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a legal official, was a solitary man with a taciturn and withdrawn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
|Head of a girl, 1879,
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, 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, 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
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
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
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
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, 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, 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
A secret family
|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
Other large-scale works
|The Models, 1888,
Barnes Foundation Collection,
||La Parade, 1889,
Stephen Clark Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
||Le Chahut, 1889-1891,