From a young age, Georges Seurat demonstrated and pursued an interest in art, first drawing, then taking classes with a sculptor, and later on enrolling in the nationally renowned school of fine arts, École des Beaux-Arts in France in 1868.
In 1879, at the age of 20, Seurat went to do military service in Brest, where he befriended Édmond-François Aman-Jean, who joined him in his class at the academy of fine arts. The two friends spent their free time going to cabarets and dance halls in the evening, and in the spring they would take the passenger steamer to the island of La Grande Jatte, which would later become the backdrop for his masterpiece work.
At this point, he had several influences that had decidedly made an effect on how he would realize his artistic practice. These include a book he read at the school library, Essai sur les signes inconditionnels de l’art (1827; “Essay on the Unmistakable Signs of Art”) that dealt with the course of aesthetics and the relationship between lines and images; he also met the 100-year-old Michel-Eugène Chevreul who theorized about chromatic light. Seurat would use these theories to test what could be achieved with primary colors, all the while developing a strong interest in the intellectual and scientific bases of art.
Seurat had begun exhibiting his works at the official Salon, the state-sponsored annual exhibition, in 1883. For the next three years he would continue exhibiting his work and drawing studies on La Grande Jatte. In 1866, he finished the painting and exhibited it from May to June at last impressionism exhibition. His painting included a technique of weaving and layering small brush strokes to achieve a tapestry-like surface of complementary and contrasting hues, which garnered attention among his peers. Art critic Félix Fénéon praised his work and was the first to use the term Neo-impressionism to describe it. With A Sunday on La Grande Jatte the standout example of his style, Seurat became the leader of the Neo-Impressionism movement.
Neo-Impressionism came to be known as an the incorporation of the concept of measured painting technique and the study of optics with separate touches of interwoven pigment, and artists who used the style believed it to resulted in a greater vibrancy of color while the observer’s eye blended them.
Nevertheless, this style was not considered favorable to everyone. Contrary to Impressionism, which was criticized for spontaneity and roughness of brushwork, Neo-Impressionism was criticized for having overly calculated brush strokes, which to some made it seem too mechanical and contrary to ideas of the creative processes accepted in the 19th century.
He participated in the 1889 Salon des Indépendants exhibiting landscapes. He had moved to Brussels to exhibit his work, while living with Madeleine Knobloch and their son Pierre-Georges Seurat, born a year later. Shortly after, the artist started working on his last painting, The Cirque, and as if he planned his death, he exhibited his unfinished work at the eighth Salon des Indépendants. While tired from planning the exhibition, he caught a chill and died on Easter Sunday 1891.
In spite of Seurat’s early death, his disciple Paul Signac continued to support the Neo-Impressionist style, allowing his work to continue resonating among artists for decades because while short-lived, Neo-Impressionism introduced a novel concept of form and color in painting.
Happy birthday, Georges Seurat. For fans of his art, there are products at The Met Store that celebrate the Neo-Impressionism movement he led. Discover them today.