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.
One of the most haunting drawings in the exhibition catalog is a blurred, ogrelike image of a grave and self-absorbed man seated at a table eating, with a large bottle of wine next to him. And one of the most memorable descriptions we have of Seurat’s family life is contained in a letter in which Signac identifies this sinister-looking man as Seurat’s father, and gives a telling account of the Tuesday dinners that he presided over:
[Seurat’s father] was endowed with a mechanical arm, not from birth—although he possessed a strong enough personality to justify such originality—but the result of a hunting accident, I believe. At table he would screw on to the end of this arm knives and forks which allowed him to cut, with celerity and even passion, filets and roasts, fowl and game. He positively juggled with these pointed and sharp-edged arms, and whenever I was seated next to him, I feared for my eyes. Georges paid no attention whatsoever to these vaudeville antics.5
The richness and originality of paintings like A Bathing Place, Asnières or La Grande Jatte would be remarkable no matter what the age of the artist who had produced them. That they were done by so young a man makes them even more so. And that someone so young could have produced works reflecting so acute an awareness of the historical situation of avant-garde painting at a crucial moment in the 1880s, and who invented such a strong and radical response to it, is no less than astonishing.
As Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat points out in his insightful but poorly documented book, Seurat’s early style was a powerful act of synthesis, at once clearly rooted in a number of previous styles and surprisingly original. And he was able to achieve it, apparently, in large measure because of his capacity for concentration and dispassion:
He took only what he needed and no more. There was nothing tentative about the man: he never gives the impression of having succumbed to an influence; he selected instead. He studied the pictures of Delacroix without taking any interest in their movement. He heeded Millet’s lessons, but disregarded his pathos. He contemplated Puvis de Chavannes’s compositions, but without brooding over their nebulous mythology.
In considering the future, Seurat seems to have been as cool-headed as he was when regarding the past. He built his new style upon a rather unlikely combination of the fixed, historically aware values of the dying classical tradition and the relativistic, essentially nonhistorical approach to contemporary life espoused by the Impressionists, who in the mid-1880s were themselves full of self-doubt about what they perceived as a lack of solidity in their art. Seurat’s large paintings not only combined and mediated between these two different ways of painting but did so in a fresh and provocative way.
During the less than five years left to him after he first exhibited La Grande Jatte, Seurat was constantly developing and altering his method, pushing it as far as he could. Some might even say that he eventually pushed it too far, and that his last paintings are like grotesque caricatures of his earlier method. When he died in the spring of 1891 he left behind not only one of the most intriguing bodies of work in all European painting, but also the tantalizing question of what he would have done if he had lived longer, and how that work might have altered the history of modern painting.
Less than a year before he died, Seurat composed a letter to the journalist Maurice Beaubourg in which he sought to set the record straight about his theory of art and the details of his development. In this unmailed letter, a draft of which is displayed in the last gallery of the Seurat exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the artist lists his most important paintings, principally the large masterpieces: A Bathing Place, Asnières, A Sunday on la Grande Jatte, Models, and Chahut.6
One of the wonders of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is that it manages to succeed as well as it does even though every one of these masterpieces is missing, whether because of the fragility of the pictures in question or the lending restrictions of the museums that own them. By necessity, this exhibition is in large measure organized around those very absences, and entire galleries are dedicated to the oil studies and drawings for A Bathing Place, Asnières and La Grande Jatte. The inclusion of so many painted studies for the large compositions, many of which were done directly from the motifs, gives a fairly clear idea of how those compositions evolved. It also gives an unexpectedly intimate view of Seurat, whose drawings and small paintings were often more openly poetic than his grand compositions. And as the comparative photographs of his seascape motifs in Seurat at Gravelines make clear, even Seurat’s most synthetic-looking late imagery was rooted to a surprising degree in direct observation.
