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Georges-Pierre Seurat (December 2, 1859–March 29, 1891) was the founder of Neoimpressionism. His large work Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of the icons of the 19th century painting.
Seurat was born to a well-off family in Paris. His father, a legal official, was a solitary man, and so was his son. Seurat attended the École des Beaux-Arts in 1878 and 1879. After a year of military service at Brest military academy, he returned to Paris in 1880. He shared a small studio on the Left Bank with two student friends before moving to a studio of his own. For the next two years he devoted himself to mastering the art of black and white drawing. He spent 1883 on his first major painting - a huge canvas titled Bathing at Asnieres.
After his painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, Seurat turned away from establishments such as the Salon, instead allying himself with the independent artists of Paris. In 1884, he and other artists (including Maximilien Luce) formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants. There, he met fellow artist Paul Signac, with whom he became a good friend. Seurat shared his new ideas about pointillism with Signac, who met them with great joy. In the summer of 1884, Seurat began work on his masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete.
Later he moved from the Boulevard de Clichy to a quieter studio nearby where he lived secretly with young model Madeleine Knobloch. In February 1890, she gave birth to his son. It was not until two days before his death that he introduced his young family to his parents.
Seurat died at the age of 31, probably of diphtheria, and was interred in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. His last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time of his death. His baby son died of the same disease just a few weeks later.
Challenging the Impressionists
Seurat and his fellow Neoimpressionists rejected contemporary Impressionism, with its emphasis on intuition and spontaneity, for a new "scientific" Impressionism that embraced the optical and psycho-biological theories that they learned from the works of Chevreul, Blanc, Sutter and Henry. The Neoimpressionists sought to create art based on reflection, order and intelligent scientific design.
Using contemporary research on color and perception, they developed a style that uses small dots of pure color juxtaposed together to maximize luminosity. The controlled precision and the juxtaposition of different colored painted dots was quite different from the freer brushstrokes of the Impressionists and came to be known as pointillism or divisionism.
The Impressionists wanted to 'give the impression of something entirely natural and unarranged, and to capture the momentary quality of an arrested action'. Seurat, and the handful of Neoimpressionists who followed him, thought out and planned every square inch of the canvas down to the individual dots they used as the molecules of their painted objects. Seurat sought an architectonic precision in the structure of his paintings while still wanting to keep to the broad subject matter, vitality and colour of the Impressionists. Whereas Impressionists may have created works in just an afternoon, often sketching and finishing directly on the canvas, Seurat created dozens of prototypes of an image that would be finally produced. He carefully conducted color studies to maximize the luminosity of the painting. Just one piece by Seurat took a year or two to complete.
Scientific background and influences
During the 19th century, scientist-writers such as Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and David Sutter wrote treatises on color, optical effects and perception. They were able to translate the scientific research of Helmholtz and Newton into a written form that was understandable by non-scientists. Chevreul was perhaps the most important influence on artists at the time. His most important contribution was producing the color wheel of primary and intermediary hues.
Chevreul was a French chemist who restored old tapestries. During his restorations of tapestries he noticed that the only way to restore a section properly was to take into account the influence of the colors around the missing wool. He would not have the right hue unless he took into account the surrounding dyes. Chevreul discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when viewed at a distance. This discovery would be the underlying phenomenon exploited by the Pointillist technique of the Neoimpressionist painters.
Primary: Yellow, Blue, Red
Secondary: Orange, Green, Violet
Intermediary: Orange-Red, Orange-Yellow etc.
Chevreul also realized that the 'halo' that one sees after looking at a color is actually the opposing color. For example after looking at a red object, one will see a green echo/halo of the original object if one looks at a white space. This complementary color (i.e. green for red) is due to retinal persistence. Neoimpressionist painters interested in the interplay of colors made extensive use of complementary colors in their paintings. In his works Chevreul advised artists that they should not just paint the color of the object being depicted, but rather they should add colors and make arbitrary adjustments to achieve a harmony. It seems that the harmony Chevreul wrote about is what Seurat came to call 'emotion'.
According to Professor Anne Beauchemin from McGill University, most Neoimpressionist painters probably did not read Chevreul's books, but instead they read Grammaire des arts du dessin, written in 1867 by Charles Blanc who cited Chevreul's works. Blanc's book was targeted at artists and art connoisseurs. Color had an emotional significance for him, and he made explicit recommendations to artists which were close to what became Neoimpressionist ideas. He said that color should not be based on the 'judgment of taste', but rather it should be close to what we experience in reality. Blanc did not want artists to use equal intensities of color, but rather to consciously plan and understand the role of each hue.
Another important influence on Neoimpressionists was Rood, who also studied color and optical effects. Whereas the theories of Chevreul are based on Newton's thoughts on the mixing of light, Rood's writings are based on the work of Helmholtz, and as such he analyzed the effects of mixing together and juxtaposing material pigments. For Rood, the primary colors were red, green, and blue-violet. Like Chevreul, he stated that if two colors are placed next to each other, from a distance they look like a third distinctive color. Rood also pointed out that the juxtaposition of primary hues next to each other would create a far more intense and pleasing color when perceived by the eye and mind than the corresponding color made by mixing paint. Rood advised that artists be aware of the difference between additive and subtractive qualities of color, since material pigments and optical pigments (light) do not mix together in the same way:
Material pigments: Red + Yellow + Blue = Black
Optical / Light : Red + Green + Blue = White
Other influences on Seurat included 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', as well as mathematician Charles Henry who in the 1880s held monologues at the Sorbonne about the emotional properties and symbolic meaning of lines and color. Henry's ideas were quickly adopted by the founder of Neoimpressionism.
Seurat's melding of science and emotion
Seurat took to heart the color theorists' notion of a scientific approach to painting. Sutter predicted that someone could learn the laws of harmony and emotion in art through color just like someone learns any other natural laws, or how to create harmony in music. Seurat was driven to prove this conjecture. He thought that the knowledge of perception and optical laws could be used to create a new language of art based on its own set of heuristics and he set out to show this language using lines, color intensity and color schema to create harmony and emotion. Seurat called this language Chromoluminarism.
His letter to Maurice Beaubourg in 1890, captures his feelings about the scientific approach to emotion and harmony. He says 'Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm or sad combinations'.
Seurat's theories can be summarized as; The emotion of gaiety can be achieved by the domination of luminous hues and by the domination of warm colors and in terms of lines, by the dominance of lines above the horizontal. Calm is achieved through an equivalence/balance of the use of the light and the dark, by the balance of warm and cold colors and in terms of lines by the lines that are horizontal. The emotion of sadness he posits is achieved by using dark and cold colors and by lines pointing downwards.
The crowning achievement
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte shows people of all different classes in a park. The tiny juxtaposed dots of different colored paint, which Seurat used instead of long brush-strokes, allow the eye of the viewer to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors blended on the canvas or pre-blended as a material pigment. It took Seurat two years to complete the painting, and he spent much time in the park sketching to prepare for the work. It now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.