Georges Seurat (1859-91) was a French painter who is best known for pioneering Pointillism, a neo-Impressionist technique in which countless tiny dots are applied to the canvas. His most famous works are his scenes of suburban leisure: Bathers at Asnières and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
However, he also produced excellent landscapes and seascapes during his various summer vacations, as well as numerous scenes of Parisian entertainment.
This article will provide you with an introduction to ten of Seurat’s best works. If this sparks your interest and you’d like to learn more about Seurat and his innovative techniques, then I’d recommend Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision by Michelle Foa.
Bathers at Asnières (1884)
This was Seurat’s first major composition, and depicts working class men and boys relaxing on the banks of the River Seine. (Their class is indicated by their bowler and straw hats, boots, and the slouched posture of the boy sat with his lower legs in the water.) In the background, Seurat has painted the industrial buildings at Clichy, as well as a nearby railway bridge and road bridge. On the river there are numerous leisure crafts, including a boat carrying an upper-class couple that is being rowed by an oarsman and has the French flag fixed to it.
Seurat applied to have Bathers at Asnières exhibited at the official Salon in 1884, but it was rejected by the jury, and the artist instead displayed it later that year at the newly formed Salon des Indépendants.
Bathers was painted before Seurat developed Pointillism, although he did later rework parts of the painting in this style, such as the orange hat of the bather standing in the river, to which he added dots of yellow and blue. As with his later paintings, the subjects seem almost frozen in time, and the whole scene has a luminous quality to it. The large scale of this painting (201 × 300cm) confused critics at the time, as such a size was typically used for historical and academic works.
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-1886)
This is both the largest and most famous painting created by Georges Seurat in his artistic career. Just like Bathers at Asnières, it shows a scene of suburban leisure on the Seine. Here, he has painted city dwellers relaxing on an island in the Seine called La Grande Jatte, which literally translates as “The Big Platter”.
Seurat completed his masterpiece in several campaigns, the first of which came in 1884, when he applied a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes to the canvas. He then added a countless number of tiny dots of pure colour to the painting that were all placed very close to one another. Just like the brushstrokes, these dots were painted on using complementary colours.
This technique of painting with dots (known as points in French) became known as “Pointillism”, and was intended to create a luminous effect, as these dots of pure colour were supposed to “blend” in the eye. In developing this style, Seurat was inspired by recent scientific research on optical and colour theories.
Pointillism contrasted with Impressionism and its emphasis on spontaneity and intuition, but Seurat nevertheless shared the Impressionists’ interest in modern life, light, and colour.
In preparation for this painting, Seurat spent much time on La Grande Jatte itself, and made some 30 preliminary oil sketches, as well as numerous drawings. In 1889, the artist re-stretched the canvas and added a painted border made up red, blue, and orange dots and dashes. He then placed the canvas in a white wood frame that was specially designed for the painting.
If you’re interested in learning more about the creation of this masterpiece, then Seurat and the Making of ‘La Grande Jatte’ by Robert L. Herbert is a great read.
Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (1885)
Like many of his fellow French painters at the time, Georges Seurat planned his various artistic activities around the seasons. In the autumn, winter, and spring he worked on his larger canvases, like Bathers at Asnières and A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. He then spent the summer months away from the city, when he would paint landscapes and coastal scenes. Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp is from the first of these summer trips, when Seurat travelled to Grandcamp, a small town in Normandy.
In this painting, he has depicted Le Bec du Hoc, a rocky peak on the coastline that is now practically unrecognisable – in the weeks before, and on, D-Day, it was bombarded by American and British shelling that targeted the German positions set up on the Pointe du Hoc.
In preparation for this composition, Seurat produced an oil sketch on the spot, which he then used as a study for the final painting, although there are some notable differences between the two. For example, in the study, he painted in the rocky shore below, but excluded it in the final piece. In 1888, he reworked the surface of the canvas with small touches of paint, as well as adding in a painted border like that on many of his other works.
The Lighthouse at Honfleur (1886)
This piece was also painted during one of Seurat’s summer expeditions – in 1886, he travelled to Honfleur, a harbour town in Normandy. He wrote, in a letter to his student and fellow neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac, that he was “drunk on the light” at Honfleur, and conveys this feeling with his painting. Just like his others, it has a luminous quality to it, especially in his rendition of the sea, where the small touches of green, blue, white, and grey tones create the effect of the water glistening in the sunlight.
Seurat still maintains a stable composition though, using the horizontal lines provided by the jetty and the horizon, and the intersecting vertical of the lighthouse. He also balances the cool tones of the water and grass with the warm tones of the sand, lighthouse and shack roof. All this serves to create a tranquil and sunny scene.
The Models (1886-88)
The Models was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888. With this painting, Georges Seurat made a bold response to the many critics who had been dismissive of his Pointillist style after seeing A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte two years earlier. They had declared his technique too cold and systematic, and stated that it was better suited for depicting landscapes or atmospheric conditions, rather than the human form. However, with The Models, Seurat asserted that his style was worthy of the nude, one of the most noble subjects in art.
By including part of A Sunday Afternoon on the studio wall in his painting, Seurat perhaps references this earlier debate, and also allows for a comparison between the nude and the clothed. One French critic commented that Seurat had contrasted beings “in the simplicity of nature” with those who “in the pomp of the party (were) stiff and unnatural”.
The subject matter of three nude women is reminiscent of the Three Graces (three goddesses who represented grace, beauty, and charm in Greek mythology) and their depiction by the famed Italian Renaissance artist Raphael (The Three Graces, 1505). However, Seurat’s slender and physically separate women contrast to the classical portrayal of the Graces, who had been shown with voluptuous forms and were usually grouped together.