The current exhibition opened in Paris, where the contents varied only slightly from what we see in New York, but where the installation and the overall effect that it produced were so different that the New York version seems to be a separate show. The most striking difference is that in Paris the paintings and drawings were displayed separately, with the drawings lined up along the sides of a dark tunnel-like space that had some of the eerie effects of viewing exotic specimens in an aquarium. This was very dramatic, but seeing so many drawings together also made it hard to concentrate fully on particular images and tended to create a misleading sense of separation between the drawings and paintings. More than for most of his contemporaries, Seurat’s drawings were an integral part of his painting procedure. Even their technique is ultimately quite painterly in its emphasis on large tonal areas and in the way the artist uses the grain of the paper to produce an optical vibration similar to that created by the dotlike brushmarks in the paintings.
In Paris, the four missing master-pieces were evoked by full-sized black and white photographs, each of which was visible from the galleries in which the studies for it were shown. Although this drew a good deal of criticism, I thought that it was a good, and an honest, way of dealing with the difficult situation of having so many key works missing. At the Metropolitan Museum, the curators were reluctant to display the large photographs together with the paintings but they have devised an equally effective compromise by putting them in a reading room about halfway through the show.
The American and French editions of the catalog are also radically different, even though they document and catalog the same pictures. As if to distinguish itself unequivocally from its French counterpart, the American edition of the catalog is even physically different from it—horizontal rather than vertical in format, to better accomodate Seurat’s predominantly horizontal pictures.
Although the French edition is more handsomely designed, the American one is better in every other way. It is better organized, has a far superior index, and better illustrations. One in-explicable flaw, however, is that the reproductions of both A Bathing Place, Asnières and La Grande Jatte are severely cropped, making meaningful comparison between the studies and the final pictures all the more difficult.
But the main thing to be said about this catalog, written largely by Robert L. Herbert, is that it is an impressive and useful book in its own right, combining an excellent synthesis of previous writing about Seurat with the contributors’ own original insights. Herbert has been writing about Seurat for over thirty years and he knows as much about his subject as anyone alive. Here he shares that knowledge with an exemplary thoroughness and generosity, in what is not only one of the best books about Seurat but also one of the finest museum catalogs that has been recently published about a single artist.
The catalog is arranged chronologically, with the chapterlike units organized around specific themes and major works. This gives Herbert and his coauthors the opportunity to combine biographical and social background with detailed discussions of individual works, and they make the most of it. This format, moreover, draws upon what I take to be Herbert’s greatest strength as a scholar: his ability to mix a deep knowledge of paintings and drawings as physical objects with an acute awareness of the way they embody ideas and can be understood as social documents. In this catalog he balances these different qualities—connoisseurship, exegesis, and social history—in an especially valuable way.
Herbert’s stated aim is to take a fresh look at Seurat and to reevaluate many of the myths that have sprung up around him. These include misconceptions about Seurat being a frail, unproductive artist (in fact he was energetic and quite prolific), and about his art being “all but abstract,” whereas in fact “his pictures are brilliant visual distillations of psychological and social meanings.” Herbert also deals thoroughly and intelligently with Seurat’s understanding and use of contemporary scientific theory, and argues that although Seurat was posthumously adopted by the anarchists, his political beliefs—like so much else—remain obscure.
Most importantly, Herbert makes the crucial point that Seurat cannot be seen in a monolithic way, that he himself simultaneously embodied, and indeed seemed to cultivate, a number of opposing positions in both his art and his life. He was both a classicist and a modernist, a realist and a symbolist, a theorist and a pragmatist, a conservative and a radical. In fact, as Herbert points out, Seurat’s credo was based on his conviction that “Art is Harmony,” but with harmony conceived of as the analogy of opposites as well as of similarities.
These oppositions are seen to run throughout Seurat’s paintings, especially in the contrapuntal way they combine both cohesion and separateness—in form as well as in subject. Herbert and his coauthors are generally alert to the paradoxes and contradictions of Seurat’s art and their discussions of the individual paintings are generally full and rewarding. At times, however, Herbert has a tendency to be too rigid about how Seurat’s paintings should be interpreted. In some cases, he is very subjective about how the elements in a painting should be read, and then argues quite dogmatically with those who disagree with his own value judgments, as if his judgments were objective facts. A good case in point is his discussion of La Grande Jatte.
