Georges Modernism was his pointillist painting, A

Georges Seurat is arguably considered one of the most notable Post-Impressionist painters of his time. He undoubtedly profoundly shaped the Modernist movement as his body of work created a link between prior movements like Impressionism to Modernism in style, theme, and use of color. Seurat was also a notable critic of society at the time and, although subtle, this expression of dissatisfaction and thematic critique is one of the main tenets of modernist expression. Seurat’s most influential work on Modernism was his pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which shaped and inspired what would later blossom into the Modernist movement. Situated in the time between late nineteenth century Impressionism and early twentieth century Modernist movements like Fauvism and Impressionism, 1 Seurat’s life and artistic career developed during a time of rebellion and rejection. The old, established rules and schools of thought in the art community were being broken down by the growing Modernist movement which brought with it an appreciation of qualities which at any other point in art history would have been rejected and discarded. Artists like Georges Seurat furthered the development of the Modernist movement and inspired the march toward true abstraction by focusing on the wide range of decorative, emotional, and visual effects that can be achieved with the medium without regard for ‘the establishment’ and ‘precedent.’  During Seurat’s short career, he expressed hatred of being attached to the Impressionist movement and disliked being categorized as a painter under a movement he was not a part of. When the term Neo-Impressionism was coined by art critic Félix Fénéon in 1886, it was to describe Seurat and Signac’s rejection of tradition 2 and how they broke away from the wild abandon so typical of Impressionism, as indeed, Seurat’s careful placement of each dot and color in his work truly opposed Impressionism’s fundamental spontaneity. It is important to note however, that many Impressionist painters of the time did greatly influence the direction of Seurat’s work, even if Seurat personally disliked being connected to the movement. In 1879, Seurat saw the work of notable impressionist artists Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet at an impressionist show he attended. 3 He felt that the Impressionist style and the artists who pioneered it were breaking new ground in art by defying the tastes of the established art community at the time. Seurat would later be inspired by his fellow contemporary’s willingness to break from the formalities of established rules, which greatly influenced his further experimentation in color theory and the breakdown of form.  It is interesting to note that Seurat’s short military career started later that year, where he devoted much of his spare time to reading, researching, and filling sketchbooks with studies of fellow soldiers, places he visited, and people he met. One of his notable works from this time is his 1879 oil on panel painting, Landscape at Saint-Ouen 1879, 4 which is the earliest known of Seurat’s oil sketches from nature.  In examining this piece—which was created relatively early in his short career—it is interesting to find the beginnings of a total breakdown of color and a lack of form heavily inspired by Impressionism, as is expressed in the foggy breakdown of form in the landscape and the attention to brushwork in the foreground. Seurat’s style was also influenced by the works of Charles Blanc and Michel-Eugène Chevreul, 5 who introduced to Seurat the science of optic colors that became critical to the development of his pointillist style. Having piqued his interest after learning two colors juxtaposed next to each other could then create a third ‘optical’ color, this technique became one of the inspirations for Seurat’s technical and scientific method. Seurat later expanded his knowledge of color theory by studying the works and methods of his contemporaries and the artists from movements such as Neoclassicism, Impressionism and Realism. One notable artist who influenced Seurat’s work was the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, 6 who’s unique brushwork would later inspire him to experiment with colors as separate, purified brushstrokes, which were then refined into his pointillist dots.  Perhaps the most well-known example of Seurat’s work is the piece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. This piece symbolized for him the culmination of years of study and work, and was revised many times until he finally completed it in the Pointillist style as it is known today. 7 Its optical illusions using light and color, its hints of orientalism and exoticism, and its unique portrayal of different social classes firmly planted Seurat in the spotlight. After the exhibition of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in 1886, Seurat quickly shot to international fame. 8 Audiences around the world applauded his scientific approach and methods, and many critics embraced his forward thinking. However, many people romanticized this meeting of ‘art and science,’ and overlooked Seurat’s work as a whole, instead embracing it in only one, scientific, way. At the time, Seurat only fanned these flames and was quoted as saying “some say they see poetry in my paintings, I see only science.” 9  Although it is indeed easy to classify Seurat’s work as purely scientific, and Seurat as purely a scientist working in light and color, it is also important to look at the human touch behind his beautiful conte crayon sketches. Sketches such as Eden Concert, 10 or even the draft sketches of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte express an interest in form and emotion that truly resonate with emerging Modernist fundamentals. Even in his sketches, Seurat did not shy away from abstraction, rather, it seems he almost relished taking apart forms and depicting them in terms of light and value instead.  Although Georges Seurat was sadly only 31 when he died, he left behind an influential body of work. In his short life, Seurat only made 7 large scale paintings, 11 but each piece had a lasting impact on the art world and public mentality on art as a whole, and each was shockingly ahead of its time when tackling social issues of the time. Seurat is widely credited as being one of the first artists to systematically break down color theory and bring the science of optical color to the forefront of art, and is also credited alongside Paul Signac as being the first dedicated Pointillist artist. ¹² Seurat’s technical and scientific breakthroughs in the art community have inspired entire generations of Modernist artists from Cubism to Op Art, and will continue to influence many generations to come.  

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