Today is the birthday (1859) of Georges-Pierre Seurat, French Post-Impressionist painter and draftsman. He is noted for his innovative use of drawing media and for devising the technique of painting known as pointillism. His large-scale work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) altered the direction of modern art by ushering in the era of Neo-Impressionism. It is one of the icons of late 19th century painting.
Seurat was born in Paris. His father, Antoine Chrysostome Seurat, originally from Champagne, was a former legal official who had become wealthy from speculating in property, and his mother, Ernestine Faivre, was from Paris. He first studied art at the École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, near his family’s home in the boulevard Magenta, which was run by the sculptor Justin Lequien. In 1878 he moved on to the École des Beaux-Arts where he was taught by Henri Lehmann, and followed a conventional academic training, drawing from casts of antique sculpture and copying drawings by old masters. Seurat’s studies resulted in a well-considered and fertile theory of contrasts: a theory to which all his work was thereafter subjected. His formal artistic education came to an end in November 1879, when he left the École des Beaux-Arts for a year of military service.
After a year at the Brest Military Academy, he returned to Paris where he shared a studio with his friend Aman-Jean, while also renting a small apartment at 16 rue de Chabrol. For the next two years, he worked at mastering the art of monochrome drawing. His first exhibited work, shown at the Salon, of 1883, was a Conté crayon drawing of Aman-Jean. He also studied the works of Delacroix carefully, making notes on his use of color.
He spent 1883 working on his first major painting—a huge canvas titled Bathers at Asnières, a monumental work showing young men relaxing by the Seine in a working-class suburb of Paris. Although influenced in its use of color and light tone by Impressionism, the painting with its smooth, simplified textures and carefully outlined, rather sculptural figures, shows the continuing impact of his neoclassical training. Seurat also departed from the Impressionist ideal by preparing for the work with a number of drawings and oil sketches before starting on the canvas in his studio.
Bathers at Asnières was rejected by the Paris Salon, and instead he showed it at the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants in May 1884. Soon, however, disillusioned by the poor organization of the Indépendants, Seurat and some other artists he had met through the group – including Charles Angrand, Henri-Edmond Cross, Albert Dubois-Pillet and Paul Signac – set up a new organization, the Société des Artistes Indépendants. Seurat’s new ideas on pointillism were to have an especially strong influence on Signac, who subsequently painted in the same idiom.
In the summer of 1884, Seurat began work on A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte shows members of each of the social classes participating in various park activities. The tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors physically blended on the canvas. It took Seurat two years to complete this 10-foot-wide (3.0 m) painting, much of which he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). Seurat made several studies for the large painting including a smaller version, Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1885), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.
Later he moved from the Boulevard de Clichy to a quieter studio nearby, where he lived secretly with a young model, Madeleine Knobloch, whom he portrayed in his painting Jeune femme se poudrant. In February 1890, she gave birth to their son, who was named Pierre Georges.
He spent the summer of 1890 on the coast at Gravelines, where he painted four canvases including The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe, as well as eight oil panels and made a few drawings.
Seurat died in Paris on 29 March 1891 at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, and has been variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His son died two weeks later from the same disease. His last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time of his death.
During the 19th century, scientist-writers such as Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and David Sutter wrote treatises on color, optical effects and perception. They adapted the scientific research of Hermann von Helmholtz and Isaac Newton into a form accessible to laypeople. Artists followed new discoveries in perception with great interest.
Chevreul was perhaps the most important influence on artists at the time; his great contribution was producing a color wheel of primary and intermediary hues. Chevreul was a French chemist who restored tapestries. During his restorations he noticed that the only way to restore a section properly was to take into account the influence of the colors around the missing wool; he could not produce the right hue unless he recognized the surrounding dyes. Chevreul discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when seen from a distance.I first noticed this phenomenon in the Roman mosaics at Piazza Ameria in Sicily where an extremely narrow color range of tiles produces a kaleidoscope of color (not captured by a camera).
The discovery of this phenomenon became the basis for the pointillist technique of the Neo-Impressionist painters.