This painting has been variously interpreted, particularly in relation to whether it embodies an optimistic or pessimistic vision of late-nineteenth-century French society. Is the painting an image of hellish boredom and alienation as writers such as Ernst Bloch and Linda Nochlin have maintained? Or can it be characterized by what Herbert refers to as order, companionship, and loving relationships? Although Herbert gives an intelligent summary of the diversity of opinion about this painting, arguing initially for a “dialogue of cohesion and separateness” as the most convincing reading of La Grande Jatte, he is unwilling to allow that not everyone will see this dialogue as favoring the dominance of social cohesion.
He himself sees the painting as representing an optimistic view of society and takes issue with critics who see it as depicting anomie or a lack of social cohesion, and who believe that “the picture thus portrays the opposite of a utopia.” This view he ascribes to “the pessimism of our own generation,” since it supposedly denies Seurat’s notion of harmony in both opposites and similarities. It seems to me, however, that the pessimistic interpretation Herbert criticizes is a reasonable one, in view of the way the painting is composed. I was thus surprised by the heat of Herbert’s somewhat convoluted argument against this position, especially by his stunningly reductive assertion that “Social malaise has no place here.” For it is one thing for Herbert to say that social malaise has no place in his subjective reading of the painting, but quite another to say that the painting shouldn’t suggest it to anyone else either—especially since so many commentators have seen it in precisely those terms.
In fact, since La Grande Jatte has been interpreted in such contradictory ways, it might be more fruitful to consider what there is about the painting that seems to provoke such divergent interpretations rather than trying to decide which one of them might be “right.” And here it might be useful to see how Seurat’s thought developed while he was working on the painting, by comparing the finished picture with the Metropolitan Museum’s small study for it.
One of the most striking differences between the two pictures is how much less natural the relative scale of the figures is in the final picture and how much more defined the figures are. This implies a progression from a relatively unified and naturalistic space to a more disjointed and symbolic one, and a simultaneous sharpening of both the physical and psychological definitions of the characters.
This kind of dual vision can be especially well seen in the evolution of the three seated figures—two men and a woman—in the left-hand foreground of the final painting. In the study, these figures appear to be together. They are dressed in a generally similar way and seem to behave as one might expect middle-class people to do in a public park at four o’clock in the afternoon. But in the final painting, these three people are dressed differently, in what one might call high, middle, and low modes of self-presentation, and the quirky differences in their relative physical size further separate them; although they are placed in proximity to each other on the surface of the canvas, within the occupied space of the picture they are clearly not together. This tension between physical proximity and psychological separation runs throughout the painting.
Indeed, these three people appear to be so different that it is hard to conceive of anything they might have in common, other than that they are occupying adjoining parts of the same public space. It is hard to imagine what interest the dandy with the top hat and cane might have in the homely skills of the woman who is embroidering, or what either of them might have to say to the bare-armed man who is so aggressively absorbed in smoking his pipe.
The man in the sleeveless red shirt is particularly interesting. If in 1991 he looks like a working-class man of indeterminate occupation, he was evidently not much more clearly definable in 1886, when he was described as a jockey. And although Herbert and others have argued that he is not necessarily a working-class man, it seems that he in any case assumes a distinctly déclassé role in relation to the other people in the foreground of the painting.7
Moreover, distinct differences of milieu, if not of class, are clearly suggested by other details that were added or refined in the final painting. None perhaps is more subtly revealing or more amusing than the small dog that dashes past the monkey in the foreground of the final painting, a direct echo to the running girl in the middle distance. Significantly, the little dog with the ribbon tied around its neck, the very type of the spoiled little city dog, is running directly toward the big black hound dog that sniffs the earth behind the bare-armed man in the red shirt. (His master? Whom do these dogs belong to, anyway?) A contrast is suggested between the outdoor dog and the indoor dog—and perhaps even between the proletarian hound dog and the feisty bourgeois lap dog that runs toward it with the enthusiasm that small dogs so frequently seem to feel for large ones.
These and other changes between the study and the final work suggest that Seurat developed the characters in his painting almost as if they were characters in a novel—constantly refining, sharpening, and redefining them to give them as much presence, clarity, wit, and import as possible. But while the final painting is full of telling details and gestures, it refuses to impose an editorial viewpoint on those gestures, or to take a clear moral position in relation to what it shows.
