Research Point – Seurat’s painting techniques

Seurat was a traditionally taught artist under the supervision of Henri Lehman who had himself been taught by Ingres, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1). His drawings show the classical training and traditional style he was using at the time.

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Seurat, Warrior with Helmet, Copy after the Borghese “Ares” c 1877-8, 64.5x49cm, conte crayon on paper, Collection of Margo and Irwin Winkler

Soon after his studies he began to combine his understanding of traditional techniques with more modern approaches. He was fascinated by the optical theories of colour such as those described by Chevreul and began to include these ideas into his work. He produced a massive amount of work in his short life before he tragically died at the age of 31, probably from diptheria (2). He was disciplined and scientific in his approach performing many preliminary sketches for his great paintings.

His new ideas may have been a reaction to the crisis in Impressionism which rebelled against the “objective recording of visual experiences” and the resulting sketchiness and lack of meaning (3). He attempted to formalise the ideas generated by the Impressionists into a painstaking scientific system whereby small brush strokes of colour are separated evenly over the canvas.

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Searat, Bathers at Asnieres, 1884, Oil on canvas, 201 x 300cm,  National Gallery, London

His numerous preparatory sketches for his first large scale work, “The Bathers at Asnieres” demonstrate his dedication to the perfection of his style. Over 14 oil sketches and 10 drawings were done (1). These loose sketches were performed a purely impressionist manner in the open air. He focuses on one aspect at a time, either the landscape or the figures. They are reminiscent of Monet’s landscapes and very different from the final painting which is very deliberate and precise. Interestingly they show his adoption of the Impressionist technique for observing and recording the effects of light on the water and greenery but there is little of the regularity of shapes that the final painting displays.They are true etudes.

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Seurat, Clothes on the Grass: Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’, 1883, Oil on wood, 16.2 x 24.8 cm, The National Gallery, London

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Seurat, A River Bank (The Seine at Asnières), 1883, Oil on wood, 15.8 x 24.7 cm, The National Gallery, London

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Seurat, Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’, 1883-4, Oil on wood, 15.2 x 25 cm, The National Gallery, London

The painting “Boy Sitting on the Grass”, displayed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery (4), is not a direct sketch for the “Bathers” but the similarity has always struck me. The posture of the boy and his hat is reminiscent of the boy sitting at the edge of the river. As it was done just before the other sketches, it is clear that Seurat was considering this thoughtful pose from the early stages of the preparation.

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Seurat, Boy Sitting on the Grass, circa 1882 – 1883, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 79.6cm, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow

Following the “The Bathers at Asnieres”, Seurat further developed his techniques. He ultimately reduced this to small juxtaposed dots of pure colour, often complementary, rather than mixed prior to application on the canvas. When viewed at a distance the colours merge resulting in a kind of luminocity (3). He coined this as “chromo-luminism” but it was later renamed as “pointillism” or “divisionism” (3). He later reworked “The Bathers” with this technique, adding dots of contrasting colour to certain areas which can be seen dots of orange and blue added to the boys hat  (1).

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Detail of The Bathers at Asnieres showing orange and blue dots

He performed even more sketches for the painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, approximately fifty are known (6). Unfortunately the final canvas was painted with pigments that were unstable and now their colours are dimmed in comparison with how he intended. The sketches provide a hint at how it would have been.

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Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, 208 x 308cm, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

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Seurat, Study for La Grande Jatte, 1884, Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 104.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Detail from “La Grande Jatte”

He tends to show the figures and objects as simplified shapes without outlines but nonetheless clearly defined. He achieves this effect by juxtaposing not only colours but tones. Light areas are placed next to their “reactions” or shadows which give the effect of “irradiation” as he called it (5). This gives a kind of halo around some of his figures.

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Detail of The Bathers at Asnieres showing irradiation

He played with this effect also in his drawings with conte crayon and managed to generate a similar pointillist technique. His favourite paper to use was a French hand made paper called Michallet (5). He exploited the highly textured grid-like surface of this particular paper to emphasise this irradiation: by leaning gently with the crayon, the  pigment would catch only on the raised edges of the grid and leaving light in between and generating a shimmering effect. The heavier the crayon is pressed onto the paper, the less light shows through. This paper and conte combination thus creates the light/dark technique on its own on a very small scale and Seurat then employed it on a larger scale with the halo effect. He never used outlines instead there are only subtle tonal gradation between the light and dark (1).

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Seurat, At the Concert Européen, c. 1886-88, Conté crayon and gouache on paper, 31.1 x 23.8 cm, Lillie P. Bliss Collection

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Detail from “At the Concert Europeen” 1886

The “Bathers at Asnieres” clearly portrays the working class men on a day out in the bright sun, but “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” is the opposite. On the other side of the Seine, the right bank and mostly in the cool shade, it depicts the bourgeois, predominantly women, enjoying an afternoon walk in their finery. It is as if the two paintings are linked by the river and the two sets of people are looking at each other.

Honour and Fleming comment that Seurat’s political stance was unclear but his followers were active supporters of the socialist anarchist movement (3). His interest in portraying the more working class subjects is particularly obvious in his many drawings and sketches which are often very dark and gloomy with figures hard at work. They evoke the desolation of the Parisian suburbs (5). His technique gives the impression of a thick atmosphere, a smog which chokes the workers. The combination of the conte and the grainy paper generate this effect of light shining through fog and is aided by the way his forms lack distinct edges. It seems he chose to portray the poor and emphasise their dreadful working conditions by manipulating the inherent qualities of the medium he favoured.

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Seurat, Stone Breaker, Le Raincy 1879-81, Conté crayon and graphite on paper, 30.8 x 37.5 cm, Lillie P. Bliss Collection

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Seurat, Stone Breaker, 1881, conte crayon on paper, 32x24cm, Private Collection

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Seurat, Plowing, 1882-3, conté crayon on paper, Musée d’Orsay

Bibliography

1. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/georges-seurat, 09/03/14

2. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/11/1/04-0269_article.htm, 09/03/14

3. Honour H and Fleming J (2009) A World History of Art. 7th Edition, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London

4. Donald, A. (1985) French Paintings and Drawings: Illustrated Summary Catalogue, Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, Glasgow

5. Hauptman, J. (2007) Georges Seurat: The Drawings. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

6. The Metropolitan Museum Website – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/51.112.6, 09/03/14

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