UA1-WA:P2-p4-Research Point – Seurat

The focus of this research point is Seurat’s painting techniques and any link they have to his working-class subject matter.

Seurat’s techniques were based on emerging science of the time, proceeding in a very logical and disciplined way. In an effort to bring greater luminosity and vibrancy into his paintings he used pure colours on his canvas. Rather than mixing on the palette, he placed small strokes or dots of colour next to each other, intending for the colours to mix optically in the eyes of the viewer. I’ve seen the technique termed “pointillism”, “divisionism” and “chromo-luminarism” (although I think more precisely “pointillism” refers to painting in small dots, while “divisionism” is keeping colours separate).

Peasants' houses, Eragny Camille Pissarro 1887   oil on canvas

Peasants’ houses, Eragny
Camille Pissarro
1887 oil on canvas
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/6326/

Here is an example by Camille Pissarro, who used Seurat’s technique for a time (the Art Gallery of NSW doesn’t have a Seurat). As always I encourage anyone reading to follow the link to the Gallery website, which has clearer photos and show the bright colours used.

pissarro_02Below I’ve included a detail of the lower area of the painting, which more clearly shows the individual dots of pigment. In this instance the marks vary in size and are sometimes more short strokes than dots. The detail also shows the colour choice in an area of shadow. Looking closely it seems that some colours are used in both the shadowed and the brightly lit areas.

One difference to most of Seurat’s work is that Pissarro’s has more movement and looks more lifelike. Here there isn’t that simplification and rounding of forms that at least in web images makes Seurat’s work look a bit stiff and eerily still. For examples of what I mean see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/27992) or Bridge at Courbevoie (www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/66b02bdc.html).

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about Seurat and pointillism, having been asked to look at them as part of Assignment 3 in Textiles 1: A Creative Approach. My post of 13-Dec-2011 includes some brief comments about A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 by Itten (The art of color: the subjective experience and objective rationale of color) and John Gage (Colour in art). There are also some exercises using french knots as the “points” in colour mixing. In my review of that assignment on 16-Dec-2013 I quoted from Smee (Side by side: Picasso v Matisse), regarding Matisse’s experiments with divisionism and its problems with haziness and actual reduction of colours.

This time around I’ve found some contemporary comment on Seurat’s work and its impact. I’ve chosen to include rather long quotes because of the very close involvement of the authors with Suerat.

Camille Pissarro writing to Durand-Ruel, November 6, 1886, explained: “THEORY: Seek for the modern synthesis with scientifically based means which will be founded on the theory of colours discovered by M. Chevreul and in accordance with the experiments of Maxwell and the measurements of O. N. Rood.
“Substitute optical mixture for the mixture of pigments. In other words: break down tones into their constituent elements because optical mixture creates much more intense light effects than the mixture of pigments” (Pissarro, 1886).

A more extended explanation from Félix Fénéon, a critic who championed Seurat’s work: “M. Surat’s innovation has as its basis the scientific division of colour. It goes as follows: instead of mixing the colours on the palette, with the end product, when spread on the canvas, providing roughly the colour of the object to be represented, the painter will cover the canvas with separate touches corresponding, some to the local colour of that object, others to the quality of the light falling upon it, yet others to the reflections cast by neighbouring bodies, others still to the complementarities of the surrounding colours.

“These touches are effected not by the thrust of the paint-brush, but by the application of a scattering of lesser spots of colour.

“The following are the advantages of this manner of operating:
“1. The colours are composed on the retina. We thus have an optical mixing. Now the intensity of the light of the optical mixing (mixing of colour and light) is far greater than that of the pigmentary mixing (mixing of colours and materials). This is what modern physics expresses when it tells us that all mixing of colours on the palette is a journey towards blackness.
“2. This mixing on the retina imparts a luminous vibrancy which gives the picture great vitality.
“3. The relief which cannot be translated precisely through the trails of paste of the traditional method, is achieved in all its infinite delicacy, since the respective proportions of the particles of colour can vary infinitely over a very small space.
“4. Dexterity of the hand becomes a negligible matter, since all material difficulty of execution is removed. It will suffice that the executor should have an artist’s vision, that he should be a painter, in a word, and not an illusionist.” (Fénéon, 1887)

Finally, Pissarro describing his disillusion in a letter to Henri Van de Velde: “Having tried this theory [divisionism] for four years and having now abandoned it, not without painful and obstinate struggles to regain what I had lost and not to lose what I had learned, I can no longer consider myself one of the neo-impressionists who abandon movement and life for a diametrically opposed aesthetic which, perhaps, is the right thing for the man with the right temperament but is not right for me, anxious as I am to avoid all narrow, so-called scientific theories. Having found after many attempts (I speak for myself), having found that it was impossible to be true to my sensations and consequently to render life and movement, impossible to be faithful to the so random and so admirable effects of nature, impossible to give an individual character to my drawing, I had to give up. And none too soon!” (Pissarro, 1896).

