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 and Anne Distel and Susan Alyson Stein and Gary Tinterow
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 450 pp., $45.00 (paper)


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


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…

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