National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 24, 2003
Seurat’s Painting Practice: Theory, Development and Technology Jo Kirby, Kate Stonor, Ashok Roy, Aviva Burnstock, Rachel Grout and Raymond White
Seurat is extremely well represented in London. Holdings of his work in the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute allow the development of his career to be studied here as nowhere else. Furthermore, the majority of Seurat’s works in the two collections – all the large paintings and a considerable number of oil sketches – have recently been examined and analysed. The National Gallery’s Bathers at Asnières (NG 3908) and the related small oil sketches in the collection were examined by a variety of analytical techniques for the exhibition Seurat and The Bathers, held at the Gallery in 1997, but only a limited amount of technical information was included in the catalogue (note 1). Following a technical study of Seurat’s paintings in the Courtauld Institute collection carried out between 2000 and 2001 (note 2), it was decided to combine and publish here the results acquired by the two institutions as together they provide an unusually full survey of the painter’s development in the course of his short career. In spite of the very large art-historical literature devoted to the painter, there is surprisingly little on his methods and materials, apart from the 1989 study of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, published by the Art Institute of Chicago (note 3), and the brief account of the Bathers in the 1997 exhibition catalogue. This is unexpected in view of Seurat’s well-documented interest in colour theory: it is inconceivable that this would not have influenced, for example, his choice of pigments. The materials available to him were in turn dictated by the state of development of the paint industry, the manufacture of artists’ materials and the extent to which these were manipulated by suppliers and marchands du couleurs.
The paintings examined comprise fifteen oil sketches (see Table 1; plates 1–3, 5, 6, 21), including several for the Bathers and for the Grande Jatte, and four finished, fully realised paintings dating from between 1883 and 1890. These are: Bathers at Asnières (NG 3908; plate 4), The Bridge at Courbevoie (Courtauld Institute Gallery; plate 8), Young Woman powdering Herself (Courtauld Institute Gallery; plate 9), and The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe (NG 6554; plate 11). Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp ( London, Tate Modern, on loan to the National Gallery; plate 7), was also examined visually for this survey, but no samples were taken (note 4).
As well as showing changes that took place in the artist’s choice of materials as his style and technique developed in the ten or so years of his career, this survey enables a comparison to be made between those materials used for the sketches and those used in the more finished pictures, where the choice of, for example, one particular green pigment might be significant for the very precise optical effects Seurat sought. It is important to realise that nothing in Seurat’s art seems to have been unconsidered – even the most cursory drawing or painted sketch appears to have had a very precise function in the production of the finished work. This may be one of the reasons why Seurat’s work is so recognisable, because he consistently chose a particular range of materials for each purpose. In effect, by always using a fixed set of materials – for example the habitual use of charcoal and conté crayon in the drawings – an element of unpredictability, a variable in scientific terms, was removed: the artist could concentrate on what he was aiming to express rather than on the means of expression.
Georges Seurat was born in Paris in 1859 into a wealthy middle-class family who supported him during his formal artistic training and, after his military service (1879–80), during his independent studies (note 5). This freed him from any need to sell his work or seek commissions. From 1876 to 1878, he took drawing lessons at the Ecole Municipale de Sculpture et de Dessin in Paris, run by the sculptor Justin Lequien fils, where students were encouraged to simplify forms and to avoid unnecessary detail. Most of those attending the school were destined to work in the applied and industrial arts; for them such a drawing education was eminently suitable. It seems also to have had a lasting influence on Seurat’s painting style, as well as on his characteristic tonal drawings in soft materials such as charcoal, pastel and conté.
In 1878 he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux- Arts and entered the studio of Henri Lehmann, a former pupil of Ingres. Here he followed a conventional academic programme, including drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and from life; he also made drawings from the works of old masters such as Raphael, Holbein and Poussin. It is easy to imagine that Seurat would have been attracted to the work of Ingres and it is clear that he did respond to the working methods of this archetypal academic painter, distilled through the teaching of Lehmann. However, it seems that even at this early stage of his career he was also interested in the work of other very different painters. It is reported, for example, that he visited the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879, where he would have seen works by Caillebotte, Degas, Monet and Pissarro, among others, and that of the American painter Mary Cassatt, who exhibited two paintings in coloured frames (note 6). Renoir, whose work Seurat admired particularly, had work accepted at the Salon that year and so did not participate in this Impressionist exhibition. On completing his military service, Seurat did not return to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but concentrated on developing a theoretical foundation for his art by reading, and pursued his own independent researches in the Louvre and in the Salon exhibitions. He is known, for example, to have made a free copy of The Poor Fisherman (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (note 7), shown in the Salon exhibition of 1881, and he looked seriously at the works of Eugène Delacroix, including the wall paintings in the church of St-Sulpice. Delacroix’s paintings influenced Seurat deeply, much as they had the Impressionists some twenty years before. During 1881 he made notes on Delacroix’s palettes and on his use of red and green in conjunction, and on where he allowed tones of blue and orange, yellow and violet to play against one another (note 8). In view of his later discussions with the mathematician and aesthetician Charles Henry, it is interesting that even at this stage in his career Seurat seems to have been more impressed by the harmonies arising from such pairs of complementary colours rather than the contrasts.
