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Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat

French neo-impressionst painter
1859 - 1891


Georges Seurat was a French painter who with fellow artist Paul Signac originated the influential theory and practice of neoimpressionism.

The quiet experimenter

Georges-Pierre Seurat was born in Paris on 2 December 1859, the son of comfortably-off parents. His father, a legal official, was a solitary man with a taciturn and withdrawn manner which his son also inherited. At every available opportunity, Antoine-Christophe took leave of his family and disappeared to his villa in the suburbs to grow flowers and say mass in the company of his gardener; he was only at home on Tuesdays. Seurat's mother was quiet and unassuming, but it was she who gave some warmth and continuity to his childhood.

The family apartment was on the Boulevard de Magenta, close to the landscaped pleasure garden of "le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont", where young Georges and his mother spent much of their spare time. Such places, and the people who frequented them, were to become the subject of some of his greatest paintings.

The student

Head of a girl
Head of a girl, 1879,
Washington

As a young man Seurat was tall and handsome with a quiet, gentle voice. Reserved and dignified in dress as well as manner, he was always neatly and correctly turned out: one friend described him as looking like a floor-walker in a department store, while the sophisticated and sharp-tongued Edgar Degas nicknamed him "the notary". He was serious and intense ­ preferring to spend his money on books rather than on food or drink ­ but his most pronounced characteristic was his secretiveness.

Femme assise
Femme Assise, 1882-83
Guggenheim Museum, NY

Seurat entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official Paris art school 1878. He rejected the soft, irregular brushstrokes of impressionism in favor of pointillism, a technique he developed whereby solid forms are constructed by applying small, close-packed dots of unmixed color to a white background. Many artists imitated Seurat's method, but, except in the work of Signac, his technique remained unequaled in its perfect blending of colors (to open a new window and view a detail of the dots in La parade, click here). Seurat derived many of his theories about painting from his study of contemporary treatises on optics. His scientific bent was also evident in his work habits, which included fixed hours and the meticulous systematization of his technique.

In 1879, a year of military service broke into his artistic studies. Seurat was sent to the great military port of Brest on the western coast of Brittany, where he fitted in easily to barracks discipline and used his spare time to begin sketching figures and ships.

Returning to Paris in 1880, the young artist initially shared a cramped studio on the left bank with two student friends before moving to a studio of his own, closer to his parent's home on the right bank. For the next two years, he devoted himself to mastering the art of black and white drawing.

Baignade à Asnières
Baignade à Asnières, 1883-84
National Gallery, London

The year 1883 was spent on a huge canvas, Bathing at Asnières, his first major painting and the first of six large canvases that would constitute the bulk of his life's work. In this and subsequent paintings, he continued the impressionist tradition of depicting holiday outings and entertainments. He departed from impressionist style, however, in his precise application of paint and in the suggestion of depth and volume in his scenes.

In 1884, the Salon jury rejected it and Seurat changed the direction of his career. From this year on, he scorned the academic art of the Salon and allied himself with the young independent painters.

An instinctively gifted painter, Seurat also had extraordinary powers of concentration and perseverance, and took a dogged and single-minded approach to his work. He was convinced of the rightness of his own opinions, and of the importance of the "pointillist" method he was developing. Although other painters turned to him as a leader, he seems to have inspired admiration rather than affection.

Member of the Committee

In May and June 1884, Seurat's Bathing at Asnieres hung at the first exhibition of the new group of Artistes Independents, mounted in a temporary hut near the ruined Palais des Tuileries. The show ended in financial muddle, but out of the ensuing arguments a properly constituted Société des Artistes Indépendants emerged, committed to holding an annual show with no jury. Seurat attended its committee meetings regularly, always sitting in the same seat, quietly smoking his pipe.

At one such meeting, Seurat struck up a friendship with Paul Signac. Signac was four years younger, a largely self-taught painter who was influenced by the Impressionists and very receptive to Seurat's theoretical ideas. The extrovert and enthusiastic Signac provided Seurat with contact and moral support as he set about making his mark within the avant-garde.

