Georges-Pierre Seurat was a French painter best known as the founder of pointillism. His most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, is an icon of modern art.
Georges was born into a wealthy Parisian family. He studied art with a sculptor before attending the Academy of Fine Art, École des Beaux-Arts. He served one year in the military then returned to Paris. For two years there, he devoted himself to mastering the art of black-and-white drawing. Then, in 1883, he began his first major painting, Bathers at Asnières. After his painting was rejected by the Academy’s Paris Salon, Seurat turned away from the establishment. He befriended other independent artists and, in 1884, they founded the Society of Independent Artists.
Seurat is a perfect example of artist as scientist. In his time, scientists were studying color, perception, and optical effects. To artists, Michel Eugene Chevreul was an especially influential scientist. His greatest contribution was a color wheel of primary, secondary, and tertiary hues. Chevreul realized that the ‘halo’ that one sees after looking at a color is actually the opposing or complimentary color. (After looking at a red object, for example, you can see a cyan echo of the original object.) By studying these effects, Chevreul discovered that two colors placed very close together will look like another color when seen from a distance. This discovery became the basis for modern color printing and for pointillism – in which small dots of pure color are painted in patterns to create an image. Seurat used this scientific approach to create vibrant, shimmering works of art.
Seurat also theorized that optical science could be used to create emotion in art. His theories have been summarized simply: Happiness is painted with an abundance of bright, warm hues, and by lines going upward. Calm is painted with a balance of light and dark, a balance of warm and cold colors, and by lines that are horizontal. Sadness is painted with dark and cold colors, and by lines pointing downward.
Seurat used these theories to create his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It took two years to complete the 10 foot painting. Seurat painted about sixty preliminary sketches in the park before he finished the painting in his studio. The sketches can be found in museums around the world. The painting itself can be seen in Illinois at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Seurat got sick and died in 1891. He was 31 years old. His 500 drawings alone establish the painter as a master artist, but he is remembered today as a leader of the neo-impressionists, and, of course, as the father of pointillism.
For an art teacher, there is a lot to love about Georges Seurat. His mastery of color translates to any of many color theory lessons, and student studies of his work are always exciting to see. I like Seurat best though as an example of artist as scientist. Art students need to see how much research, practice, and experimentation goes in to a masterful work of art. Most importantly though, we all need to be reminded how how science, art, and other disciplines play off of each other and even overlap.