Although a drawing of his – a portrait of his close friend Aman-Jean (Amand-Edmond Jean) – was accepted for the Salon exhibition of 1883, Seurat did not otherwise have much success with this official venue: Bathers at Asnières, for example, was rejected the following year (note 9). The Salon was no longer under State control by this time, however, and its annual exhibitions gradually declined in importance. The political climate was also different from that of the early 1870s when the Impressionists had so signally failed to achieve official recognition. Dealer exhibitions became more influential and smaller groups, often founded by artists, came into being. The Bathers was shown in the summer of 1884 at the first exhibition of one such group, the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants, of which Seurat was a founder member, and which, like the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, contained works by artists who had been rejected by the Salon jury. It was at this time that he met Paul Signac. As a result of this exhibition the Société des Artistes Indépendants was established and Seurat contributed regularly to their exhibitions until his death. In fact, most of Seurat’s finished paintings were exhibited to the public at independent exhibitions of this type during his lifetime. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp were shown at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, at the exhibition of ‘Les Vingt’ in Brussels in 1887 (both by invitation), and at the second exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants (note 10), also in 1886, while The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe was on display at the Society’s seventh exhibition at the time of Seurat’s death in March 1891 (note 11).
The results of Seurat’s constant researches into optical and aesthetic theory, with the attendant modifications to his handling of paint and developments like the use of coloured borders and frames, were frequently the subject of criticism and analysis by artists and critics alike, but Seurat himself said little about the theory of his painting techniques – he left such explanations to others such as Felix Fénéon. A letter written to Maurice Beaubourg in August 1890 gives a brief statement summarising his views on the harmonious use of tone, colour and line (note 12). It is clear that Seurat relied very much on the written word in developing his ideas, to an unusually large extent compared with other painters at that time. From the beginning of his career he sought an ‘optical formula’ for the proper construction of his paintings and he turned for assistance to the theories of scientists, partly as interpreted by other authors. He read Charles Blanc’s article on Delacroix in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1864) during his student days and, more significantly, his Grammaire des arts du dessin (1867) (note 13). Through this book he was first introduced to the essential elements of Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s work, along with the conventionally accepted notion of primary colours and colour mixing, with complementary colours illustrated in a star-shaped diagram (plate 10).
Chevreul became Director of Dyeing at the Gobelins tapestry workshops in 1824. One of his tasks was to investigate the apparent dullness of certain textile dyestuffs. This had been assumed to be a technical problem relating to the dyestuffs, but Chevreul found that the lack of brightness was a phenomenon arising from the optical mixture of the hues of adjacent threads. It is worth noting that the primary colours as generally understood by most painters during the nineteenth century were red, yellow and blue; the complementary secondary colours produced by mixing pairs of these primaries are thus green (blue + yellow), violet (red + blue) and orange (red + yellow). Chevreul found that where neighbouring threads were of complementary colours – blue and orange, for example – the resulting appearance to the eye was greyish. Chevreul formulated his observations as the law of simultaneous contrast of colours, which stated that when the eye saw two contiguous colours at the same time, they would appear as dissimilar as possible, both in hue and in tone. In the case of two different colours, the hue of each is modified by the effect of the complementary colour of the other, for example, if red is placed next to blue, its colour will appear a more orange-red than it would if used alone or placed next to yellow. The blue, meanwhile, appears more green than if used alone. Another optical effect Chevreul described was ‘the phenomena of the duration of a light impression on the retina’, as Seurat summarised it in the letter to Beaubourg – in other words, successive contrast. If the eye looks at a coloured area, say red, intensively for a while, and then looks away, for a moment the ‘fatigued’ eye perceives a green after-image, that is, the complementary colour. If the eye then looks at another colour, say yellow, the colour actually registered will be a lime or apple green – the combination of the yellow and the induced green. Chevreul first reported these and related findings in a lecture in 1829, but the work was only published ten years later in the much reprinted De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, et de l’assortiment des objets colorés (1839) (note 14). A large part of the book was concerned with examples of colour contrast in different contexts, including the framing of pictures, effects which Seurat came to exploit in the coloured borders and frames in some of his later works.
