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Monday, January 31, 2011

Georges Seurat

Very few individual artist can be said to have influenced the course of modern art to any great degree, and yet one man not only did just that, but did so barely more than a half-dozen paintings. That man was Georges Seurat. Georges was a strange man. But then, so was his father. He was born in Paris in 1859, the son of a local official who was so secretive he put his wife and three children up in a Paris apartment while he lived alone in a house some three miles away. Georges apparently was something of an introvert, preferring to spend his time alone in some of the many public parks that dotted his Parisian neighborhood. There he learned to draw those around him enjoying themselves in ways he could never bring himself to do.   
After high school, young Seurat went to art school, served in the army, then returned to Paris where he set himself up in a large loft-type studio to paint. Recalling his childhood in the park, he set about trying to duplicate in the then avant-garde color of the impressionists, the feeling of those gentle, quiet, carefree days. He chose as the subject of his first major work a scene featuring male bathers on the banks of the Seine outside Paris. Though influenced by the impressionists, he lacked their spontaneous temperament. He worked tirelessly. His style or mannr of painting has been called Pointilism. With it, he pushed Impressionist color theory into the realm of scientific experimentation, breaking new ground with every stroke of his tiny points of color. Exhibiting for the first time in the Impressionist's Salon de Refuse', even the they didn't know what to do with him.  His painting was too large and too strange to put in one of their main exhibition rooms so he was relegated to a dark corner, literally behind a door.   
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,
1884-86, Georges Seurat

Undeterred, Seurat went back to work, spending three lonely years painting literally from first light to candle light a painting even larger and more daring than the first. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte also presented a view of the Paris riverside but this time with a whole melange of strolling, relaxing Parisian society. 
Circus Side Show (detail),
1889, George Seurat
This painting brought him some notice amongst the new breed of Post-Impressionist starting to rock the Paris art scene. Though stiff, formal, and stylized, the work literally shimmered with light as the tiny dots of color did things to the viewer's eyes no painting had ever done before. His third paining, completed in 1888, turned his scientific/artistic color studies to the effects of the rather dismal, artificial gas lighting used to illuminate nighttime sideshows in his beloved parks.  Titled Side Show, it moved closer to the Cubism and abstraction of a generation later than any painting of its time. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and perhaps dozens of other artist of this century were influenced to one degree or another by these few landmark paintings. Except for one or two other smaller pieces, and a few painted, preparatory color studies, this was the sum total of his life's work. He died of an undiagnosed illness in the summer of 1891 while installing an exhibition of his paintings. He was 31.

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