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.

One such account was written just after Delacroix’s death by the many-sided and hyperactive Charles Blanc (1813–1882), who was a veteran in the French art scene as a historian, critic, teacher, founder of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and power behind the scenes. When he was still only sixteen, Seurat seems to have read Blanc’s memorial essay on Delacroix. Seurat himself was sometimes thought to be secretive, solitary, and initially unforthcoming. This being so, it must have struck home to him that Blanc said that Delacroix had been “withdrawn, silent, solitary, ceaselessly inventing, drawing, and painting, locking his door in order to keep his excitement to himself.”

Later, in November 1881, Seurat made minute and lengthy notes about some paintings by Delacroix that he had seen at the dealer Goupil’s. His words jump from the page: of a painting of an Oriental, for instance, he said, “Very finished head, marvelous. What is especially interesting is the way this canvas is treated: a marvel of values, the background not done at all, the cloak painted thickly where the ornaments are stitched in gold.” And later he writes, “This little head is a marvel. Shadows and everything else are hatched and vibrate: cheekbones, the turban’s shadows.”

Aman-Jean had said that Seurat was “well read and had a taste for the difficult.” It was to be in character that the last formal occasion that Seurat attended, in February 1891, was to be a literary banquet in honor of the poet Jean Moréas, at which Stéphane Mallarmé was chairman. This was not a token appearance, but the last of many occasions on which he bestirred himself for writers whom he admired.

Robert Herbert has always had a conspicuous gift for plain statement. When he is through telling us, for instance, about the paper (Michallet) and the crayon (Conté) that Seurat so often used in his drawings, we feel as if we had held them in our own hands. The paper was

a heavy-textured, high-quality rag paper, milky white when fresh but a creamy off-white after long exposure to light. Seurat chose Michallet, a brand of “Ingres paper” (so named because it was favored by that master). To produce Michallet paper (a laid paper), the fluid paste was deposited on a screen which left in the dried product a conspicuous grain of parallel ridges, rather like flattened-out corduroy wales. The ridges con-sist of tufted and slightly irregular fibers; when Seurat lightly stroked the paper’s surface, the tufts caught the crayon here and there, while the valleys between the ridges were untouched.

As for the Conté crayon, it is

a solid, greasy medium which is easier to handle than charcoal, since it does not crumble or smudge as readily, and the degree of darkness is directly related to the pressure used. It is soft enough to leave its mark no matter how lightly applied, but since it does not turn to dust as charcoal does, it does not color the paper’s white valleys. Conté is too hard to be easily stroked broadside like charcoal, and Seurat used the point, often blunted, to build up his grays in characteristic hatchings and arabesques.

Even if readers have never seen a drawing by Seurat, those passages will give them an idea of the specific physicality that they will find there (and nowhere else).

To learn to know Seurat’s drawings in the original, one by one, is the task of a lifetime. As to the Bathing Place and the Grande Jatte, opinion is not yet united, and quite possibly never will be. In the matter of the Bathing Place, Professor Herbert may have decided to pass. But about the Grande Jatte he says much that was long overdue. Here illusions long cherished elsewhere are shown the door. Even the primacy of the dot is dismantled. “The famous dots,” he says,

are not even dots. They are small touches of paint in various shapes that shift and flow with the images and are interlocked with the underlying paint. Moreover, they do not determine a picture’s coloration because, although they contribute to it, they are only the final strokes atop a complex net of brushwork.

Herbert also points out that Seurat’s development was not, as is sometimes supposed, that of a pioneer scientist. It was permeated by ideas and feelings that were fundamental to his immediate predecessors in French painting. Seurat, he says,

developed a logical method of applying paint (as did Ingres); he theorized acutely and read widely in aesthetics (as did Delacroix); he reacted to what he saw in nature while transforming it into pictorial structure (as did Monet). His paintings are not the result of a methodically applied recipe but are the products of a creative and experimental talent (as are Matisse’s); his drawings, limited to black crayon on paper, are inevitably different from his multi-layered oil paintings (as are Millet’s).

Ever since the centenary of the Grande Jatte in the mid-1980s, strongly held views have been flying around like meteorites, the most extreme among them expressed by a German Marxist historian and philosopher, Ernst Bloch. As quoted by Linda Nochlin in The ‘Grande Jatte’ at 100, a special issue of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Museum Studies, Bloch saw the painting as “one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing and the incongruities of a dolce far niente.” Seurat had depicted this “merely with scorn,” and the result, in Bloch’s view, was “a landscape of suicide which, because it lacks resolve, does not come off.”

What on the contrary does come off, in Professor Nochlin’s opinion, is the contrasted typology of the two most conspicuous figures in the Grande Jatte. In that context, she singles out what she calls

the sharp, critical detailing of the motif of a hand holding a cigar and the mechanical roundness of the head of a cane, both forms aggressively signifying the class-coded masculinity of the male “diagram,” as opposed to the systematically circular shapes of the clothing, almost topiary in its shearing down of the living raw material, of his equally socially specific female companion.

