Georges-Pierre Seurat created his first major artwork, “Bathers at Asnières”, in 1884 when he was only 24 years old. “Bathers” was a depiction of several figures relaxing and bathing along the Seine during the high summer. It is in many ways an enchanted scene. For hundreds of years, artists had painted smoke, fascinated by its ephemeral shifting light. But Seurat finds a new way to paint it – the disciplined fragmentation of his surface lets him see with a new clarity how smoke slips to nothingness, how it is both something and nothing.
Seurat was an artist-scientist, a brain rather than an eye. His art was not, like Impressionism, about pure sensation, or self-expression, or improvisation. (Impressionism wasn’t necessarily about these things, either, but that’s another story.) It was, instead, an un-Romantic exercise in measurement, objectivity, logic, control, with formal decisions made and conceptually resolved before brush touched canvas.
When Seurat unveiled his huge painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in Paris in 1886, he shocked the Parisian art scene to its core. Instead of mixing colours on the palette or the canvas, Seurat had, with great patience and precision, placed lozenges of block colours side by side on the canvas. Known as pointillism, the idea was to make colours more vibrant as they hit the viewer’s eyes. This scientific method, which drew on colour and optical theories of the time, formed the technical basis of neo-Impressionism.
Georges Seurat combined the ideals of academic French art with a curiously distant commentary on modern life – he said he wanted to paint people as if they were figures on the Parthenon frieze. He died on March 29, 1891, in Paris, after a brief illness that was most likely pneumonia or meningitis.