A movement whose members were Seurat, Signac and the group of painters who followed their principles, the scientific study of colour and the systematic division of tone as they had been practised instinctively by the Impressionists. The term is supposed to have been created by the painters themselves, in homage to their elders, or by their friend and interpreter Félix Fénéon, who used it for the first time in the Brussels magazine L'Art Moderne, in the issue of September 19th, 1886. It was taken up by Arsène Alexandre, who is usually credited with originating it, in his review in Àvénement, December 10th, 1886, of Fénéon famous pamphlet The Impressionists in 1886. The term was definitely consecrated by Fénéon in May 1887 in the decisive essay in L'Art Moderne on 'Neo-Impressionism', in which he set forth with accuracy and rigour both the aesthetic and technical tenets of the movement.
The dispersion of the Impressionist group in 1880 was accompanied by a tightening of method and a return to classical discipline. In the same year, in the magazine Art, David Sutter published an important series of articles on "The Phenomena of Vision", defined in 167 rules that seem to forecast the Neo-Impressionist programme, and ending with a statement of the validity of the link between art and science. Rules, he declared, do not hinder spontaneity of invention or execution, despite their absolute character; science liberates from all uncertainty, allows free movement in a very wide area; it is thus unfair both to art and to science to think that the one necessarily excludes the other. Psychology and physiology of vision, problems of optics, and analysis of light and colour were the order of the day. Recent experiments by the physicists Helmholtz ( 1878) and Edouard Rood ( 1881) completed the previous discoveries of Chevreul, whose work, The Law of Simultaneous Contrast, published in 1839, was reprinted at the expense of the State in 1889 for the centenary of the birth of the scientist, who was still alive. In this atmosphere of theoretical fervour Georges Seurat ( 1859-1891) was reaching artistic maturity. His experimental works of 1882 were already characterized by little spots of colour and long even strokes of vibrant luminosity. In the spring of 1884, along with the artists refused by the official Salon, he founded the Salon des Indépendants, to which he sent his first large composition, La Baignade. Also among the numerous exhibitors -- without knowing each other as yet -- were Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand and Albert Dubois-Pillet, who were similarly oriented. He made friends with them, and in June constituted, on the basis of regular by-laws and under the presidency of Odilon Redon, the Société des Artistes Indépendants, within which they became the most active group. Their aim was to rationalize the expression of light with pure colours and to substitute a scientific method for the empirical one of the Impressionists. At the first show of the new Société des Indépendants, in December, Seurat again exhibited his La Baignade, based on 'contrasts of shades', which, in a still flexible handling, achieved his purpose: to reconcile the eternal and the fugitive, architecture and light, figure and landscape, Impressionist vibration and classical stability. Signac, four years younger, dynamic and pugnacious, himself given to the same investigations, was enthralled by this canvas and became an eager proselyte. In 1885, at Guillaumin's, he met Pissarro, whom he introduced to Seurat, and who enthusiastically took up the new discipline, which met his need for order and structure; Pissarro interested his eldest son Lucien and the latter's fellow student Louis Hayet in the movement. Between 1894 and 1886 Seurat executed his second large composition, A Sunday at the Grande Jatte, based upon 'contrasts of tones', in accordance with his now fully established technique, the methodical fragmentation of stroke that he called 'Divisionism' and carried as far as "Pointillism'.
'To divide,' explained Signac, the theoretician of the group, 'means to secure all the benefits of luminosity, colouring and HARMONY: (1) by optical fusion of pigments pure in themselves (ALL THE SHADES OF THE SPECTRUM AND ALL THEIR TONES); (2) by separating various elements (local colour, colour of lighting, their reactions); (3) by balance of these elements and their proportions (according to the laws of CONTRAST, GRADUATION AND IRRADIATION); (4) by the choice of a stroke proportionate to the size of the picture.'
In March 1886 the art dealer Durand-Ruel went to New York with three hundred Impressionist canvases, to which he added works by Signac and Seurat, including La Baignade. The same year the Groude Jatte was the chief attraction at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, May 15th-June 15th, which marked the breakup of the original group, impending since 1880, and the original appearance of Neo-Impressionism or, in Pissarro's terms, the separation of 'Romantic Impressionists' and 'Scientific Impressionists'. Monet, Renoir and Sisley withdrew. Degas accepted the participation of Seurat, Signac and Lucien and Camille Pissarro exhibiting in the same room, but asked that the word 'Impressionist' be eliminated from the poster, and rejected the works by Angrand and Dubois-Pillet as inadequate. At this time Fénéon made the personal acquaintance of Seurat and his friends. He was to remain their faithful advocate and official interpreter. He devoted a series of masterly articles to them in avant-garde magazines, articles which were collected in a booklet at the end of the year. The Neo-Impressionists made an appearance as a group at the second Salon des Indépendants at the Tuileries ( August 21st-September 21st, 1886), where Seurat showed his Grande Jatte again. Pissarro exhibited at Nantes in November and succeeded in getting Seurat and Signac accepted with him. These three painters were invited to exhibit in Brussels by 'The Twenty', an independent group courageously led by Octave Maus. Signac and Seurat were present at the opening in February 1887. Though admired by Verhaeren, the Grande Jatte attained only a succès d'estime, but it won several Belgian artists over to Divisionism, among them Henry van de Velde and Theo van Rysselberghe. In France new Divisionists appeared: H. Petitjean, Maximilien Luce, and, a little later, Lucie Cousturier, to mention only the more important. The movement also spread to Italy, with Segantini, Previati, and Morbelli, who appeared for the first time in Milan in 1891. Finally, three of the principal artists of the late nineteenth century, without belonging to Neo-Impressionism, underwent Seurat's influence and practised Divisionism for a time: Gauguin in 1886, Lautrec in 1887 and Van Gogh during almost his entire Parisian period ( 1886- 1888), when his relations with Signac and Seurat were particularly fruitful.
The methodical enterprise of Seurat culminated in two great compositions: Le Chahut ( 1890) and The Circus ( 1891), based upon 'contrasts of lines', in which his will for style turned to stylization and touched Modern Style. He died at thirtytwo on March 19th, 1891, exhausted by work but having delivered his message. Pissarro, who was asked to assume leadership of the movement, refused, chiefly because he had just given up Divisionism to return to the freer handling of his initial manner. Only Lucie Cousturier, Cross and Signac, who in 1889 published the doctrinal work that has since become a classic, From Eugène Delacroix to NeoImpressionism, attempted to remain true to the spirit of the method that had been for some no more than a recipe, but through which the architectonic genius of Seurat had been able to crystallize its fervour. In 1899, and even more in 1904, the Fauvism of Matisse was prepared by a Pointillist stage, through contact with Signac and Cross, at whose side he worked in the summer at Saint-Tropez, and the large Seurat retrospective at the Salon des Indépendants in 1905 brought on Cubism (cf. the articles on Cross, Fénéon, Luce, Pissarro, Seurat and Signac).