Face to Face with Seurat

Seurat: Drawings and Paintings

by Robert L. Herbert
Yale University Press, 195 pp., $65.00

It is easier for the visitor to France to read about Seurat than to see his work. There was, in fact, something almost willed, if not actually paralytic, about the readiness with which the guardians of the French cultural tradition allowed Seurat’s paintings and drawings to leave France, one by one. Françoise Cachin, then the director of the Musées de France, pointed out on the occasion of the Seurat centenary exhibition in Paris and New York in 1991 that “almost all of the painter’s work had left France between 1900 and 1930.”

As the granddaughter of Paul Signac, the painter who had been a close friend and colleague of Seurat, Madame Cachin knew what she was talking about. After Seurat died suddenly in 1891 at the age of thirty-one, his very substantial oeuvre was distributed among his family and his friends. Officialdom showed no interest. Nor did any dealer show a continuing commitment. Though Seurat had been called by Vincent van Gogh and others the unquestioned leader of the avant-garde of the day, it was suddenly as if he had never been there at all.

In 1894, three years after Seurat’s death, Paul Signac wrote in his diary, “To think that they refuse to recognize in him one of the geniuses of the century! The young ones are full of admiration for Laforgue and van Gogh… and for Seurat oblivion, silence.” Four years later, Signac noted that “Seurat’s poor mother is worried about what will happen to his large can-vases after her death. She would like to leave them to a museum…. But what museum today would agree to take them.” By 1900, when Seurat’s principal works were heaped up, rather than shown, at the Revue Blanche in Paris, Signac wrote that “the family, although millionaires, is selling all of them…I think mainly because the pictures are burdensome.” (For the drawings, they were asking ten francs each, unframed.)

As for the Musées Nationaux in France, they did not get around to Seurat until 1947, when they bought three small but magisterial panels for Les Poseuses. There had been other lost opportunities. In 1914 (of all years) a German citizen offered Seurat’s Chahut to the Louvre, only to have it turned down. From 1908 to 1928 Seurat’s Parade de Cirque languished at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris, only to be acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

All this is the more remarkable in that at the time of his death in 1891 Georges Seurat had a situation in the art world of Paris that on every count was unusually promising. He was known for two paintings, A Bathing Place, Asnières (1883–1884) and A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886), which were to rank among the major achievements of the late nineteenth century in France. And he had a second audience in Brussels, where the Grande Jatte had been shown in 1887. In Paris, he and his friend Signac had made a significant breakthrough in 1886…

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