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Seurat, Georges

Category: Artist and sculptor

Georges-Pierre Seurat was a French pointillist, creating both painting in oils and conté crayon drawings. 

He died very young - 29 March 1891 aged only 31, in Paris, France.  Seurat was also born in Paris, on 2 December 1859 at 60 rue de Bondy (now rue René Boulanger). The Seurat family moved to 136 boulevard de Magenta (now 110 boulevard de Magenta) in 1862 or 1863.  

His father, Antoine Chrysostome Seurat, was wealthy from speculating in property, and his mother, Ernestine Faivre, was from Paris.

Left portrait of Seurat by Henri-Edmond Cross

“ Seurat's artistic personality was compounded of qualities which are usually supposed to be opposed and incompatible: on the one hand, his extreme and delicate sensitivity; on the other, a passion for logical abstraction and an almost mathematical precision of mind.”

In other words, Seurat was not just a gifted artist, but he incorporated what he knew of the science of the day.  He even said ‘Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science

Pointillism and Seurat

Pointillism is a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  Both Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed the technique, and it was used in the paintings of Henri-Edmond Cross, also on this site, as well as Maximilien Luce, Camille Pissarro, Théo van Rysselberghe, Hippolyte Petitjean and Jan Toorop.

On the right we see Jan Toorop’s painting The connoisseur of prints (Dr. Aegidius Timmermann) painted in 1900, showing the tiny dots of paint and the overall effect.  You will also notice however, that Toorop used the style to create texture, and also added patterns.  As such we can see that the style was not always followed with understanding of what it was attempting to achieve.

The 1800s were exciting times regarding philosophy and optics.  At the time that Seurat was experimenting with colours and painting techniques, scientists like Hermann von Helmholtz, were making great strides in analysing light and the way the eye saw light.  Von Helmholtz was a German physicist, physician and philosopher who made many ground-breaking contributions to physiology, electrodynamics, optics, meteorology and mathematics.  He is highly regarded for his statement of the law of the conservation of energy, as well as his theories of vision.

Wikipedia

Pointillism is analogous to the four-color CMYK printing process used by some colour printers and large presses that place dots of Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and Key (black). Televisions and computer monitors use a similar technique to represent image colours using Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) colours. 

Above The Channel at Gravelines, Evening

In other words instead of mixing the paint on the palette, one lets the eye mix the colours for you; by placing the dots close enough together that the eye’s processing compensates for the gaps between the dots. 

Right  Low Tide at Grandcamp

The technique is commonplace now in printers, but at the time it was introduced it was revolutionary.  As we now know, if red, blue, and green light are mixed, the result is something close to white light , but is a very beautiful luminescent white light, which can only be appreciated if you see the paintings in person.

Wikipedia

Painting is inherently subtractive, but Pointillist colours often seem brighter than typical mixed subtractive colours. This may be partly because subtractive mixing of the pigments is avoided.

It was possibly the first time that people had been confronted by the idea that their eyes did not present them with reality.  It also introduced the intriguing notion that maybe reality was not some solid wall of substance, but perhaps it was really just a series of atoms, projecting only a few colours which the eye then combined to produce an apparently solid block of colour.

Aboriginal art has always incorporated this idea, points of colour that create an overall impression

Chevreul and Seurat


In coming up with this revolutionary painting technique, both Seurat and Signac used the work of Michel Eugène Chevreul.  At around the age of seventeen Chevreul went to Paris and entered L. N. Vauquelin's chemical laboratory, afterwards becoming his assistant at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (National Museum of Natural History). In 1813, Chevreul was appointed professor of chemistry at the Lycée Charlemagne, and subsequently undertook the directorship of the Gobelins tapestry works, where he carried out his research on colour contrasts.

In 1839, he published the results of his research under the title De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs; It was translated into English and published in 1854 under the title The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours.

Meanwhile, Georges Seurat had first studied art at the École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, but by 1878 he was studying at the École des Beaux-Arts where he was taught by Henri Lehmann.  Seurat apparently followed a conventional academic training, drawing from casts of antique sculpture and copying drawings by old masters.  But all his real interest was focussed on the findings of Chevreul.  And he himself has said so.