It is apparent that as Seurat worked on the large final painting, he went out of his way to reinforce and emphasize the physical and psychological disconnection between the often highly individuated characters within it. In doing so, he also increased the tension between the isolation and quirkiness of the individual figures and the sense of order and measure that dominates the formal ensemble. (And here, the relatively uninflected touch of his little dots of paint plays a capital role.)
The dynamics of the picture thus suggest a tension between personal alienation and public order, in which private anomie is barely contained by the impersonal structure of society. The underlying sense of the layers and disorder of social life is also subtly suggested by the boats in the background, which not only represent different kinds of locomotion—sail, rowing, and steam—but which also imply the different “classes” of activity: pleasure, sport, and work. And as if to heighten these contrasts, the opposing curves of the sails and the divergent puffs of smoke suggest that the wind in this part of the painting is blowing from two different directions.
Is this then primarily a painting of harmony or of discord? The answer, I think, is that it represents both at the same time, each set against the other in about equal measure—and in this sense it may be seen as an accurate reflection of French society of the time. One of the glories of this phase of Seurat’s style is its capacity to express such finely balanced ambiguity without being merely bland.
La Grande Jatte suggests that Seurat was a sharp observer of the contradictions within French society but had no prescriptions to make in relation to them. As John Russell has pointed out, Seurat’s critique of society is that of a poet, not a politician.8
By the end of the decade Seurat’s painting style was radically changing. His images became more linear and decorative, his application of paint became more accented, and the people represented became emptier and more cartoonlike. (At this time he also became interested in making painted frames for his paintings, and the few that have survived tend to exaggerate the decorative effects of the canvases they surround.) Late pictures like Chahut or Circus have a dryness, a studied artificiality, and indeed an exaggeratedly mechanical look that many people have found puzzling and disagreeable. They also seem to be distinctly more pessimistic than the earlier paintings, and to imply a more cynical view of society.
In retrospect, these late works seem to be very forward-looking in the way that they anticipate different aspects of early twentieth-century modernism. The eerily silent and vacant seascapes that Seurat did at Gravelines in 1890, or his 1888 view of Port-en-Bessin, with its flags fluttering in an airless breeze, seem to anticipate certain aspects of surrealism and of the scuola metafisica, especially the enigmatic and melancholy paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Even some of Seurat’s earlier works contain illogical and dream-like imagery that might be generally characterized as surrealistic.
At the same time, the rhythmically repeated forms and depersonalized dynamism of the dancers in Chahut seem especially close to the spirit of Italian Futurist painting. And indeed the Futurists were deeply indebted to the divided touch and divided color of the Neoimpressionists, which provided them with the basic methods upon which they developed their style. Similarly, Robert Delaunay acknowledged his debt to Seurat as the discoverer of the “simultaneous contrasts” that formed the basis for Orphism. The Cubists were also keenly interested in Seurat’s late paintings, which they valued particularly for their abstract, premeditated quality, and for their daring use of popular imagery. As the poet and critic André Salmon observed, “the first cubist studios were hung with photographs of works by Ingres and Seurat, notably the Chahut, one of the great icons of the new devotion.”9 In fact, virtually every major early twentieth-century modernist went through at least a brief Neo-impressionist phase, for the style provided an essential element to the development of advanced painting after the turn of the century.
This variety of forward-looking characteristics in Seurat’s art makes all the more intriguing the question of what Seurat might have done had he lived into the next century. This is of course impossible to know, but I believe that in Seurat’s case speculation on the matter is not entirely idle, for it allows us better to situate the place that his work occupied within modernist painting in general at the time of his death.
On the evidence of Seurat’s late works, one possibility is that his style would have become increasingly rigid and formulaic, and that he would have become a dry and academic minor master like Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilian Luce, or Charles Angrand, whose works are currently on view in “Neo-Impressionism: The Friends and Followers of Georges Seurat,” an interesting exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum’s Lehman wing.
Indeed, for many years Signac in particular assumed the mantle of Seurat and acted as a kind of surrogate for him. By the mid-1890s, most younger artists had lost interest in Neoimpressionism and it was partly in order to rectify this situation that Signac wrote D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, which was published as a series of articles in La Revue Blanche in May–July 1898 and as a book the following year.
