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The Enigma of Georges Seurat

Seurat: 1859–1891 24, 1991–January 12, 1992

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York September

Seurat: 1859–1891

catalog of the exhibition by Robert L. Herbert, with contributions by Françoise Cachin, by Anne Distel, by Susan Alyson Stein, by Gary Tinterow
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 450 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Seurat

by Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat, translated by Jean-Marie Clarke
Rizzoli, 215 pp., $75.00

Seurat at Gravelines: The Last Landscapes

by Ellen Wardwell Lee
Indiana University Press, 80 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Paul Signac and Color in Neo-Impressionism, including the first English edition of ‘From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism’ by Paul Signac

by Floyd Ratliff, Signac text translated by Willa Silverman
Rockefeller University Press

1.

It is now exactly a century since Georges Seurat died of a brief but virulent illness only a few months after his thirty-first birthday. And so, following what has now become a kind of ritual among cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is marking the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death with a tribute to his life and work.

This impressive and moving exhibition gives an extensive overview of Seurat’s career, from the sensitively rendered drawings of plaster casts he did as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to the large painting of a curiously stiff but antic circus scene that he finished shortly before he died. Although there are some important gaps, this is nonetheless the largest ensemble of Seurat’s works that has been seen in over thirty years, and it reinforces his position as one of the most important, as well as one of the most puzzling, of modern artists.

As the first galleries of the exhibition make abundantly clear, Seurat was already an accomplished painter and a very original draughtsman by the time he was in his early twenties. He made his public debut as a painter in the spring of 1884, when he joined forces with a group of artists whose work had been rejected by the official salon. Together they organized the first Salon des Artistes Indépendants, a jury-free exhibition that was to become the Parisian avant-garde’s main annual event for the next two decades, and to which Seurat remained loyal throughout his life. His large circus scene was hanging at the 1891 exhibition of the Indépendants the day he died.

To the first independent salon the twenty-four-year-old artist sent a single large painting, entitled A Bathing Place, Asnières, which represented working-class men and boys lounging along a river bank in an industrial suburb of Paris. The picture combined an odd mixture of impressionist brush stroke, color, and light with a linear precision and geometry that recalled early Renaissance frescoes. It also clearly alluded—not without irony—to Puvis de Chavannes’s Pleasant Land, a mural-like allegorical painting that had been shown at the 1882 Salon. Because of the unusual subject and rendering of Seurat’s painting and its unwieldy size, it was hung in the bar rather than in the regular galleries, and it attracted relatively little attention.

The press notices that it did get were not very encouraging. One critic listed it among the three most grotesque works shown and, recognizing its roots in Ecole des Beaux-Arts classicism, characterized it as “a fake Puvis de Chavannes.”1 Even Roger Marx, a determined advocate of avant-garde art, hedged his bet by referring to Seurat’s painting in a rather lukewarm way as an “impressionist painting” that revealed “indications of genuine qualities, the mark of a temperament.”2

Two years later, however, when Seurat exhibited his equally large and even more ambitious A Sunday on la Grande Jatte at the eighth—and last—Impressionist group exhibition, his painting was prominently displayed and attracted much attention. Although the reviews were again mixed, even his critics recognized that this painting, and Seurat’s method of painting in general, embodied important innovations. Its style and composition were compared to Egyptian art and medieval tapestries, as well as to popular imagery—a distinct contrast to the generally ahistorical treatment of Impressionist painting. Some writers also remarked on the mechanical look of the painting, not only because its surface was made up of countless little dots of paint that resembled mechanically made reproductions, but because the figures looked like dolls or toy soldiers.

The painting was also understood to be socially provocative. Alfred Paulet astutely remarked that Seurat

wanted to show the routine of the banal promenade of strollers in their Sunday best who walk without pleasure in the places where it is agreed that one ought to walk on Sunday. The artist has given his personages the automatic gestures of lead soldiers moving on hinged joints. Maids, workers, soldiers go along with a similar slow movement, banal, and all the same, which well expresses the character of the scene, but expresses it with too much insistence.3

Paulet also spoke of Seurat’s manner as a “necessary transformation of impressionism” which involved the “abandonment of pure sensation” and a return to linear and thereby more idea-oriented painting. This emphasis on ideas was an important element in the ways that Seurat’s art was received in advanced circles. It made him much admired by the emerging Symbolist writers, for what they perceived as a disavowal of naturalism; and it caused him to be deeply mistrusted by the Impressionists, who saw him as a threat to their own aesthetic of spontaneity and direct, intuitive expression.

Although Seurat had been initially associated with the Impressionists, they soon realized that he was not really part of that movement but rather the leader of a kind of fifth column within it. In fact, Camille Pissarro, his strongest advocate among the Impressionists, had had a difficult time persuading the other members of the group to allow Seurat to show with them in 1886. Both Monet and Renoir found excuses for not participating. And shortly before the show opened on May 15th, its co-organizer Eugène Manet (the brother of the late painter) had a bitter quarrel with Pissarro about whether or not La Grande Jatte should be exhibited.

