Georges-Pierre Seurat was prominent French artist of the end of the 19th cent., founder of Pointillism (or Neoimpressionism) movement.
Georges Seurat was born December 2, 1859 in Paris, in a family of a wealth lawyer. His father, Antoine Chrysostome Seurat, was a legal official. After early retirement he mostly lived alone in his second home in Le Raincy near Paris. Being a pious person, Antoine organized a small chapel in his cellar and his gardener assisted him there. Georges saw his father only once a week – on Tuesdays, when he came to have a dinner with the family. They weren’t really close, but that didn’t hamper the son in inheriting father’s features – restraint, self-sufficiency and reticence.
Being a child, Seurat didn’t differ from his coevals. After growing up a little, the boy got interested in art and started attending the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin. There, under guidance of a local sculptor Justin Lequien he trained traditional manner of painting, copied plaster casts and reproductions of the old master’s pieces. Besides, there he met his first friends – Edmond Aman-Jean and Ernest Laurent, who would later be famous as representatives of Symbolism.
In 1877 the future artist received parent’s permission to enter the École des Beaux-Arts and became a student of Henri Lehmann. Lehmann admired Ingres – his teacher, who had largely influenced his pedagogical methods. Seurat’s works of that period demonstrate how he tried copying linear manner of that great French painter. Anyway, Georges was keen about newest trends in art also. After visiting the Fourth Exhbition of impressionists in 1879, the young artist had been so astounded that afterwards decided to abandon the École des Beaux-Arts.
Between 1879 and 1880 he did military service in the 119 infantry regiment, which was located in the port town Brest. During his free time the young man didn’t give up his trainings in drawing. After coming back to Paris he organized a studio (together with Aman-Jean) that would be his working place for the rest of life. We know little about that period, as Seurat didn’t display his pieces until 1883, and can only suggest he was completing his self-education. The unfinished course of the École des Beaux-Arts wasn’t enough in that sense. Financial help from his relatives allowed the painter to develop himself without being preoccupied with getting daily bread. Georges spent almost all summers of the second half of 1880s travelling across the Norman coast, where worked over marines. Those etudes combined accurate observations of the surroundings and refined rhythmical structure of compositions.
Initially Georges Seurat concentrated on drawing, mostly with white chalk or pastel. Period between 1881 – 1882 was marked with mastering skills in depicting human figure. At the same years he painted several portraits. One of them (“Portrait of Aman-Jean”) was shown at the Salon of 1883 and received discreet commendations.
Apart from pure practice, the artist read a lot, being avidly interested in the newest theories and discoveries in the sphere of optics. He tried to define, how old masters had used rules of optics and paid a lot of attention to the art of Eugene Delacroix. In 1850s Delacroix had experimented with color by applying with separate brushstrokes pure complementary tints without mixing them.
Seurat searched for “the formula of optical painting” and referred to treaties of Charles Blanc (“Grammaire des arts du dessin”, 1867), Eugene Chevreul (“De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés”, 1839) and Oden Rood (“Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry”, 1879). He made principle of “optical color mixture” the background of his artistic method.
Young Georges preferred to paint not on canvases but on panels, making small-scale etudes in oil. In 1883 he made up his mind to create a big canvas, hoping to draught public’s attention on the approaching Salon. Probably, he was stimulated by the fact that Aman-Jean and Laurent had already successfully participated in it. The subject of the work was a scene on the Siene embankment near Paris. That area attracted many impressionists: partly because their colorfulness, partly because it was easy to get there – there was a regular train to it.
Seurat had spent a year working on “Bathers at Asnières” but the Salon’s jury declined it. Those, who shared the same destiny decided to organize the Salon des Indépendants. The exhibition was held soon afterwards and Georges could finally demonstrate his piece to a wide public. The reviews of the exhibition were discrepant. One of the critics called the art of “Independents” “failed, unintelligible, awful, senseless, anemic and strained”. Yet the master was happy and broke up any further relations with the official Salon.
After the exhibition Seurat immersed himself into the life of the “Independents”. He visited their meetings, sitting quietly aside, smoking pipe and watching. Though he was a reticent person, the artist quickly occurred to be the life of the party. Another bright personality in the group was Paul Signac, a self-educated painter, who shaped up on the traditions of Impressionism. He expressed great interest in “Pointillism” (or “Divisionism”) of Seurat. It was really important that Signac could formulate Seurat’s innovative ideas in much more accurate and comprehensible way. And thanks largely to his efforts Georges was subsequently recognized as the founder of the new movement in art.
At that time the master set off working on another grandiose canvas – “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. He thoroughly and systematically painted it on a small island near Asnières during almost two years. In 1886 Seurat displayed his masterpiece on the eighth (and the last) exhibition of Impressionists.
Maurice Hermel called it “the manifesto painting” and “the banner of a new school”. That idea was developed by Felix Feneon. Felix Feneon was a true gift for Seurat from Destiny – he understood the meaning of the artist’s searches on the context of the whole history of art as nobody else. Feneon wrote that the old movement (impressionism) had dried and that a new generation of artists, called neoimpressionists, was coming to replace them. The critic “appointed” Georges as the leader and soul of neoimpressionists. He though it to be doubtless. It comes as no surprise that Impressionists themselves (Renoir, Sisley, Callibotte and Monet, who called neoimpressionists “Slovens”) reacted negatively on the show and refused participating in it.
Paul Signac wrote about his friend’s achievement: “When Seurat exhibited his manifesto painting “A Sunday on the Grande Jatte” in 1886, the two schools that were then dominant, the naturalist and the symbolist, judged it according to their own tendencies. J.K. Huysmans, Paul Alexis, and Robert Caze saw in it a Sunday spree of drapers’ assistants, apprentice charcutiers, and women in search of adventure, while Paul Adam admired the pharaonic procession of its stiff figures, and the Hellenist [Jean] Moréas saw panathenaic processions in it. But Seurat was simply seeking a luminous, cheerful composition, with a balance between verticals and horizontals, and dominantly warm, luminous colors with the most luminous white at the center”.
Meanwhile the triumph of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” continued. The painting was displayed on the second exhibition of The Société des Artistes Indépendants in autumn of 1886 and at the exhibition of Brussels’s group “Les XX”, which gather all Belgian innovator artists.
Pointillism gain popularity quickly and soon dozens of painters started imitating “divisionistic” manner of Seurat. On one hand, that flattered his self-esteem, on the other used to irritate Georges. Hence, he tried to avoid public shows, fearing his ideas would be just pilfered by his greedy for success “colleagues”.
The master’s reserved character spread on his private life as well. In 1888 he fell in love with a seamstress Madeleine Knobloch, who posed him for “Jeune femme se poudrant”. Seurat kept these relations in secret from his friends and relatives. In February 1890 Madelein born him a boy. Seurat gave him a name “mirror” to his own – Pierre Georges. His parents still knew nothing about the situation.
In his last works Georges Seurat revealed even more aspiration for synthetism and stylization, what we can see in his canvas “The Circus” (1890 – 1891). The flowing smoothness of curvy lines that dominate in the work, witnesses the influence of Art Nouveau.
It was the painter’s last work. It remained unfininshed as he fell ill while preparing for another exhibition of The Société des Artistes Indépendants. He perished just in three days (presumably from meningitis or pneumonia) on March 29, 1891.