Nude models in the artist’s studio was a popular subject among Seurat’s French contemporaries, but he was characteristically unique by rendering this theme on a large scale canvas. Interestingly, some have interpreted the three women as the same woman at three different times: when she is undressing, when she is posing, and when she is getting re-dressed.
Circus Sideshow (1887-88)
Circus Sideshow was also exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, and depicts the sideshow of the Circus Corvi at the 1887 Gingerbread Fair. This fair was a major annual event held in eastern Paris that attracted tens of thousands of people of all social classes. Gingerbread was sold in all sorts of shapes and forms, including devils, animals, and Napoleon to name a few. Other entertainment was also provided, including fortune telling, wrestling, and music. Sideshows such as that depicted by Seurat would have been held outside the main circus tent to try and encourage passers-by to purchase tickets.
In this painting, the main subject is the trombonist in the centre of the canvas. To his left is four supporting musicians, and to his right is a buffoonish entertainer and the ringmaster Ferdinand Corvi, who is recognisable with his moustache and the tail coat that he wore when performing. At the front, we see the standing crowd, some of which are stood on stairs that would have lead to the box office.
Circus Sideshow is often noted for its tranquillity, which contrasts to the raucous atmosphere that one would usually except of this kind of setting. Seurat achieves this serene, perhaps even eerie quality with his balanced composition, the two-dimensionality of the figures, and the slight darkness of this nocturnal scene that is illuminated by artificial light.
Young Woman Powdering Herself (1888-90)
Young Woman Powdering Herself depicts Madeleine Knobloch, who was Seurat’s secret mistress – a relationship that he concealed from even his closest friends. In 2014, imaging technology revealed that Seurat had originally painted himself at his easel in the top-left corner of the canvas, presumably showing his own reflection in the mirror as he was making his portrait of Madeleine. However, as we can see from the final composition, he painted over it with a vase on a table.
Before the painting was examined, there was a long-standing “myth” that Seurat had painted, then covered up, a self-portrait. It was believed that he had shown the painting to a friend, who commented that the self-portrait looked ridiculous, leading Seurat to paint over it. Ironically, this “concealed” portrait is the only known self-portrait made by Seurat.
This painting has often been noted for the juxtaposition between the hour-glass figure of Madeleine and the tiny dressing table. For a long while, critics believed this contrast was for comical effect, but after it became known that the woman depicted was Seurat’s mistress, and that he had originally shown himself in the room, the piece was seen as more intimate and personal. As a a result, some critics now believe that there was no intended humour.
Le Chahut (1889-90)
This is another painting by Georges Seurat that depicts popular entertainment. Here, he has shown four men and women performing the chahut, or the cancan, which first appeared in Paris in the 1830s and became very popular in the French capital in the late 19th century. It was performed at cabaret and dance halls across the city, including the Moulin Rouge.
This painting shows not only Seurat’s methodical application of tiny dabs of paint, but also his quasi-scientific theories about line and colour, and their relationship between gaiety, or lack thereof. He believed that luminous tones, warm colours, and upwards lines created happiness, whilst sadness was created by dark tones, cold colours, and downwards lines.
In Le Chahut, Seurat has tried to evoke gaiety by using warm colours and giving the composition an orange glow in places. Similarly, he has created rising lines with the upwards direction of the men’s moustaches, the women’s lips and eyes, the neck of the double bass, the legs of the dancers, and the flowers. Despite this, the painting was received poorly by the critics, who felt that it was stiff and lifeless.
The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe (1890)
The Channel was painted in the Summer of 1890, when Seurat travelled to Gravelines, a small port on the northern French coast between Dunkirk and Calais. Here, Seurat produced three other paintings: The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe; The Chanel at Gravelines, Evening, and The Channel at Gravelines, in the direction of the sea. The paintings in this series were to be the last marine views that Seurat created, as his life was cut short the following year at the age of 31. Of Seurat’s Gravelines series, the poet and critic Émile Verhaeren stated in 1891, “It is air and light, even and tranquil, fixed in frames.”
In this particular painting, Seurat manipulated the positions of the boats to form a balanced composition using their horizontal and vertical lines. This works to create a serene atmosphere, which is also achieved by the artist’s nuanced colour palette, and the luminosity produced by his Pointillist technique. The painted border enhances the impact of the colours, with each section of it complementing the adjacent area.
The Circus (1890-91)
The Circus is the third painting in Georges Seurat’s series on popular urban entertainment, after Circus Sideshow and Le Chahut. Although unfinished, it was displayed at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888 – three days after its opening, Seurat died.
In the late 19th century, Paris had four large circuses: the Cirque d’Été, the Cirque d’Hiver, the Nouveau-Cirque, and the Cirque Fernando, which is the subject of this painting. The theme of the circus was popular in the 1880s, and performers at this specific circus were also depicted by Edgar Degas (Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, 1879).
In his painting of the circus, Seurat has shown various performers on the stage: a female equestrian balancing on a horse; an acrobat contorting in mid-air; another performer to his right; a ringmaster holding an outstretched whip, and a clown in the foreground, who is pulling back a curtain. As well as the audience in the background, Seurat seems to have also painted in part of an orchestra: a violinist and a conductor waving his arms in the air.
Like in Le Chauhut, Seurat has applied his notions on the psychological effects of line of colour. The canvas is dominated by warm colours and an orange glow, which is intensified by the contrasting blue border that he painted on. He has also used ascending lines in his depiction of the activity on stage to evoke gaiety, such as in the pointed hair of most of the performers.
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