Eventually a compromise was worked out with the help of Degas. Seurat and his friend Paul Signac, along with Camille Pissarro and his son Lucien, were given a separate room where they could show whatever they pleased. But Degas, too, was less than enthusiastic about La Grande Jatte. When Pissarro, a recent convert to Seurat’s methodical way of painting, pointed out what he believed to be the considerable merits of the picture, Degas replied with acid wit: “Oh, I would have noticed that myself, Pissarro, only it’s so big!”

From this point forward, Seurat’s kind of painting, which later that year was named “neo-impressionist” by the critic Félix Fénéon, was rightly seen as the antithesis of the movement out of which it grew. Whereas the Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, had aimed for a fluid kind of imagery which was based on what seemed to be a direct and intuitive response to nature—and which placed great importance on creating a sense of spontaneity in recording what was right before their eyes—Seurat’s painting was overtly synthetic and contrived. While Impressionist paintings seemed to capture a single moment in contemporary life, Seurat transposed the themes of the Impressionists into the kinds of timeless settings usually reserved for mythological subjects. And while the Impressionists purposely ignored the traditional distinctions between a sketch and a finished picture, Seurat made a clear differentiation between his small, loosely rendered studies done directly from nature and his large, carefully finished final paintings. In contrast to the Impressionists, Seurat developed a mechanical-looking technique in which he applied paint in regular little dots or dabs of contrasting color, and which he described as the “scientific” basis of his procedure. “Others see poetry in what I do,” he is reported to have said. “No, I just apply my method.” Instead of blending his colors or setting them down with fluid and varied brush strokes, he clearly divided each touch of paint from the others with distinct, regularly applied strokes that accentuated the interplay of colors.

Much has been made of the supposedly scientific aspect of Seurat’s method, and in particular its relationship to the theories of Charles Blanc, M.-E. Chevreul, Charles Henry, and Ogden Rood. But as Robert L. Herbert points out in the exhibition catalog, the scientific aspect of Seurat’s work has been both misunderstood and overestimated. Seurat’s references to scientific texts seem to have served more as a justification for what he had already done, in order to lend it authority, rather than as a program that he actually followed when he created his paintings. In fact, as Herbert demonstrates, on the evidence of Seurat’s paintings and writings, he seems to have had a rather tenuous understanding of some of the scientific principles on which he was supposed to be basing his art.

Seurat’s insistence on the scientific basis of his painting may also have been part of a strategy to draw attention away from just how subjective his paintings were, and to lend his rather idiosyncratic view of the world an air of authority at a time when there was a widespread interest in investigating perceptual and physio-psychological processes, and in “the idea of painting as a progressive series of visual discoveries.”4

In Seurat’s case the fiction of objectivity may also be seen as a kind of mask, a means of diverting attention from the psychological self-exposure that is inherent in his work. For although Seurat’s works are frequently discussed primarily in terms of technique and color theory, and more recently as raising social issues, they are as psychologically troubling as any body of work produced in the nineteenth century—quite the opposite of what you might expect from someone simply applying his method.

His marvelously subtle drawings, with their rich layers of velvety black conté crayon or charcoal are especially revealing in this respect. Along with their impressive formal inventiveness, they have a moral, psychological, and spiritual gravity and an overriding sense of deep melancholy that are extraordinary. Even Seurat’s drawings of Parisian cafés, theaters, and music halls are like so many stifled cries. And almost without exception, the people in his pictures lack a sense of inner presence and are represented as detached from the world around them.

Seurat remains one of the most enigmatic artists of the late nineteenth century. Taciturn, pensive, and guarded, his stiff manner and somber dress provoked Degas to refer to him as “le notaire.” He was so intensely secretive that until just a few days before his death even his family and closest friends did not know that he had set up a household with one of his models and that they had a year-old son. (The single portrait he did of her, Woman Powdering Herself, is fraught with irony, condescension, and emotional ambivalence.) Like the highly stylized, disconnected, and inscrutable characters represented in his works, Seurat seems to have kept his feelings to himself, masked from everyone around him by a forbidding formal courtesy.

In this respect, he was very much like his father, a self-made man who spent most of his time away from his family at a private villa he maintained in the suburb of Le Raincy—returning only on Tuesdays, as Signac drily remarked, to fulfill “his marital duty.” Like his son, the elder Seurat seems to have been almost pathologically secretive and closed off from the world around him. Seurat’s own steely sang-froid seems to have been tempered by the duel of wills and of wits he must constantly have been engaged in with his forbidding father.

  1. 1

    Trublot [Paul Alexis], “Exposition des artistes indépendants,” Le Cri du Peuple, May 17, 1884; as cited in John Rewald’s Seurat (Abrams, 1990), p. 56. Alexis also said that the painting contained female as well as male bathers, though this is clearly not the case.

  2. 2

    Roger Marx, “L’exposition des artistes indépendants,” Le Voltaire, May 16, 1884; as cited in Henri Dorra and John Rewald, Seurat: L’oeuvre peint, biographie et catalogue critique (Paris: Les Beaux-Arts, Editions d’Etudes et de Documents, 1959), p. 102.

  3. 3

    Alfred Paulet, “Les Impressionistes,” Paris, June 5, 1886; as cited in Dorra and Rewald, Seurat, p. 160.

  4. 4

    John Gage, “The Technique of Seurat: A Reappraisal,” Art Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 3 (September 1987), p. 454.

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