Georges-Pierre Seurat (December 2, 1859 – March 29, 1891) was the founder and the only great practitioner of the Neoimpressionism. His large work Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has become one of the icons of the 19th-century painting.
Seurat studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1878 and 1879. After a year of military service at Brest military academy, he returned to Paris in 1880. He started off sharing a confined 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 a huge canvas, Bathing at Asnieres, his first major painting.
He later moved away from Boulevard de Clichy to a quieter studio nearby, where secretly he lived with a 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 mother. He died at the age of 31 of diphtheria and was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery. His last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time he died.
Seurat's scientific background and influences
During the 19th century, scientist-writers such as Eugene 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 accessible enough as to be understood 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 used to restore 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 had discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when viewed at a distance by the eye. This discovery would be the underlying phenomenon that would be exploited by the pointillist technique of the neoimpressionist painters as is discussed later in this article. Chevreul classified the colors into three major categories:
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 wall. This complementary color (i.e. green for red) is due to retinal persistence. Neoimpressionist painters interested in the interplay of colors would make extensive use of complementary colors in their paintings. Chevreul gave advice to artists in his works, he said 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 that Chevreul is talking about is what artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891), the father of neoimpressionism, would come to call 'emotion'.
According to Professor Anne Beauchemin from McGill University, most neoimpressionist painters probably did not have direct access to Chevreul's books, but instead they had indirect access via Grammaire des arts du dessin, written in 1867 by Charles Blanc who cited Chevreul's works. Blanc's writing greatly influenced Georges Seurat. Blanc's book was targeted at artists and art connoisseurs. Color had an emotional significance for him, and he made explicit recommendations to artists in his book which were very close to what would eventually become 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 Chevreul was basing his theories on the work of Newton which is based on the mixing of light, Rood's writings were based on the work of Helmholtz: as such he was analyzing 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 some 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 then the corresponding tube color. Rood advised that artists should 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 + Yellow + Blue = White
Other influences on George 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 would hold monologues at the Sorbonne about the emotional properties and symbolic meaning of lines and color. Henry's ideas would be quickly adopted by the founder of Neoimpressionism.
Seurat challenging the impressionists
The above section attempts to present the scientific context and motivating factor behind Seurat's seminal works and the neo-impressionist movement that he led. Seurat and the neo-impressionists were innovating a new type of Art, and were challenging the impressionist norms. 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 had learnt about from the works of Chevreul, Blanc, Sutter and Henry. Using this contemporary research on color and perception, they developed a style that used small dots of pure juxtaposed together to maximize luminosity. The controlled precision and the juxtaposition of different colored painted dots was quite a deviance 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 that followed him, on the other hand would think out and plan each and every square inch of the canvas even down to the individual dots they used as the molecules of their canvas objects. Whereas impressionists may have created works in just an afternoon or a short period of time working directly on the canvas, Seurat would create dozens of prototypes of the image that would be finally produced and would carefully conduct color studies to maximize the luminosity of the painting. Just one piece by Seurat could take a whole year or two to complete! The impressionists were all about instinct and instantaneity whereas the neoimpressionists were concerned with art based on reflection and intelligent scientific design.
Seurat's melding of science and emotion
Seurat had taken to heart the color theorists' notion of a scientific approach to painting. Sutter had hypothesized that one could learn the laws of harmony and emotion in art through color just as one learns any other natural laws, or how to create harmony in music and Seurat strove to prove this conjecture. Seurat 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 demonstrate this language use lines, color intensity and color schema to create harmony and emotion. Seurat called this language 'Chromo-luminarism'.
His letter to Maurice Beaubourg in 1880 beautifully 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'. His theories can be summarized as follows: 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.
This letter for us in the modern day is a blueprint for understanding the emotions that Seurat was attempting to convey in his post-impressionist works.
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 brushstrokes, when side by side, give the viewer's eye a chance to blend the color optically, rather than having the colors blended on the canvas or pre-blended as a material pigment.