Quotes from a letter to Félix Fénéon, 20 June, 1890

The purity of the spectral element being the keystone of my.. ..searching for an optical formula on this basis ever, since I held a brush 1876 - 1884.. ..having read Charles Blanc in school and therefore knowing Chevreul's laws and Eugene Delacroix's precepts………….

Knowing Corot's ideas on tone.. and Couture's precepts on the subtlety of tints….., having been struck by the intuition of Monet and Pissarro.. .Rood having been brought to my attention in an article by w:Philippe Gille, Figaro 1881, 3
Above Port-en-Bessin, The Outer Harbor (Low Tide)

The Rood to whom he refers was Ogden Nicholas Rood (3 February 1831 in Danbury, Connecticut – 12 November 1902 in Manhattan),  an American physicist best known for his work in colour theory.

Quotes from a letter to Félix Fénéon, 20 June, 1890

Rood was in my possession the day after the appearance of Philippe Gille's book review, published by 'Le Figaro', 1881 (change of palette). I abandon earth colours from [18]82 to 1884. On Pissarro's advice I stop using emerald green (1885)

In other words, many many influences all led to the style that was probably first fully expressed in Seurat’s 1884, 'Grande Jatte' study.  Seurat's studies eventually resulted in “a well-considered and fertile theory of contrasts: a theory to which all his work was thereafter subjected.”

Meyer Schapiro in Modern Art, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Meyer Schapiro, George Braziller, New York, 1968, p. 104

Seurat's art is an astonishing achievement for so a young painter. At thirty-one - Seurat's age when he died in 1891 - Degas and Cézanne had not [yet] shown their measure. But Seurat was a complete artist at twenty-five when he painted the 'Grande Jatte'.

Contrast – The Mind in the Cave

Seurat’s formal artistic education came to an end in November 1879, when he left the École des Beaux-Arts for a year of military service.  After a year at the Brest Military Academy, he returned to Paris where he shared a studio with his friend Aman-Jean, while also renting a small apartment at 16 rue de Chabrol.

For the next two years, Seurat worked at mastering the art of monochrome drawing.   If anything these drawings are more impressive than the paintings.  His first exhibited work, shown at the Salon, of 1883, was a Conté crayon drawing of Aman-Jean [see right].

We have already seen that Seurat was able, using just an extremely limited colour palette and a flat surface to show people for the first time that their eyes did not present them with reality.  His paintings also introduced the intriguing notion that maybe reality was not some solid wall of substance, but perhaps it was really just a series of 'atoms', projecting only a very few colours which the eye then combined to produce an apparently solid block of colour.  Seurat was eliminating colour all the time, reducing the number of colours he used.

His drawings, rarely discussed, go even further, because they show how with only a single crayon, points and patterning one can create an impression of lines, shadow and light and of 3D forms, where none exist.

The eye is not a literal processor of some reality that exists ‘out there’ it is a very complex processor, that creates a reality that is all our own.

'Letter to Maurice Beaubourg', August 1890 - Art is Harmony

Harmony is the analogy of opposites, the analogy of similarities of tone, of tint, of line taking account of a dominant and under the influence of the lighting, in combinations that are gay, calm or sad.

 -Gaiety of tone is the luminous dominant, of tint, the warm dominant, of line, lines above the horizontal
 - Calmness of tone is the equality of dark and light; of tint, of warm and cool, and the horizontal for line.
 - Sadness of tone is the dark dominant; of tint, the cool dominant, and of line, downward directions
Above left:  Lighthouse at Honfleur 1886

Colour and emotion

Left:  The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe.

While Chevreul based his theories on Isaac Newton's thoughts on the mixing of light, Ogden Rood based his writings on the work of Helmholtz. He analyzed the effects of mixing and juxtaposing material pigments. Rood valued as primary colors red, green, and blue-violet. Like Chevreul, he said that if two colours are placed next to each other, from a distance they look like a third distinctive colour.  