This influential work is an important historical document in several senses. To my knowledge, it is the first attempt to codify the history of modernist painting and place it within a clear developmental framework. According to Signac, the essential elements of modern painting were divided touch and divided color, which would “guarantee maximum brightness” to painting.
Signac describes what he sees as a progression from Delacroix’s hatched brush strokes to the comma-shaped brush strokes and purer colors of the Impressionists. He then argues that pure painting achieves its ultimate realization in the Neoimpressionists’ transformation of Impressionism into the “methodical and scientific technique” of divided touch and optical mixture of pure colors.
Signac’s dogmatic book presents a spirited “défense et illustration” of Neoimpressionist practice and exercised a great influence on a number of early twentieth-century painters. Moreover, for many years his account of Seurat’s practice was the one most commonly read and believed, so it has also had an important part within the historiography of Neoimpressionism.
The first English translation of this book is thus a welcome event, even though Floyd Ratliff’s edition of it is something of a disappointment. Ratliff, a retired professor of biophysics and physiological psychology, gives an informed account of both nineteenth-century and current color theory, but his attempts to relate that theory to the art of either Seurat or Signac are distinctly amateurish and do not really add much to what has already been written more concisely elsewhere.
More disappointing, though, is the lack of critical apparatus for Signac’s text, which is adequately translated but almost entirely unannotated. This would have been an excellent opportunity to relate Signac’s text directly to the various phases of Neoimpressionist practice, and to reevaluate its influence on the development of modern painting. At the least, one would have hoped for the kind of accurate documentation of Signac’s sources that is provided by Françoise Cachin in her annotated French edition of the book.10
In fact, precisely because of its emphasis on the individual brush strokes that were the basic units of his divided touch and color, Signac’s book seems to have prepared the way for an interpretation of Neoimpressionism quite different from either his own or Seurat’s. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the response of the youthful Henri Matisse, who first read Signac’s text during the summer of 1898, just when he himself had begun to grapple with many of the issues that Signac discusses. The way that Matisse and other twentieth-century artists responded to the technique outlined in Signac’s text was to have a powerful effect on the subsequent development of French painting. For while they ultimately rejected the precise method that it proposed, they extracted from it the important notion of the potentially autonomous nature of individual brush strokes.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the arts of design were frequently and loosely conceived of as a type of language that could be said to have a kind of grammatical structure, as in Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin of 1867, which had a deep influence on Seurat’s ideas. But the parallel between pictures and language was not more than a very approximate general notion that had virtually no practical application.
As Signac points out, however, the traditional relationship between brush strokes and the images they described was drastically changed by the Impressionists, whose conspicuous small dabs of paint created a new awareness of the distinction between the brush mark on the surface of the picture and what that mark was supposed to represent. From this point forward, it was possible to conceive of paintings as simultaneously employing two related but parallel pictorial systems: the one a network of highly visible surface marks, and the other a view into the illusionistic space that those marks described. For the first time, it was possible to conceive of paintings as actually having a kind of surface syntax of brush marks, which called inevitable attention to themselves as a potentially separate and discrete system of communication.
According to Signac, the Impressionists did not sufficiently systematize the way they divided their touch and their color; the invention of such a system was the great innovation of the Neoimpressionists. Because Signac was in effect proselytizing for the Neoimpressionist style, he put particular emphasis on its technical and structural implications and on how valuable they could be for future artists, for whom he believed the divisionist method promised “still more fruitful resources to come.”
And indeed the divisionism invented by Seurat was to have an important second life, though in a way that was quite different from what Signac had hoped. From our present perspective, it seems that perhaps the greatest innovation that came out of Neoimpressionism was not so much the division of touch and color to provide maximum chromatic brilliance, as the notion of the divided touch as a constituent element of a gridlike system of small, somewhat repetitive brush marks that clearly and systematically distinguish themselves from what they are representing.