Chevreul also realized that the ‘halo’ that one sees after looking at a color is the opposing color (also known as complementary color). For example: After looking at a red object, one may see a cyan echo/halo of the original object. This complementary color is due to retinal persistence. Neo-Impressionist painters interested in the interplay of colors made extensive use of complementary colors in their paintings. In his works, Chevreul advised artists to think and paint not just the color of the central object, but to add colors and make appropriate adjustments to achieve a harmony among colors. It seems that the harmony Chevreul wrote about is what Seurat came to call “emotion.”
It is not clear whether Seurat read all of Chevreul’s book on color contrast, published in 1859, but he did copy out several paragraphs from the chapter on painting, and he had read Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin (1867), which cites Chevreul’s work. Blanc’s book was directed at artists and art connoisseurs. Because of color’s emotional significance to him, he made explicit recommendations that were close to the theories later adopted by the Neo-Impressionists. He said that color should not be based on the “judgment of taste,” but rather it should be close to what we experience in reality. Blanc did not want artists to use equal intensities of color, but to consciously plan and understand the role of each hue in creating a whole.
While Chevreul based his theories on Newton’s thoughts on the mixing of light, Ogden Rood based his writings on the work of Helmholtz. He analyzed the effects of mixing and juxtaposing material pigments. Rood took as primary colors red, green, and blue-violet. Like Chevreul, he said that if two colors are placed next to each other, from a distance they look like a third distinctive color. He also pointed out that the juxtaposition of primary hues next to each other would create a far more intense and pleasing color, when perceived by the eye and mind, than the corresponding color made simply by mixing paint. Rood advised artists to be aware of the difference between additive and subtractive qualities of color, since material pigments and light do not mix in the same way:
Material pigments: Red + Yellow + Blue = Black
Optical /Light : Red + Green + Blue = White
Seurat was also influenced by Sutter’s Phenomena of Vision (1880), in which he wrote that “the laws of harmony can be learned as one learns the laws of harmony and music.” He heard lectures in the 1880s by the as mathematician Charles Henry at the Sorbonne, who discussed the emotional properties and symbolic meaning of lines and color.
Seurat took to heart the color theorists’ notion of a scientific approach to painting. He believed that a painter could use color to create harmony and emotion in art in the same way that a musician uses counterpoint and variation to create harmony in music. He theorized that the scientific application of color was like any other natural law, and he was driven to prove this conjecture. He thought that the knowledge of perception and optical laws could be used to create a new language of art based on its own set of heuristics and he set out to show this language using lines, color intensity and color schema. Seurat called this language Chromoluminarism.
In a letter to Maurice Beaubourg in 1890 he wrote “Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, considered according to their dominance and under the influence of light, in gay, calm or sad combinations.” According to Seurat, the emotion of gaiety can be achieved by the domination of luminous hues, by the predominance of warm colors, and by the use of lines directed upward. Calm is achieved through an equivalence/balance of the use of the light and the dark, by the balance of warm and cold colors, and by lines that are horizontal. Sadness is achieved by using dark and cold colors and by lines pointing downward.
Cooking and presenting food involves all five of the classic senses (there are more than five human senses, incidentally – he said cryptically and infuriatingly). Color and the juxtaposition of color are vital, and can be played with to great effect. Obviously the use of food colorings, in cake icing for example, can be played with in a painterly fashion. This site gives some great ideas:
And this site gives a color wheel based on natural pigments.
It is well worth using these natural pigments to color your own pasta. Make your own pasta (see Hints), but substitute spinach for green, beets for red, and so on. You use the equivalent in volume of an egg in place of one of the eggs. You also must be careful in rolling and extruding these pastas because they are not as supple as pasta made with all egg. They must be kneaded a lot more to make them supple and to distribute the colors. I am fond of using squid ink to make black pasta. Here’s a dish I made using black pasta for crab ravioli with a béchamel sauce.
But for me the simplest, and in some ways most stunning, use of colors is in the classic Italian salad, tricolore.
Tricolore represents the colors of the Italian flag, red, white, and green, using fresh basil leaves, fresh mozzarella, and fresh tomatoes. The image gives you all you need to know. Slice the mozzarella and tomatoes, and layer them with the basil leaves. Not only is it visually appealing, the tastes are a perfect complement to one another as well. Serve with extra virgin olive oil and salt for guests to add as desired.