Museum of Modern Art, 269 pp., $49.95
Impressionism, our impression is, proceeded by instinct, its stabs of high color pursuing what the eyes of Monet and Renoir and Pissarro and Sisley found in the open air, as sunlight’s spectrum flitted across the sight of haystacks, poppy-dotted fields, and rippled water. Analysis was left to Postimpressionism, whose varied masters, with a greater or lesser degree of programmatic determination, put forward terms for their own art and the art of the future. Neither Cézanne nor Van Gogh was more resolutely theoretical than Georges Seurat. Born in 1859 and dead at the age of thirty-one, in 1891, Seurat was temperamentally taciturn—Pissarro called him “mute”—and confided a statement of his theories to paper only once, in an unsent three-page letter of August 28, 1890, in response to queries from the critic Maurice Beaubourg.
In it Seurat wrote, “Art is Harmony,” and “Harmony is the analogy of opposites,” that is, of complementary colors, which he lists: “Red—Green, Orange—Blue, Yellow—Violet.” But not only opposites (contraires) are enlisted in the effects but “similarities” (semblables); Jodi Hauptman’s introduction to the catalog of Seurat’s drawings translates a section of his difficult text as
The means of expression is the optical mixture of tones, of tints, that is, of the lights and of their reactions (shadows), following the laws of contrast, of gradation, of irradiation.
From scientific studies of color by Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and David Sutter, Seurat had extracted the concept that, to the human retina, each spot of pure color bears a halo of its complement.
On this abstruse principle he based pointillism, or divisionism, a painstaking method of painting in discrete dots whose intense colors are mixed in the viewer’s eye. Seurat’s palette was closely patterned on Chevreul’s color disk—four basic colors and their intermediaries were mixed with varying amounts of white and applied in carefully separated dots. So quixotically pedantic a technique achieved vindication in the first two major paintings Seurat produced—A Bathing Place, Asnières (1883) and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886)—and several smaller sea-scapes; they are stately, serene, and soaked in light as few canvases are. La Grande Jatte, especially, caused a controversial sensation with its “scientific Impressionism.” The influence of pointillism extended beyond Seurat’s few immediate followers, of which Paul Signac was the foremost, to Van Gogh, Cubism, Paul Klee, Robert Delaunay, and Wassily Kandinsky, who wrote that Seurat had showed “not a fragment of Nature…but Nature complete and entire in all her splendor.” The marriage of art to scientific principles remains a chimerical goal appealing to this day; Chuck Close’s photorealism by the patient means of a grid of abstract daubs is admired in Richard Shiff’s catalog essay.
The exhibition of Seurat’s drawings at the Museum of Modern Art gets some welcome color from a few oil studies for paintings and from small photographic reproductions of paintings for which some drawings were preliminary …