Pierre, Georges Seurat, Abrams, 1988.
Herbert, Robert L., Georges Seurat, 1859-1891, Abrams, 1991.
Herbert, Robert L., Seurat's Drawings, Shorewood, 1962.
Rewald, John Seurat: A Biography, Abrams, 1990.
Smith, Paul, Seurat and the Avant-Garde, Yale University Press, 1997.