Whether or not Seurat read Chevreul’s book in its entirety, he did note down several paragraphs from the section on painting, including those on the raising and lowering of tones of different colours by their juxtaposition to achieve harmony, and the attainment of chiaroscuro by the juxtaposition of different tones of the same colour, an effect Seurat came to exploit with great subtlety (note 15). The simultaneous contrast between areas of two complementary colours (plate 12) is particularly marked along the boundary between them, a feature that may be observed on many of his paintings, for example in the National Gallery Bathers, where the pale, heavily reinforced outline of the shoulder and upper arm of the boy seated on the bank stands out against the strong blue of the water (plate 13). A similar technique is used in the Courtauld Institute Gallery’s Young Woman powdering Herself where the blue colour of the background has been intensified to bring out the palest tones of the sitter’s arms and the white lace of her shoulder straps (plate 14).
Seurat regularly used simultaneous contrast to emphasise chiaroscuro, the sculptural quality of an object, and to isolate the subject from its background; clearly this effect was an important device in the tonal construction of his compositions and also, it should be said, in his drawings. In this his reading of Blanc and Chevreul was perhaps reinforced by a short paragraph on ‘irradiation’ in one of a series of articles by the Swiss aesthetician David Sutter, which appeared in the journal L’Art in 1880 (note 16). Sutter’s ‘irradiation’ could be described as an effect seen at the boundary between a very light object against a darker background (or vice versa), giving the object high relief as well as separating it from the background (note 17). This increase in the definition of the form certainly describes very well the characteristic ‘detached’ appearance of the bathing figures in the Bathers, and of the figures in the small version of Les Poseuses (c.1888; Private Collection), and in several of the sketches and drawings for this composition, for example Seated Model in Profile (1887; Paris, Musée d’Orsay). However, the effect is also employed in his landscapes, notably to outline the spectacular rocky promontory in Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (plate 15). In the later Young Woman powdering Herself the technique is used in a very much more subtle and indeed more decorative way. The woman’s dark hair is constructed in dots largely of red, blue and green which in some places give an overall blackish appearance (plate 16). This is surrounded by a halo of light-coloured paint made up of touches of pale blue, light creamy yellow and white, while the areas inside her right elbow and above her left forearm, both very pale flesh tones, are painted in a moderately dark bluegreen colour, giving a marked light and dark contrast. In addition, however, the areas of light and dark greenish-blue paint of the background wallcovering create a pattern of decorative swirls, as well as depicting the irradiation effect around the figure. The effects of simultaneous contrast have here been exploited – on the scale of individual dots of paint, and on the larger scale of broader areas of colour – to provide tonal contrast and even to create a lively pattern within the painting.
The way colour was actually perceived by the eye was, by Seurat’s time, quite well understood. Research done by Thomas Young at the beginning of the nineteenth century and developed by Hermann von Helmholtz had revealed that white light consisted of three primary colours: an orange-red, green and a blue-violet (the colours to which the cones in the retina of the human eye respond) (note 18). If light of these colours is mixed in the correct proportions, white light is obtained; yellow light results from mixing red light and green light. This is additive mixing. When pigments and dyestuffs are combined, however, the mixing is subtractive: a yellow pigment, for example, appears yellow because it absorbs light from the blue and violet regions of the spectrum, reflecting the remainder; and a mixture of red, yellow and blue, the three subtractive primaries, should yield black, or a greyish colour; mixing a primary (red) with its complementary secondary colour (green) will also give grey or, ideally, black. (This was the problematic effect that Chevreul in fact observed in the dyed textiles.)