But Rood added the important effect of colour on emotion – harmony and disharmony.  He pointed out that the juxtaposition of primary hues next to each other would create a far more intense and pleasing colour, when perceived by the eye and mind, than the corresponding colour made simply by mixing paint.

Right Port-en-Bessin - Entrance to the Harbor

Seurat was also influenced by Sutter's Phenomena of Vision (1880), in which he wrote that "the laws of harmony can be learned as one learns the laws of harmony and music".  And he also heard lectures in the 1880s by the mathematician Charles Henry at the Sorbonne, who discussed the emotional properties and symbolic meaning of lines and colour.

Seurat thus believed that a painter could use colour to create harmony and emotion in art in the same way that a musician uses counterpoint and variation to create harmony in music.  

As should be clear, this more specific observation has general applicability.  And indeed there are those who use colour theory to heal.  But is almost all vegetation green for a reason, in the design for the planet?  Do we feel stressed and out of sorts in cities because they are grey or red, whereas in forests we are soothed by green?

Below La rade de Grandcamp

Whence cometh inspiration?

The main driver to Seurat, odd though it may sound, was the constant criticism from people he had little respect for.  A strange form of adversity.  He appears to have been, - not lonely - but entirely self-sufficient in his art, requiring neither praise nor approval to be inspired, a sign of a sort of humility rather than any sign of ego

From Pointillism and Impressionism: Georges Seurat by Andrea Campbell

In the mid-1880s, the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) set the standard for French art in a narrow and confining manner: there were acceptable religious scenes, mythology, significant historical themes and portraits of heroes and other influential people. That’s it. It was like a straitjacket.

Not only were the themes not to be violated but the paints were somber tones using symmetrical composition and hard outlines with smooth surfaces in-between.  The Impressionist painters ..... were disrespected, even shunned. Landscape paintings were branded minor, ... inferior. The works were described as peculiar and shameful. The canvases were rejected constantly by jurors, mocked and labeled offensive for many years.

“Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!" [comment in an article, “The Exhibition of the Impressionists." By the reporter and art critic, Louis Leroy]

Not more than a year later, the term Impressionism came to represent the art, but the style itself was still not accepted into the fold of classicism. This new stage of development in art created in the early 1860s, marked the end of the classical period that had begun in the Renaissance. Georges Seurat was to take that one step further with his strange technique: Pointillism.

Georges-Pierre Seurat was born in 1859 in France to wealthy parents. His father, Antoine-Chrysostome was a legal official who retired early and lived in solace at the family’s second home, outside Paris. George only saw his father once a week, but grew up to be much like him, secretive and independent.

Peggy J. Parks

 “…art’s true power lies not in its potential to entertain and delight but in its ability to enlighten, to reveal the truth, and by doing so to uplift the human spirit and transform the human race.”

 

 

Death
 

Seurat died at age 31, with a son, a mistress and another child on the way.  Only his mistress survived

Quote of Camille Pissarro, from Paris, 30 March, 1891 in a letter to his son; in Camille Pissarro - Letters to His Son Lucien ed. John Rewald, with assistance of Lucien Pissarro; from the unpublished French letters; transl. Lionel Abel; Pantheon Books Inc. New York, second edition, 1943, pp. 155-156

Terrible news to report: Seurat died after a very brief illness. I heard the cruel news only this morning. He had been in bed for three days with a disturbance of the throat. Improperly treated, the illness developed with ruinous speed. It is my impression that the malady was the very one de Bellio told me about some time ago: diphtheria. The funeral takes place tomorrow. You can conceive the grief of all those who followed him or were interested in his artistic researches. It is a great loss for art.. .There is a splendid exhibition of that unfortunate Seurat [at the exhibition of the Independants, March 1891]; some marines, as delicate as ever, somewhat white and weak in coloration, but very artistic, and a large canvas, a 'Circus' which is excellently composed; a clown cut on the foreground dissatisfies us, but the work as a whole has the stamp of an original artist, it is something!

Observations

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