Wednesday 14 March 2012

Georges Seurat - part 1

This is part 1 of a 3-part post on the works of the French artist Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891). 

Seurat, along with fellow artist Paul Signac originated the influential theory and practice of neo-impressionism, and is noted for his creation of the pointillist technique.

Seurat was born in Paris in 1859 into a well-to-do family. He first studied art with Justin Lequien, a sculptor. He attended the École des Beaux-Arts between 1878 and 1879. After a year of service at Brest Military Academy he returned to Paris in 1880. He shared a small studio on the Left Bank with two student friends before moving to a studio of his own. For the next two years he devoted himself to mastering the art of black-and-white drawing. He spent 1883 on his first major painting—a huge canvas titled Bathers at Asnières, his first major painting and the first of six large canvases that would constitute the bulk of his life's work.

After his painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, Seurat turned away from such establishments and allied himself with the young independent painters. 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. There he met and befriended fellow artist Paul Signac. Seurat shared his new ideas about pointillism with Signac, who subsequently painted in the same idiom.

1884 Bathers at Asnières 
oil on canvas 201 x 300 cm

In the summer of 1884 Seurat began work on his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete. 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. 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.

1884-86 Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte 
oil on canvas 207.5 x 308.1 cm

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 contemporaries including Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. He was at the centre 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. 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.

 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".

Detail from "Young Woman Powdering Herself 1889-90, showing Seurat's technique

Note: I'm covering a lot of Seurat's work over 4 parts, so I thought it would make sense to show it chronologically by date, which means that I will show Bathers at Asnières and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte again in part 2, along with attendant studies and sketches for these works.

1877-8 Helmeted Warrior 
charcoal on laid paper 64.8 x 47.5 cm

1878-9 Landscape at Saint-Ouen 
oil on wood 17.5 x 26.4 cm

c1879-91 Stone Breaker, Le Raincy 
graphite on paper

1880 Flowers in a Vase

1881 The Forest at Pontaubert 
oil on canvas 79.1 x 62.5 cm

1881-2 Grassy Riverbank 
32 x 41 cm

1881-2 House at Dusk 
conté crayon on paper 30.6 x 23.7 cm

1881-2 Landscape with Houses 
conté crayon on paper 24.9 x 31.9 cm

1881-2 Man on the Parapet 
25 x 16.5 cm

1881-2 Nude Woman 
graphite and crayon on paper 63.2 x 48.2 cm 
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

c1881-4 Peasants 
conté crayon on paper 24.8 x 31.6 cm

1881-82 Young Peasant in Blue 
oil on wood

c1881 Black Cow in a Meadow 
oil on panel 15.5 x 24.2 cm

1882-3 Aman-Jean (Portrait of Edmond François Aman-Jean)
 conté crayon on Michallet paper 62.2 x 47.5 cm

1882-3 Embroidery: The Artist's Mother 
conté crayon on Michallet paper 31.2 x 24.1 cm

1882-3 Foal 
conté crayon on laid paper 24.8 x 31.8 cm

1882-3 The Gardener 
oil on wood 15.9 x 24.8 cm

1882-3 View of the Seine 
oil on wood 15.9 x 24.8 cm

c1882-3 A Farmer's Girl Sitting in a Meadow 
oil on canvas 38.1 x 46.2 cm

c1882-3 Banlieue 
oil on canvas 32.2 x 41 cm

c1882-3 Boy Sitting on the Grass, Pontaubert 
oil on canvas 25.6 x 31.9 cm

c1882-3 Place de la Concorde, Winter 
conté crayon on paper 23.2 x 30.8 cm

c1882-4 Two Men Walking in a Field 
conté crayon on laid paper 31.8 x 24.3 cm

c1882 ( Stone Breaker ) 
oil on canvas 34.3 x 42 cm

c1882 Farmer with Mattock 
oil on canvas 46.3 x 56.1 cm

c1882 Fisherman in a Moored Boat 
oil on panel 16.5 x 24.8 cm 
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

c1882 The Gardener 
oil on panel 15.7 x 24.7 cm

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