How the principles of additive mixing might be represented on the canvas had also been the subject of study. The clearest and most relevant explanations of the theory and its practical applications were given in Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry (New York 1879) which Seurat read in its first French translation in 1881 (note 19). Rood carried out colour matching experiments, many based on spinning discs of papers painted in different colours, others using coloured glass filters, under different lighting conditions. The spinning disc experiments were based on earlier work of the 1850s by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who experimented with discs of red, green and blue paper in which the sizes of sectors of each colour illuminated could be varied. Using algebraic colour matching equations, the precise quantity of the illumination of each of the three colours needed to match any spectral colour could then be specified. Rood used red, green and blue papers (painted using vermilion, emerald green and artificial ultramarine), together with smaller black and white papers to make a neutral grey, but he also allowed for the fact that the three colours were not equal in luminosity. He was able to construct an accurate diagram of contrasting colours (fig. 1), from which it can be seen that, for example, vermilion is complementary to a greenish blue and emerald green is complementary to purplish red (note 20).
The same diagram could be used to produce harmonious effects based on the angle between one colour and another on the colour wheel. Angles of less than 80° or 90° between colours gave rise to effects of contrast that were unsatisfactory or even discordant. Sets of three colours, separated by angles of about 120°, were often particularly appealing in Rood’s opinion; the examples he gave of the use of such ‘triads’ of colour by artists suggested that two of the three should be ‘warm’ colours, such as red and yellow, which took precedence over ideals of contrast. The association of colours separated only by a small interval (red and orange-red) was very effective when, for example, it was necessary to represent small gradations in colour (note 21). This effect bears some relation to Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast of tones; it can be seen in Seurat’s work in the flesh painting and skirt of the Young Woman powdering Herself (plate 17). The placing of small dots of colour side by side so that, when viewed from certain distances, ‘the blending is more or less accomplished by the eye of the beholder’, was a method of achieving such gradation and the tints observed were, according to Rood, identical to those obtained by the method of spinning discs of coloured paper, rather than by mixing pigments on the palette. Rood described this method as giving ‘true mixtures of coloured light’, the nearest the artist could get to the additive mixture of colour explained by Helmholtz (note 22).
It is clear that Seurat wished to explore harmony of colour over and above effects of simple contrast. As well as the information he gained from Rood’s book, his meeting and subsequent friendship with the mathematician Charles Henry encouraged him in this. Henry developed theories concerned with the symbolic values and associations of colours. Warm colours were more or less pleasant, whereas cold colours such as green, violet and blue were somewhat sad or inhibiting. He too constructed a chromatic circle where colours were associated with a particular emotional direction; thus pleasant (dynamogenous, that is, physiologically stimulating) colours correspond to agreeable directions: upwards and left to right. In his desire for a logical and scientific basis for the construction of his paintings, Seurat was particularly indebted to Henry’s theories on the combination, direction and relationships of the linear elements of his compositions to control harmony and mood. Seurat’s preoccupation with colour harmony can be seen in his earliest works and after 1886, when he first met Henry (note 23), he also began to incorporate Henry’s ideas on the perceptual effects of geometry and spatial arrangement on his compositions. Seurat’s development in this regard can be seen clearly from a comparison of the Bathers and the rather later landscapes, for example The Bridge at Courbevoie, where so many vertical features are stressed, and the Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe, in which the idea is more subtly demonstrated by the slight upward rise in the line of the horizon from left to right, emphasised by painted borders. The symbolic use of line and also colour were perhaps explored to a greater extent in the interior scenes, all painted after 1886, such as Le Chahut (plate 18) and the Young Woman powdering Herself.
At some time Seurat copied out Rood’s colour wheel and made notes on one of the experimental sections of the book. He may well have used the colour wheel to construct some of the contrasts and harmonies visible in the Bathers, as it was exhibited in 1884 – there are, for example, many based on cold viridian green and purple (plate 19), which are complementary colours according to Rood’s system – but at this stage he had yet to investigate the effects of ‘optical mixture’ opened up for him by Rood and Henry and to develop the dotted brushwork so characteristic of his later paintings. In fact, his interest in and exploitation of contemporary colour theories are clearly evident in his earlier works, where the brushwork, although broadly directional, was more conventional. For Seurat, the purpose of this type of brushwork was both to optimise the optical mixture by juxtaposing the desired complementary colours in adjacent dots of paint, and also, on a larger scale, to construct areas of tonal contrast. It is, however, important to emphasise that Seurat’s colour harmonies and contrasts whether constructed on the basis of Chevreul’s work, or on Delacroix’s, Blanc’s, Rood’s or Henry’s, are in no way naturalistic. His earliest outdoor sketches, and indeed his studies of a model posed in the studio, may have been painted from what he observed; but the colour in the later studies and in the final painting has been ordered and contrived as part of the intellectual process of the construction of the picture.