Georges-Pierre Seurat was born in Paris on 2 December 1859, child of a petit-bourgeois family. He attended boarding school until the age of sixteen and in 1876 enrolled in the Ruedes Petits-Hôtel municipal art school that was directed by the sculptor Justin Lequien. Here he made the acquaintance of Edmond Adman-Jean. He drew “en plein air” with his uncle, Paul Haumontré-Faivre, an amateur painter. In 1878 he and Aman-Jean were admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study under Henry Lehmann. Seurat frequented the Louvre and read scientific treatises on color, specifically Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (1839) by Chevreul. He met Ernest Laurent. The following year, with his friends Laurent and Aman-Jean he saw the fourth Impressionist exhibition and decided to leave the Ecole and open a studio in Rue de l’Arbalète. Upon his return to Paris after his military service (1880) he rented a studio and became interested in the paintings of Delacroix, Puvis de Chavannes and the Barbizon School. During the first meeting of the group of the “Indépendants” he met Signac. He spent the summer of 1885 at Grandchamp, a port town in Normandy where he painted his first seascapes. There he experimented with and perfected the brush technique known as pointillism. Between 1886 and 1888 he participated in several exhibitions, displaying paintings such as Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, The Models and The Parade. His friendship with Signac and Pissarro took a turn for the worse following an argument prompted by an article written by Arsène-Alexandre. Pissarro left the group, dissatisfied with the excessive rigor of Neo-Impressionism. In 1889 Seurat met Madeleine Knoblock who became his mistress and born him a son, Pierre-Georges. During a brief stay at Crotoy he began experimenting with painted frames. At the 1890 Salon des Indépendants he exhibited eleven paintings including A Young Woman Holding a Powder-puff and Le Chahut. At the following year’s exhibition that he helped organize, Seurat exhibited five paintings, including Le Cirque. He came down with diphtheria and died on 29 March 1891.
Head of a Girl
The very small painting seems to be a sketch and is less finished than Seurat’s drawings from this period. It is probably a portrait of the artist’s cousin. The drawing is precise, and the brushstroke confident. In his attempts to eliminate some contours he ably released masses of light and shadow. And yet, we can readily see that the work was still influenced by the canons of certain academic styles. This figure can be compared to Thomas Couture’s models. In fact, Seurat was to apply and copy this official painter’s precepts on color. Fénéon exhibited it at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1908.
Flowers in a Vase
This is one of Seurat’s earliest works and it reflects his initial studies on color in the wake of Delacroix. He worked with crossed brush and spatula strokes. The subject, one of his few still lifes, is highly stylized and the well-defined masses occupy the foreground. We can feel a sense of volume and a density that herald his mature style. Even in these first attempts we see a great sobriety, a taste for geometric forms and tight frames that will become the distinctive signs of his art. A few years later Pierre Bonnard painted an identical picture with a similar layout.
Forest at Pontaubert
Seurat’s works from this period can be considered experiments. He painted “en plein air” like the Impressionists, experimenting with contrasting colors, light and the direction of lines. The treatment of the leaves and the structure of the landscape, however, reveal the influence of Corot and the “Barbizon School", even if we can already see color combinations that herald “pointillism”. The clever distribution of the lines contributes to “geometrizing” the entire composition. Seurat also used the vertical motif of the tree in the foreground that we see in the Man on the balcony that dates from the same period.
Une Baignade, Asnières
Seurat began working on this painting in 1883 and would go to the banks of the Seine every morning to study the landscape, lights, colors and atmosphere. He did a long series of sketches leading to the final study: 14 paintings and 10 drawings. Then, in his studio he selected and reconstructed the motifs reworking each detail. He very accurately chose positions within the rigorously defined composition. Each figure is minutely finished; he used live models who posed in the atelier. The outcome is a great composition where seven young people are bathing or taking sun on the banks of the Seine, while in the distance we can see the outlines of the new industrial district of Clichy. Presented at the 1884 Salon the painting was rejected only to reappear a short time later at the exhibition of the Indépendants in May of the same year. The painting received a lukewarm reception; it was the technical novelty that created the perplexities.
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
This large painting done between the summer of 1884 and 1885 as Seurat recalled, was prepared according to the same method he followed for the Baignade: in the mornings he sketched outdoors, in the afternoons and evenings he worked on the drawings in his atelier. He carefully studied every element comprising the groups of figures in the atelier using live models. We know of approximately 33 studies and 28 drawings relative to this painting. The composition is based on a more skilled architecture and more complicated rhythms than earlier works. He used the theory of contrasts that he had developed through studies of scientific research and only pure colors. The painting, that was presented at the eighth Impressionist (1886) and at the Societé des Indépendants exhibitions had an immediate success tinted with scandal. But, for Fénéon and Signac it was the manifesto of a new mode of painting.
