SEURAT Georges
Seurat described painting as "the art of hollowing a surface." He had in mind a new sort of Space appropriate to the light that he was trying to place on canvas in terms of its reactions to the subject of the picture. What he wanted was to "make a picture," and (this, for the times, was a new venture) he aimed at a constructive lay-out. In this respect his classical turn of mind stood him in good stead. The constructive problem for Seurat was that of including three dimensions on a surface that had only two--obviously without literally boring a hole in it. (With twentieth-century painters this idea of the "hole" in the canvas became a positive obsession).
( 1859-1891). Born and died in Paris. Seurat's life can best be summed up by dates corresponding to his paintings rather than to events, for the only remarkable facts of his short life are the large canvases to which he devoted all his time and immense creative powers. They represent progressive stages in drive which led him to heights reached by only a few. Like Van Gogh and Lautrec, who both died under forty at the end of the nineteenth century, Seurat worked feverishly and unceasingly, as though realizing that he was to be allowed only a few years in which to express himself. After attending a muni- cipal drawing school, he endured two years' instruction at the École Nationale des BeauxArts before serving a twelve-month term of military training at Brest. Next he spent his time studying such masters as Ingres, Delacroix and Veronese in the Louvre, and reading the works of Charles Blanc, Chevreul, Sutter, Rood and other theoreticians of colour. Blanc's assertion that 'colour, reduced to certain definite rules, can be taught like music' impressed him deeply, and he examined in detail Chevreul's law governing the simultaneous contrast of colours.
But if by taking thought Seurat did not succeed in creating an impersonal means of expression, he did succeed in undermining Impressionism. In his philanthropic endeavour to provide the ungifted selfexpressionist of I he future with a manageable bag of tricks, he not only produced a few magnificent works of art, but provided the gifted young of the rising generation with a new ideal and a new set of ideas.
In 1882 and 1883 Seurat devoted nearly all his time to drawing, devising a highly individual language in black and white -- the language of form rather than line, of skilfully balanced contrasts, of light and shade stripped of any incidental detail. He confined familiar forms within new profiles and raised them to an unforeseeable summit of poetical expression. Rejecting line as a means, he composed in masses. On roughgrained Ingres drawing paper he blocked in black masses in pencil, leaving clear forms to emerge in the intervening white. By shading and perfectly balanced contrasts he revealed unthought-of resemblances. He captured light and colour and transposed them into velvety blacks and expressive whites, thus creating a new world in which plastic forms emerge from dark shadow, the light parts breathe mystery, and the greys, blending black with white, disclose an intense inner life. Flowing arabesques counterbalance one another, forms melt into or emerge from shadow, light shines forth through the mass of his pencil strokes. It was an entirely new conception of drawing; later Signac described them as: 'drawings dependent on values; mere sketches, yet revealing so fine a perception of contrast and shadow that one could paint from them direct without the model'. Having thus systematically mastered the problem of black and white, Seurat devoted a year's work to his first great painting, Une Baignade, for which he did numerous preparatory drawings and colour sketches. The picture was refused by the jury of the 1884 Salon, and their particularly uncompromising attitude that year led to the formation of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, which was to organize annual exhibitions without jury or prizes. Seurat collaborated with Signac, Dubois-Pillet and Redon in drawing up the rules of the new Society and the first Salon des Indépendants opened its doors in May 1884. Seurat exhibited his Baignade. Signac was immensely struck by it, but while admiring the keenly observed laws of contrast he was astonished by the dull colouring.
It was Signac who now introduced Seurat to the works of the Impressionists, explaining their efforts and pointing out the advantages of pure colour, sunlight and the interplay of colours. with small, short brush strokes to interpret local colour, sunlight and the interplay of colours. Next they adopted a technique in which instead of mixing their colours on the palette they worked in tiny dots of pure colour, to obtain better balance and a closer interpenetration. Seen from a distance these myriad dots revealed the colour intended. From this time on Seurat's art was essentially based on the laws of simultaneous contrast (to which he later added research on the symbolic significance of line direction), the use of small dots in pure colours, and optical blending. In accordance with these theories he proceeded to paint a series of large compositions and a number of landscapes. He explained to his friend Verhaeren that he spent the summer of each year by the sea or near Paris painting landscapes, to rest his eyesight by contact with nature, whereas in winter he worked indoors on large canvases, trying out and if possible resolving the problems he set himself. In his studio he undertook successively: figures out-of-doors ( Un Dimanche à la Grade Jatte, 1886); a reunion of people in the open air, the artificial quality of light combined with horizontal forms producing an effect of gloom ( La Parade, 1887- 1888); nude figures in the studio ( Les Poseuses, 1888); dancing figures under artificial light, with vertical lines accentuated to express gaiety ( Le Chahut, 1889- 1891), and the unfinished Le Cirque ( 1890- 1891). Just before his death he produced his only portrait -- Jeune Femme se Poudrant ( 1889-90) -- a painting of his mistress Madeleine Knobloch (his friends knew of this liaison only after his death). Originally this canvas showed the reflection of Seurat's head in the mirror on the wall (his only self-portrait); but one of his friends, ignorant of the intimate relations between artist and model, having remarked that this might lead to dubious jokes on the part of the critics who were nearly all ill-disposed towards Seurat, the painter replaced his image with a pot of flowers.