Linda Nochlin is normally the most limpid of writers. But if we are to speak of topiary, this formulation could do with a touch of the shears.

Robert Herbert sorts out these and other contentious matters with never a word wasted. The Grande Jatte, he says,

should…be seen as an artifice, devoted to a social institution whose setting is contrived—parks are not “nature,” but artificial stages for human action—and whose participants deal in the stratagems of self-presentation. Parks were ideal places for strangers to display themselves to one another without providing clues to their individual identities.

The “stratagems of self-presentation” in the Grande Jatte can, of course, be misread. At the top right corner of the Grande Jatte there are, for instance, a man and a woman who have sometimes been routinely identified as a prostitute and her protector. This idea is said to have been launched in an English magazine in May 1886, and has been attributed to George Moore, an English belles-lettrist who rated himself highly as a judge of women. As the painting was not on view in Paris until May 15 of that year, the author—whether Moore or not—must have been remarkably quick off the mark.

In any case, Robert Herbert totally repudiates the notion of the woman in the Grande Jatte as a prostitute: “She has absolutely nothing of con-temporary representations of ‘loose women’ about her, either in gesture or in her costume, a kind widely advertised and bought by respectable middle-class women.” Nor does anyone who knew Seurat ever seem to have suggested it, even in private correspondence.

Herbert also rejects the idea that the scene in the Grande Jatte is basically artificial, contrived, and permeated by an evident malaise. “Once we are accustomed to Seurat’s style,” Herbert says, “we find that his park is characterized not just by order but also by companionship and even by some loving relationships. Social malaise has no place here.” So much for Ernst Bloch’s “landscape of painted suicide.”

It is one of the joys of Herbert’s new book (if I may so call it) that after discussing the Grande Jatte itself he displays eleven of the studies for it and unwraps them for us, one by one, like Christmas presents. Eight of them are in oils, and three are drawings in Conté crayon. Here Herbert is more than ever the empirical critic who concentrates on each image in turn. He begins with the only panel that was painted in the morning, thereby “reversing the sun and shade of the other studies,” and of the final painting.

It is the paradox of Seurat’s high reputation that although English-language academic art historians can now be counted on to comment on class-coding, gender-blindness, and other topics of the day, it is rare for one of them to tackle the quality, the variety, and the sheer abundance of Seurat’s drawings. Herbert knows that Seurat’s drawings encapsulate in one way or another everything from the development of the bustle to the peremptory intrusion of the steam locomotive upon a featureless northern landscape. Seurat could immortalize the look of the Place de la Concorde in winter, with a light snow still white on the ground and a horse and carriage in a hurry to get out of the deserted square, while the onset of a fresh snowfall is forecast by the black overhang of the sky.

Herbert can come up with a reference that is all his own—as when he says that there is an element in Seurat’s portrait of his mother (1882– 1883) that “can as readily be associated with Brancusi as with Vermeer.” In the late 1880s Seurat could do light comedy (as in his drawing, Music Hall Scene, 1887–1888) as delicately as Yvonne Printemps could carry it off on the Parisian stage in the 1930s. And he could also make something majestic out of what Herbert (writing on Scaffolding of 1886–1887) describes as “the strange distortion of space that results when one looks through the complex verticals and horizontals of a scaffolding to the equally uncertain planes and spaces of an unfinished building.”

But then nothing was alien to Seurat, who teased and stretched his fancy until the end of his too-short life. As for the empirical critics, we could do with more of them, young or old, if they are as perceptive as Mr. Herbert.

I should mention as an addendum that there is one aspect of Seurat’s achievement about which Herbert has decided to withdraw. This is the Bathing Place, Asnières. There was nothing perfunctory about what he wrote about the Bathing Place in 1991. But in his opinion it has been “superseded” by the catalog essay for the exhibition “Seurat and The Bathers,” which was seen at the National Gallery in London in 1997.*

The curators of that exhibition, John Leighton and Richard Thomson, had the time, the space, the knowledge, and the backing to investigate the subject in a way that was unhurrying and heavily illustrated (177 plates in all). Even when the subject matter had been memorably covered by Robert Herbert, they had a new “take.”

Of Seurat’s portrait drawing of Aman-Jean they said, for instance, that “as an image of quiet determination and introspection it seems to tell us more about Seurat than about his sitter.” Of their main subject, the Bathing Place, they said that it was not an instrument of aggression but “a bashful, bachelor, fundamentally decorous painting, pioneering a highly individual path between ideal and natural beauty.”

Theirs is a civilized and uncompetitive approach, which combines original research with a sense of awe at how much remained to be said about Seurat. For anyone who admires Seurat, the catalog of their exhibition is required reading.

  1. *

    John Leighton and Richard Thomson, Seurat and The Bathers (Yale University Press, 1997).