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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 when they were included in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition. They owed this in large part to Camille Pissarro, a senior Impressionist, who—unlike most of his colleagues—took Seurat seriously and did not feel either outraged or threatened by his emergence as the leader of the Parisian avant-garde.

Initially, Seurat was said to be “difficult” in general society. Unless painting was being discussed, he rarely spoke. Even his friend, the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, would write of the “blocks of ice” that he had had to unfreeze before he got to know Seurat. Though known for the enthusiasm with which he would talk about his own ideas, Seurat was sometimes thought of as having nothing to say about anything else.

This was not true. Seurat had a large, lively, and ongoing acquaintance among the more innovative writers of his day. J.-K. Huysmans, the novelist and author of A Rebours, owned a great drawing by Seurat, the Condoléances of 1885–1886. Seurat was a friend of Jules Laforgue, the Symbolist poet and discerning commentator on art, and he went to his funeral in 1887. And he always had a new novel somewhere in his studio.

He was not perfunctory in friendship. When a friend of his called Jean Ajalbert was counsel for the defense in a murder trial in 1887, Seurat was in court to witness his triumphant performance. Others were close to Seurat in their interests. Robert Caze, for instance, gave literary evenings in 1885 at which Seurat saw writers and painters who were to be valuable to him. (In that same year, Caze published a book called Paris Vivant, which was in effect a portrait gallery of up-to-the-minute Parisian types.) Caze was the first owner of Seurat’s drawing The Acrobat by the Ticket Booth (1883–1884), which is one of the great studies of Parisian life. Their friendship ended in 1886, when Caze was killed in a duel with another writer.

On Seurat’s many friendships (and his occasional enmities) the ranking American authority has for many years been Robert L. Herbert, who is now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 1991, he was the curator for the Seurat centennial exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A new book by him is always an event, and the Yale University Press has done him proud with Seurat: Drawings and Paintings. As a physical object, this book seduces the reader, starting with the jacket cover, which reproduces in scrupulous color the Woman with a Monkey (1884) in the Smith College collection.

It should be said that, although this is a most welcome publication, it is not “a new book.” It is largely a reprint of canonical essays, some of which have long been out of print. Others, while included in the catalog to the Seurat exhibition at the Met in 1991, reappear in a more manageable format. The 150 illustrations help the reader at every stage, and the sequence throughout is that of Seurat’s chronology. The new material includes a long essay, “Parade de Cirque and the Scientific Aesthetic of Charles Henry,” which appeared in French in the Revue de l’Art in 1980, and a shorter piece on Seurat’s Port-en-Bessin, Sunday, which completes the discussion of the six paintings that Seurat produced in Port-en-Bessin in 1888.

Professor Herbert identifies himself as “the empirical historian who begins with the work of art.” Once face to face with a work of art, he gives it his whole attention, undistractedly. What he sees is what he talks about, and vice versa. And he goes straight to the point in language that is simple, clear, and exact. Of Seurat’s drawings in the early 1880s he says, for instance,

The particular resonance of his works in black and white, especially his figure compositions, remains unique. What makes these drawings immediately identifiable as his creations, and no one else’s, is the way their stately, simple shapes arise from an interlace of light and dark from which they cannot be separated.

It is, in other words, the paper itself that generates the light in these drawings. The image is not “drawn,” either with pencil or pen and ink. It is heaved into being by the marks left on the paper ridges by the Conté crayon. To that extent, Seurat reinvented the potential of drawing. Through such insights, Herbert has been setting the standard since 1958, when he worked on the Seurat exhibition for Chicago (and later for New York), which was the most comprehensive to have been held anywhere up to that time.

Almost anyone who thinks about, let alone writes about, the drawings and paintings of Seurat is subject from time to time to a hallucination. Somewhere in the next room—or so it seems—there can be heard the tap, tap, tap of Robert L. Herbert getting down to bedrock about Seurat. That bedrock tap can be heard over and over again in Seurat: Drawings and Paintings. It is especially clear when Herbert is disentangling an experience that is not in itself pellucid.

Here he is, for instance, looking at Seurat’s handling of the narrow entrance to the inner harbor in Port-en-Bessin, “which is so thickly surrounded by buildings that only ships’ masts give tokens of its location.” The houses are bunched up and pressing against one another, but Seurat gave them his best attention nonetheless, and Herbert keeps company with him every last inch of the way. The slate gray of houses results, he tells us,

from the juxtaposition of olive greens, orange, olive orange, orange-tan, blue, and lavender-blue, enhanced by the contrasting tans, yellows, and oranges of the sunny sides facing the western sun. Above, the acid greens of the distant hills are accompanied by oranges, tans, and russets.

Herbert goes on to say that in “the band of color from the base of the quays to the top of the hills…one can count more than thirty tints embracing the entire spectrum: purple, red, blue, green, yellow, and orange.”

Yet Herbert’s book is put forward not as an apotheosis, but as a series of hard-won observations. “By placing [them] before the reader,” the author says, “I hope to vindicate the rest of my work while offering lessons in how to read drawings and paintings.” Herbert not only looked at the work. He looked at the firsthand witness evidence that still had much to yield. For instance, a telling appendix to his 1991 catalog was devoted to Seurat’s close friend in his school years and after, the painter Aman-Jean. Aman-Jean is now best remembered for Seurat’s portrait of him, which Herbert called “one of the great portrait drawings of the nineteenth century.”

In 1878 Seurat and Aman-Jean had been in Henri Lehmann’s class at the École des Beaux-Arts. It was a setting in which Seurat did not shine. (In his first two competitions at the École, he was first 67th and then 77th out of 80.) Nor was Henri Lehmann an inspiring teacher. (Aman-Jean said of him that he was “only one of Ingres’s pawns and never said anything that opened up a vista or gave young people a leg up.”)

Aman-Jean remembered the young Seurat as looking like Donatello’s Saint George in the Bargello in Florence. “Instinct and talent dominated Seurat’s whole being,” Aman-Jean said. “Our discussions were endless, our sojourns in the country prolonged.” Aman-Jean also said that “drawing, thoroughly understood,…put Seurat on the right path. Drawing is always quibbled over; many well-known professionals will never understand anything about it. In our youth Puvis de Chavannes did not know how to draw.”

Yet another of Herbert’s appendices in 1991 listed every one of Seurat’s known references to Delacroix. Seurat had a lifelong admiration for Delacroix and took every opportunity of seeing any work from his hand that was either up for auction or in a dealer’s gallery. Delacroix had died as recently as 1863, less than twenty years before Seurat was actively researching his achievement. He was as close to Delacroix, in time, as we are to Picasso. Any firsthand account of Delacroix had therefore a special immediacy for Seurat.

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