When, in 1887, Van Gogh visited Seurat, he was much impressed by his big canvases. Indeed he showed considerable enthusiasm for the pointilliste technique, though this was probably not for its technical qualities, but because it might help him to step up the brilliancy of certain tones needed for the expression of those emotional experiences which bulked so large in his troubled life.
Indifferent to the heated polemics which followed the exhibition of each of his works, Seurat withdrew more and more into himself, spoke little except when questioned on his theories, confided rarely even in his few intimate friends, and adopted an almost disdainful attitude towards the new recruits attracted to his circle by Signac's tireless propaganda. He showed openly that the enthusiasm of these painters, who adopted his system and profited by his discoveries, clashed with his desire 'to create something new'. However, a limited nucleus of friends gradually formed around Seurat, respecting him as their leader, and the art critic Félix Fénéon wrote articles explaining the theories of those henceforward to be known as the NeoImpressionists (see Neo-Impressionism, also Fénéon).
In the summer of 1890, as though realizing that his days were numbered, Seurat agreed to sum up and commit to writing his theory of the concordance between tone characteristics (dark, light), colours (cold, warm) and lines (rising, descending -- gay, sad). He formulated his code in the dry, precise style of a man of science rather than in the idiom of a painter:
AESTHETIC -- Art is harmony. Harmony consists in the analogy of contrary and the analogy of similar elements of tone, colour and line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm or sad combinations. The contraries are: For tone, a more luminous (lighter) for a darker. For colour, the complementaries, that is to say a certain red opposed to its complementary, and so on (red-green; orange-blue; yellowviolet). For line, those forming a right-angle. Gaiety of tone is rendered by the luminous dominant; of colour by the warm dominant; of line by lines rising from the horizontal. Calm of tone is the equality of dark and light; of colour, equality of warm and cold; calm of line is given by the horizontal. Sadness of tone is given by the dark dominant; of colour by the cold dominant; of line by lines descending from the horizontal.
TECHNIQUE -- Taking into account the phenomena produced by the duration of a lightimpression on the retina, synthesis necessarily follows as a result. The means of expression is the optical mixing of the tones and colours (local colour and that resulting from illumination: sunlight, lamplight, gaslight, etc.), that is to say the mixing of light and its effects (shadows), in accordance with the laws of contrast, gradation and irradiation.
In March 1891, a few months after having formulated these principles, Seurat was struck down by a fatal fever. 'At the time of Seurat's death,' said Signac later, 'the critics acknowledged his talent but considered that he left no body of work behind him! It seems to me that on the contrary he gave superbly all he had to give. He would certainly have gone on and produced more, but his task was finished. He had investigated and demonstrated all his principles: black and white, harmony of line, composition, contrasts, and colour harmony. What more can be asked of a painter?'
Seurat would undoubtedly have been delighted by the dry obituary notice in which his loyal friend Félix Fenéon recorded the principal dates of the artist's life: ' Seurat died, on the 29th of march, at the age of thity-one. He had exhibited: at the Salon in 1883; at the Groupe des Artistes Indépendents in 1884; 1889, 1890 and Groupe in 1884; at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1884-5, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1890 and 1891; at the Blanc et Noir, Amsterdam, in 1886. His work comprises: 170 small wooden panels, 420 drawings, 6 sketchbooks, and about 60 canvases (figures, seascapes, landscapes) among which five measuring several square metres (la Baignade, Un Dimache á la Grande Jatte, Poseuses, Chabut, Cirque), and, probably, many a marterpiece.'
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