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Imagine you are a painter and you create your paintings by putting tiny little dots in primary colors on a canvas. At the beginning you probably consider it quite funny, after a while you might get bored and one day it will drive you nuts.
For this simple reason alone, pointillism, as this technique was called, could never become a mainstream art movement. It remained a short-lived, nice little episode in art history. Botched and doomed from the very beginning.
The inventor of Pointillism and its major representative was Georges Seurat. He died very young at age 31. His dot manifesto lived only from about 1880 to 1900.
In the 1880s, when Impressionism began to become popular in the eyes of the public, it had in reality gone into crisis. The founding fathers of impressionism like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir or Edgar Degas had become a part of the art establishment and quarrelled among themselves. Younger artists thought it was time for something new - based on a scientific theory and not only on spontaneity.
Georges Seurat was on of these young painters in search for a new style. He came from a middle-class family and had inherited from his father. Although not rich, Seurat never had to worry about money as van Gogh or Paul Gauguin. Seurat attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he learned to make realistic drawings of Greek statues and naked models. During his time at the Academy, Seurat became familiar with the color theories of Charles Blanc (1813-1882), Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889) and the New York amateur painter Ogden Nicholas Rood (1831-1902). Chevreul had written a book in 1839, in wich he laid down the principles of complimentary colors and the discovery, that all colors were based only on red, yellow and blue.
In 1879 Georges Seurat left the Ecole des Beaux Art and rented a small studio in Paris. He lived the reclusive life of an art fanatic, passionately devoting his time and efforts on tinkering with color theories.
In 1883 Seurat began to work on his first large-format painting, Bathers at Asnieres. Before the final painting, he made numerous, meticulous drawing and oil sketches - a habit he should keep until the end of his short life. Seurat painted in his small studio, not in the open air as most of the impressionists did.
The revolutionary about Seurat's first important painting was the application of the theory of Cheuvreul. The basic colors red, yellow and blue reach the eye with different wavelengths and are mixed on the retina of the eye. Consequently Seurat did not mix the colors on his palette, but rather put little tiny spots of complimentary color pigments on the canvas. Also black was banned from Seurat's palette. When you ever have the chance of visiting a museum with a painting in "dot" style, look at it from very close and from very far and you will understand what the theory is about.
The painting Bathers at Asnieres roused little enthousiasm among the jury of the official Salon and was rejected. But it got a lot af attention from young painter colleagues. Paul Signac was one of them and should become the strongest proponent of Pointillism.
After the Bathers at Asnieres, Seurat created his next large-format painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It is the epitome of Pointillism and is one of the major attractions of the Chicago Art Institute.
After A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat continued to paint several more paintings in his meticulous dot technique - landscapes, some studies of nudes and a portrait of his companion Madelaine Knobloch, a woman from the working class with whom he had a child and who was never accepted by his family.
Towards the end of his life, Georges Seurat created several paintings with circus themes. They are characterized by rather stylized compositions. The Circus was painted in 1891, but never finished - just like the life of the artist. The painting was bought by Paul Signac after the death of Seurat. Today it can be seen in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
Seurat was obsessed by the idea of being on a mission to a new form of art. To this mission he devoted his life without any compromises.
Georges Seurat died at the age of only 31 of diphtheria. After his death, some artists like Paul Signac continued to follow Pointillism, but the movement soon faded out. It had no chance of ever becoming mainstream art. A nice and charming episode in modern art history - not more and not less. The work of Georges Seurat influenced later painters of Fauvism and Cubism and has an uncontested page in art history. The New York Metropolitan Museum showed a huge Seurat retrospective in 1991/92.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(September 2002, updated April 2009)
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