12 Grade Bartlett High School
November 7, 1995
Georges Seurat: The Neo-Impressionist
Georges Seurat was born in Paris on December 2, 1859. As a youth, he attended a municipal art school where he copied plaster casts and he then studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1878 and 1879 (Homer 7). The young Seurat was strongly influenced by Rembrant and Francisco de Goya. Seurat spent his entire life in Paris except for trips taken in the summer and a year in the military at Brest. He began his career in 1880 when he was drawn to the impressionist’s technique and began to do small paintings of peasants, stone breakers, and other people at work. Georges Seurat rebelled against the empirical realism and spontaneous nature of Impressionism with the use of science to derive strictly composed works (Homer 23).
In the time of his formative years, Seurat was drawn to the works of the coloristic tradition. He studied paintings by Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro, Puvis, and Renoir looking particularly at their representation of light and color. These artists had tried to find ways to make pigments appear more vibrant and intense (Blunt 21). Seurat focused on the impressionist attempt to capture the brilliant effect of sunlight. He also looked toward scientific and theoretical writings to learn more about luminosity, intensity, and harmony of color. He made many black and white drawings practicing his use of light and shade. Seurat wished to master drawing in shades of grey before jumping to colored oil paintings. His public debut in 1883, came with the admittance to the Salon of a pen portrait of his friend Aman-Jean (Russell 13).
During his experimentation with oil painting Seurat made large visible brush stokes part of some works as an impressionist might. He went forward with the evolution of his style to produce his first major painting, The Bathers, which had an impressionist subject: people out for an afternoon excursion, relaxing on the banks of the Seine. Numerous oil studies preceded the work using impressionist brush strokes. However the subjects are set in static poses appearing to have a “cut-out flatness” and the atmosphere was made to have a shimmering quality, all part of his developing style (Russell 20). From this time on Seurat focused on large paintings mainly of the bourgeois Paris.
In The Bathers Seurat’s pointillism was not yet perfected, as the color was put on in small dabs broken across by dabs of different colors. He needed to analyze colors into clearer tones and separate colors so they did not physically mix. After more than two hundred drawings in preparation, George Seurat used his final completed form of the pointillist style to create Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte which was completed in 1885 (Homer 185). The characters in the work are painted in a manner isolating them from each other as is a characteristic of his works. The dots and colors in which the work is painted make the light appear to pulsate. Seurat new from his scientific studies the effect of simultaneous contrasts. Combining his knowledge of science and art Seurat’s own style was produced (Perdrillat 160).
Seurat was an ultimate example of an artist as a scientist. Through his study of color theory and the science of optics Seurat introduced and developed a technique known as pointillism or divisionism (Homer 202). This is the application of small colored dots of contrasting colors to produce a blending effect on the retina of the viewer’s eye. Through his studies he planned each work so at a certain distance the dots would blend into a single color. The canvas was entirely covered with dots which defined forms without the use of lines and cast an intense light over everything in the painting. Planning was critical in order to create harmony in the works, and in order for the illusionary effect to take place in the viewer’s eye at the appropriate distance from the works. The Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande-Jatte was preceded by more than 200 drawings and oil studies and set in a specific arrangement to achieve “harmony” (Fry 83).
George Seurat painted many marvelous works after he realized the principles of his style, including The Models in 1887, Le Chahut in 1890, The Circus in 1891, and numerous landscapes (Fry 22). Each painting was composed as an independent production owing nothing to previous artworks (Perdrillat 198).
Seurat made a mark on the art world and doing so blossomed an art movement. His followers, the neo-impressionists, carried on his style to the abstract level which it was never far from. Neo-Impressionism painters created forms with clarity and solidity where as Impressionist created hazy forms (Blunt 21). By the late 1890’s Neo-Impressionism was waning, but it had already made a mark. It had been notably important for many artists including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Henri Matisse (Russell 248). Many consider Seurat’s later works to be “near that of the future” (Russell 224). Late in his life he wrote a letter explaining his method of developing his works. He explained his use of tone, color, and line, as well as the science of light, color, and the eye. In this letter he included “scientific” formulas he had developed to achieve pointillistic results (Homer 210).
Georges-Pierre Seurat died on March 29, 1891 in Paris (Blunt 22). Seurat’s early death at the age of 31 cut short his career, as he was still developing as an artist and working with his discoveries. In his short life he produced about 500 drawings which alone could have established him as a master. Seurat made seven monumental paintings and 60 smaller ones (Perdrillat 198). He is remembered most for his pointillist technique and as the original theorist and most significant artist of the Neo-Impressionist movement.