Pointillism (from French point – dot) or divisionism (division – separation) was an artistic movement of neoimpressionistic painting that emerged in France around 1885. It’s defined by a peculiar technique of applying paint with small separate brushstrokes of round or rectangular shapes. Its specific lies in the rejection of physical mixing of colors that made tints sordid and dark, in favor of the optical effect (color were “mixed” in the mind of a viewer). Initially, the inventor of the movement, Georges Seurat, wanted to call it “Chromoluminarism”, but finally the “Divisionism” term was chosen. Anyway, it’s less common the tern, suggested by Paul Signac – “Pointillism”.
Pointillism is characterized by geometrized and often ornamented composition of the canvas. Unlike in impressionism, the representatives of this trend didn’t try to capture a realistic moment of reality, but strived for well thought-out composition. Its essence was in approaching to rendering a painting through geometrical ties, structure and correlations between light and objects, their components.
At the beginning of 1880s Georges Seurat was intensively studying latest investigations in the field of color theory. The major work that inspired him was “The Grammar of Painting and Engraving” (“Grammaire des arts du dessin”) by Charles Blanc, where the author expounded the theories of the French scientist Eugene Chevreul. Chevreul noticed that if two color areas were put close together, each would shift in hue and value as if the visual complementary color of the neighboring or preceding color had been mixed with it. Apart from the law of simultaneous contrast he developed priniciples of color harmony that are actual even nowadays and made some discoveries in the field of visual mixing of colors Seurat made basis of his art.
The painter got acquainted with works of James Clerk Maxwell and Ogden Rood. The latter, as well as Chevreul, noted that two colors, situated near each other would stimulate our mind to perceive their combination as a separate third color. Rood called colors mixed on the palette subtractive and in those mixed in mind – additive. He considered the latter to be brighter and “purer”.
Seurat’s attention was also drawn by the article of Swiss aesthetician David Sutter “The Phenomena of Vision”, in which the author analyzed harmonic rhythms of antique art, Venetian school and Delacroix’s legacy and commented on interaction between color and light. In this article, Sutter also talked about phenomenon of “irradiation” – the effect we often see on Seurat’s canvases when a dark object is glowed set off by a glow on its edges. This way, pointillism, searching for the autonomy of a painting and its laws, departed from the main foundations of impressionism. Using additive mixing of colors, artists of the movement managed to expose all potential of coloring, making it more intense and vivid.
First large-scale canvas of Georges Seurat, “Bathers at Asnières”, had only solitary elements that could be identified as pointillistic. First of all, this is laconic, geometrized forms and separate brushstrokes that witness the origin of a new movements. When the piece wasn’t accepted to the Paris Salon of 1884, Seurat exhibited “Salon des Indépendants” (“Salon of Independents”).
A defining painting for pointillism was “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. Its subject is traditional for impressionism – people spending their leisure time. But Seurat kept an adjusted composition, orientating on major horizontal and vertical lines. For master depicting representatives of various social classes was important. Using unrealistic manner, he showed them from the front, behind and sideways. An effect of overcrowdedness and feasting is created. It’s reinforced with the fact that Seurat included a frame of the canvas into composition.
After the death of Georges Seurat in 1891, Paul Signac became the prominent theorist of pointillism.
For public, artists and art critics, it was obvious that the case with pointillism was a question of true revolution in painting. The reception was contradictory. A lot of artists were really enthusiastic about using of scientific ground for painting. Among those, who got involved into new movement were Charles Angrand, Henri-Edmond Cross, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Maximilien Luce, Leo Gausson, Hippolyte Petitjean and even Camille Pissarro on the early stage of his creative activity (later he would criticize Divisionism). Son of Pissarro, Lucien, was also an adherent of pointillism. Nevertheless, other artists, like Edgar Degas, repudiated it. Famous art-dealer and patron of impressionists, Paul Durand-Ruel, expressed his disappointment that Camille Pissarro had fallen under the influence of his younger colleagues when the market of impressionistic works had been arranging.
Some art-connoisseurs mocked pointillism for its motley, candy-like coloring. Nevertheless, there were some specialists, like Felix Feneon, who supported new trend, believing it was going to be a perspective one. In 1886 Feneon suggested his term “Neoimpressionism”. Being an editor of “Revue Blanche”, he largely helped in popularizing new works of Seurat and Signac by publishing encouraging responses on them.
An important role in spreading of pointillism was played by an established in 1883 Belgian artistic group “Les XX”. They came to the front of cultural life in a short while. Since 1887 they regularly organized exhibitions of Seurat and other pointillists. Young painters like Theo van Rysselberghe, Henry Clemens van de Velde, Jan Toorp and others adopted their manner. In Germany it was Paul Baum, who was the closest one to pointillism.
Angelo Morbelli, Giovanni Segantini and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo introduced Divisionism in Italy, despite having received harsh reviews after the first Brera Triennale in Milan in 1891 (their art was called “Painted measles”). Unlike French neoimpressionists, who had little concerns with social issues, Italians had a particular interest in political subjects and were, in a certain sense, forerunners of futurism.
The impact of pointillism on further progress of painting was underestimated for a long time. Lots of art historians and public thought it to be a mere technical method. It’s true, on one hand, as some prominent masters, like Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Jules-Élie Delaunay, Robert Delaunay, Paul Gaugin, went through the phase of divisionistic experiments. At the same time, that testifies the significance of this movement for shifting from traditional, narrative concepts and imitating of reality to the ideas of abstract painting and constructivism of the 20th cent.
Art historian Robert Rosenblum claim the legacy of Seurat “can rival even Cézanne”, as he thinks Seurat “look far into the past and into the future” and his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is “a kind of Eiffel Tower of painting”.
“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science”.
“Painting is the art of hollowing a surface”.
“Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line”.
“The golden age has not passed; it lies in the future”.
“The anarchist painter is not the one who will create anarchist pictures, but the one who will fight with all his individuality against official conventions”.
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