The Asylum and the Lighthouse, Honfleur
As in his picture of the dockyard at Honfleur, this painting offers an idealized glimpse of the place and its activities in an almost metaphysical atmosphere. On the right of the painting there are some elements that have been cut by the frame, creating the illusion that they go well beyond the edges of the painting. The truncated images, the effects of vastness may have been influenced by photography. Verhaeren purchased the painting in Brussels where Seurat had sent it for the 1887 exhibition of the Societé des XX. Verhaeren said, “never have the details of grandeur been achieved with such precision”. And in 1887 Huysmans wrote, “His views of Honfleur, especially the lighthouse, express a nature that is more drowsy than melancholy, a nature that rests quietly beneath a windless sky.”
The Bridge at Courbevoie
In this small painting we find several of Seurat’s preferred motifs: the sloping shore that forms a great diagonal; the vertical silhouette of the lonely tree; the truncated mass of leaves that breaks the angle of the picture, the horizontal median line, the vertical masts of the boats, the industrial landscape behind. The human figures are solitary and melancholy mannequins. The lowered planes and unreal reflections confer an air of pictorial fantasy to the landscape altering the descriptive aspect of the composition.
Les Poseuses (The Models)
This painting portrays the same nude model in three different poses. The scene is set in the atelier on the Boulevard de Clichy. Four studies by Seurat hang from the right wall. La Grande Jatte covers the left wall. The artist renews the classic theme of the nude through the unconventional technique and representation of space. The composition is simple and regulated: each of the models is placed on one of the axes that divide the painting into equal parts. This difficult achievement represents Seurat’s attempt to reply to certain criticisms of pointillism and to test all its technical possibilities. The painting was finished in 1888, but Seurat was not satisfied. In fact he immediately painted a variation which is currently on loan to the National Gallery in London, using a less minute and more incisive pointillism.
Jeune Femme se poudrant
This painting is commonly believed to be a portrait of Seurat’s companion, Madeleine Knoblock. However even if he used his partner as a model, this composition is a genre painting. We can see that the artist first developed the composition and the accessories before painting the young woman. By removing the self-portrait that had been painted in the mirror Seurat eliminated all personal references. The highly complex structure is based on the golden section. The painter seems to amuse himself with the accessories and the model’s toilette in minutely detailed presentations of simple everyday objects that contrast with the elegance of the composition and the harmony of the colors. The vase of flowers that is reflected against all logic and the Japanese mirror are subtle artifices that temper the chromatic rigor.
This is one of the artist’s last works and it was exhibited at the Indépendants just a few days before his death. The painting went to his mother’s apartment where Signac saw it and bought it. The scene is indeed the circus, but is rendered in an original manner: it is a symbolic circus without any real references. The lights and colors are arbitrary, the coloring is reduced to three dominants: red, yellow and blue. The composition is extremely complex, the silhouettes are flat and simplified, the artist multiples the angles and develops the arabesque with a style that can be likened to the Art Nouveau. The color is applied in a diversified manner and the “points” are elongated in sections near the main lines to accent the contours of the figures. Seurat describes the popular pleasures of Paris and after The Parade dips into the collective imagination. Many of the figures such as the acrobat can be compared with contemporary posters.
The title, Chahut, alludes to a type of "cancan" that was popular in the Montmartre cafés. Seurat portrays the finale of the dance: two ballerinas and two men kick up their legs under the gaze of the conductor, a spectator, a double-bass player and two ladies. The subject, inspired by Jules Cheret’s graphic inventions of which Seurat had a poster in his studio develops from the bottom up like Degas’ paintings. The play of lines, broken by a sequence of parallel diagonals is clever and reveals a rigorous and even plan, leaving freedom for the arabesque. Seurat used varied brushstrokes and lines to outline the subjects.
The Channel at Gravelines: Grand Fort Philippe
During his stay at Gravelines during the summer of 1890, not far from the Belgian border Seurat did some marinas in which he achieved surprising results. Space seems to expand with pearly and silent transparencies consisting of lights, a concatenation of the elements and shadows. The reflections appear to have been released from the constrictions of a naturalistic rendering.