Study for la Grande Jatte
Study for la Grande Jatte
1884-85 Private collection

In the summer of 1884, Seurat embarked on another major canvas, again depicting the popular boating place of Asnieres, but this time focusing on the island of La Grande Jatte in the Seine. With characteristic single-mindedness, he devoted his time entirely to the composition. Every day for months he traveled to his chosen spot, where he would work all morning. Each afternoon, he continued painting the giant canvas in his studio.

Un dimanche après midi sur l'ile de la grande Jatte
Un Dimanche Après-midi
sur l'Ile de la Grande Jatte
1884-85, Art Institute of Chicago

After two years of concentrated, systematic work, Seurat completed the painting in 1886, and exhibited it with the Impressionist group in May of that year. La Grande Jatte proved to be the main talking point of the exhibition, and he was hailed by the critics as offering the most significant way forward from Impressionism.

Felix Fénéon, a sensitive and sympathetic young critic, was particularly impressed. He christened Seurat and his associates the Neo-Impressionists, and became an enthusiastic spokesman for them. In a series of articles on contemporary art in the newly launched Vogue magazine, Fénéon paid special attention to Seurat's work, and expounded his new method in scientific detail.

Center of controversy

Quais à Honfleur
Quais à Honfleur, 1886
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Suddenly, Seurat found that he was the most controversial figure on the artistic scene in Paris. He was now occupying a studio next to Signac's on the Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre. Here he was surrounded by artists ranging from the conservative decorator Puvis de Chavannes, whom he greatly admired, to more progressive contempories ­ including Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. He was at the center of artistic debates, but he kept aloof from them.

Seurat's relative financial ease meant that he was unused to dealing with potential clients, and his demands remained modest despite his new fame. Once, when pressed to name his price for the painting he was showing at "The Twenty" exhibition in Brussels, Seurat replied, "I compute my expenses on the basis of one year at seven francs a day". His attitude to his work was similarly down-to-earth and unromantic - he had no pretensions to the status of genius. When some critics tried to describe his work as poetic he contradicted them: "No, I apply my method and that is all". He was, however, very concerned not to lose any credit for the originality of his technique and guarded the details obsessively.

Le port de Gravelines
Le Port de Gravelines, 1890
The Indianapolis Museum of Art

Seurat's life had begun to assume a regular pattern. During the winter months, he would lock himself away in his studio working on a big figure picture to exhibit in the spring, then he would spend the summer months in one of the Normandy ports such as Honfleur, working on smaller, less complex, marine paintings. Whether in Paris or at the coast, Seurat was never a great socializer and in the last year of his life he virtually cut himself off from friends. He could warm up in a one­on­one situation, but by all accounts his conversation centered on his own artistic concerns.

A secret family

Le cirque
Le Cirque, 1890
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Late in 1889, when Seurat was approaching 30, he moved away from the bustling Boulevard de Clichy to a studio in a quieter street nearby, where ­ unknown to his family and friends - he lived with a young model, Madeleine Knobloch. In February 1890 she gave birth, in the studio, to his son. Seurat legally acknowledged the child and gave him his own Christian names in reverse. But it was not until two days before his death that he introduced his young family to his mother.

Georges Seurat died in March 1891, totally unexpectedly: he seems to have contracted a form of meningitis. One week he was helping to hang the paintings at the Independents exhibition and worrying about the fact that his hero Puvis de Chavannes had walked past The Circus without so much as a glance; the following week he was dead at just 31 years of age. Signac sadly concluded "our poor friend killed himself by overwork".

Other large-scale works

The Models, 1888,
Barnes Foundation Collection,
Merion, Pennsylvania
  La Parade, 1889,
Stephen Clark Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  Le Chahut, 1889-1891,
Kröller-Müller Museum,
Otterlo, NL)

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