The mid-19th century was a time of radical innovation in art. The Impressionist artists shocked the establishment with their desire to paint light, form and colour as they saw it, and not as they had been taught. Their technique was brilliant but messy and a subsequent generation of artists sought to bring clarity and order to the Impressionists’ pioneering experiments. One of these artists was Georges Seurat, who confronted the problem like a mathematical equation.
Born into a well-to-do family in Paris, Seurat trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was influenced by Delacroix and the Barbizon painters. He was introduced to Impressionism through his friend the painter Paul Signac, and became captivated by the movement’s attention to light and colour.
Seurat used classical compositions to bring order to his pictures. Bathers at Asnières, 1884, is on the scale of a traditional history painting, yet the scene depicts office workers and labourers. The effect was both archaic and modern. A committed socialist, Seurat painted Parisian everyday life in a way that had traditionally been reserved for kings. When it was submitted to the Paris Salon it was immediately rejected, which led to Seurat joining forces with other artists to form the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants, which enabled artists to present their work to the general public without going through the official selective channels.
Of the many innovations Seurat introduced to painting, pointillism is perhaps the best-known technique. Using the scientific theory of colour vision, he juxtaposed little spots of paint next to each other like a mosaic. It was to revolutionise the way artists thought about colour and light.
Seurat died of suspected diphtheria at the age of 32. The critic Jules Christophe wrote, ‘A sudden stupid sickness carried him off in a few hours when he was about to triumph: I curse providence and death.’ Yet his art continued to have a significant influence on the subsequent developments in modern art.
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