‘Colour creates harmony in art, just like counterpoint in music’, said Georges Seurat

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Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–85, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

December 2, On This Day 

Georges Seurat, 1888

Born 162 years ago today, on December 2, 1859, Georges Pierre Seurat is a French post-Impressionist artist with a unique legacy. He is best known for devising the painting techniques known as chromoluminarism and pointillism, and his conté crayon drawings have also garnered a great deal of critical appreciation.

Child in White, 1884–85, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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. He thought that the knowledge of perception and optical laws could be used to create a new language of art and he set out to show this language using lines, color intensity and color schema — which he called Chromoluminarism.

The Laborers 1883, National Gallery of Art Washington, DC.

Seurat’s theories can be summarized as follows — 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.

Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque), 1887–88, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One of Seurat’s prominent works — an icon of late 19th-century painting that is said to have altered the direction of modern art by initiating Neo-impressionism — began in summer 1884: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting 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). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886, oil on canvas, 207.5 × 308.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–85, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Seurat died in Paris in his parents’ home on March 29, 1891, at the age of just 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, and has been variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time of his death.

The Circus, 1891, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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