When you look at a Neoimpressionist painting, you are constantly aware of the fact that you are seeing the image through a kind of screen, and that this screen has something like an independent existence, virtually separate from what it represents. (One of Ratliff’s most interesting observations is that a “veil” of translucent color often seems to hang over Neoimpressionist paintings, a kind of aura that emanates directly from the network of surface marks.)
Signac was aware that the small, regular marks of paint indeed had a kind of existence of their own and he describes this phenomenon by means of the analogy between painting and music that had been dominant since the time of Delacroix. In his discussion of the desirable viewing distance for Neoimpressionist paintings, Signac compares the individual brush strokes to musical sounds, noting that “when listening to a symphony, one [sits]…in the place where the sounds of the different instruments blend into the harmony desired by the composer,” but that afterward one can dissect the score, “note by note, and so study the manner of its orchestration.” Likewise, the viewer of a Neoimpressionist painting could “come closer in order to study the interplay of the colored elements, supposing that these technical details are of interest.”
For Matisse, these “technical details” were of enormous interest. The divided touch of the Neoimpressionists provided the point of departure for his realization that individual brush strokes could act as abstract forces, virtually independent of representation, and this—combined with his later understanding of Cézanne—formed the basis of his so-called fauve style. A few years later, the notion of the small dotlike brush stroke as an abstract syntactic unit was also picked up by the Futurists, who used it to describe abstractions such as movement as well as material things. They and painters such as Delaunay also developed the overtly metaphysical implications of the halolike effect that Seurat called “irradiation.” And Picasso and Braque, at the height of their most abstract Cubist style around 1910–1912, also employed a system of small dablike brush marks that directly referred to Neoimpressionist practice.
Which if any of these various directions Seurat (who would have been only fifty-one years old in 1911) might have followed had he lived, or what else he might have accomplished, is of course impossible to say. But what was subsequently built upon the accomplishment of his brief career has had an incalculable effect upon the history of modern painting.
November 7, 1991
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. ↩
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. ↩
Alfred Paulet, “Les Impressionistes,” Paris, June 5, 1886; as cited in Dorra and Rewald, Seurat, p. 160. ↩
John Gage, “The Technique of Seurat: A Reappraisal,” Art Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 3 (September 1987), p. 454. ↩
Letter from Signac to Félix Fénéon, as translated in Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat’s book, p. 13. This drawing was exhibited only in Paris. ↩
In another draft of this letter, Seurat describes the same four large canvases as his “toiles de lutte” (“canvases of combat“), which he said he preferred to all of his “landscape studies.” It is possible that the fourth canvas referred to was Circus Parade instead of Chahut, but the former is considerably smaller than the others. See the exhibition catalog, p. 273. ↩
The reference to a jockey is made by Fouquier in “Les Impressionnistes,” Le XIXe Siècle, May 16, 1886: as cited in Dorra and Rewald, Seurat, p. 158. In the exhibition catalog, Herbert identifies this figure as a canotier (p. 175) and a “muscular boatman” (p. 176). T.J. Clark, in The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 265, refers to him as “a worker dressed in sleeveless shirt and a jockey cap.” In the special Grande Jatte issue of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Museum Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1989), S. Hollis Clayson (p. 163) says Seurat gave the man “a defiant, proletarian body,” but “provided him with a less explosive wrapping: clothing that indicates his affiliation with rowing.” In the same issue of Museum Studies Mary Mathews Gedo (p. 231) cautiously refers to him as “the so-called canotier, or rower” and discusses the difficulty of assigning class identifications to the figures in the painting. ↩
John Russell, Seurat (Thames and Hudson, 1965), p. 218. ↩
André Salmon, “Georges Seurat,” The Burlington Magazine, September 1920; as cited in Norma Broude, editor, Seurat in Perspective (Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 60. The Cubists were not unanimous about late Seurat, however. In 1914 Fernand Léger called Neoimpressionism “a very small circle of which nothing of value remains,” and said that “Seurat was one of the great victims of this mediocre formula in many of his pictures,” in contrast to Cézanne, who had a greater “sensitivity to the contrasts of forms.” See Edward Fry, editor, Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger (Viking, 1973), p. 17. ↩
Paul Signac, D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme (Paris: Hermann, 1964 and 1987). ↩