As to the question of any link to Seurat’s more working class subject matter, it’s not obvious to me that his subject matter was hugely different to the Impressionists. Is a circus by Seurat more working class than the Folies-Bergères by Manet? Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/66b02bdc.html) seems to show a factory in the background. Is this more working class than Monet’s Coalmen (http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/les-charbonniers-349.html?no_cache=1), or even John Peter Russell’s fisherman (see 11-Nov-2013)? To support that this is not simply my limited knowledge of the oeuvre of the various artists, I found on The National Gallery (London) website: “Modern life and the way that ordinary people spent their free time were popular subjects with many Impressionist painters.

“Monet, Renoir and Degas show us the theatres, cafés, and popular countryside resorts of late 19th-century Paris.

“Traditionally in France the middle classes had not been considered fit subjects for serious painting, while the working classes and the peasantry were usually portrayed as comic yokels, or timeless figures of rural life.” (The National Gallery, [n.d.])

Putting that question to one side, a potential link to working class values and aspirations may be seen in Seurat’s political views – or at least the views of others who experimented with or championed his techniques. An article by Stephen Eisenman in 1989 provides more information.

Eisenman quotes Signac writing in an anarchist journal “By the synthetic representation of the pleasures of decadence – balls, chacuts (cancans), circuses, such as those done by the painter Seurat who had such a vivid perception of the degeneration of our transitional era – they will bear witness to the great social trial that is taking place between workers and Capital” (Signac, 1891). To me this doesn’t confirm that Seurat’s subject matter was directly working class, rather that his overall purpose or theme, at least in part, was supportive of the working class struggle.

Going more closely to the question of Seurat’s technique, Eisenman suggests Signac believed that “stylistically innovative art, by its very freedom from convention, was necessarily revolutionizing” (Eisenman, 1989, p. 213). It was not simply that Seurat’s technique was innovative, it actually changed the relationship between artist and audience. Eisenman explains “rather the question [of Seurat’s politics] is whether a given work by Seurat initiates a political and aesthetic dialogue with its spectators, thereby encouraging them to realize their capacities for critical thought and aesthetic pleasure…” (Eisenman, 1989, p. 214) He continues “[Grand Jatte’s] Chromo-luminarism demands the collaboration of its audience, thereby positing the revolutionary ideal of overcoming the alienation of artistic producers from consumers within capitalist society”. The spectator is collaborating, an active participant, and this aesthetic pleasure is available to anyone regardless to class or education.

As often seems to happen, I found more interesting material than quite fits the theme, time and space here. Some brief comments and links:
* an explanation of the misunderstanding of the science underlying Seurat’s theory: Lee, A (1987) ‘SEURAT AND SCIENCE’, Art History, 10 (2), pp. 203-224, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 12 November 2013.

* An on-line copy of one of the books with science used by Seurat: Rood, O.G. (1879) Modern Chromatics: With application to art and industry. New York: D. Appleton and Company [on-line] Available from http://international.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2010/20100701001mo/20100701001mo.pdf (Accessed 12-November-2013)

* Chevreul, one of the commonly mentioned sources influencing Seurat, was a chemist who became interested in colour as Director of Dyes at the Gobelins where he was responsible for the dyeing of wools for tapestries. Nice to have the textile connection, but I’d suggest a more useful book that ventures into science and Pointillism but also yarn structure and loom-weaving is Lambert, P. et al (1986) Color and Fiber. West Chester: Schiffer.

* As well as his techniques in applying colour to the canvas, Seurat experimented with expressing emotion through lines and colours. This was based on the work of Charles Henry, a French physicist. I have seen only brief mention of this – it would be interesting to learn more.

* There seems to be a lot written about the science and the politics of Seurat’s work. It was refreshing to read an article reminding us to see the art. Kramer, H. (1991) “Seurat, one hundred years later” The New Criterion. 9 June 1991. p.4. [online] Available from http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Seurat–one-hundred-years-later-5498. Accessed 13-November-2013.

References

Eisenman, S.F. (1989), “Seeing Seurat Politically” In Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 14 (2), pp. 210-221+247-249. [online] Available from http://www.jstor.org/ (Accessed 12-November-2013)

Fénéon, F. (1887) “Impressionnisme,” Emancipation sociale, 3 April 1887, reprinted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, pp. 219 – 221

Pissarro, C. (1886) letter quoted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, p.219

Pissarro, C. (1896) letter quoted in Kapos, M (ed.) (1991) The Impressionists: A retrospective. London: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, p.239

Signac (1891) In La Révolt p. 4. cited in Herbert and Herbert 1960 p.480, cited in Eisenman, S.F. (1989), “Seeing Seurat Politically” In Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 14 (2), p. 213

The National Gallery ([n.d.]) Guide to Impressionism: Modern Life ([online]) Available from www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/learn-about-art/guide-to-impressionism/guide-to-impressionism/*/viewPage/2 (Accessed 13-November-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Research Point – Seurat
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Research point: Seurat

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