Seurat and Signac: Where does the pointilist lens aim?
(I keep hearing people don’t care about high art. I don’t really buy that. I do think that art education is shit. If visual literacy is taught better, I believe firmly that anyone with a pair of eyes will find much to care about. So, every time I write about high art, I will try to sum up my highly subjective and non-professional opinion of why another layperson should care.)
Why you should care: Because 19th century artists foresaw pixels and painted, essentially, pixellation. And that’s cool. And with this idea of expressing color through little dots, they captured the natural light of beautiful outdoors as well as intimate, very indoors-y settings of ordinary women at work. These questions of “What do you find interesting to see? What do you find interesting to reproduce for others to see?” are exciting because they encourage us to see familiar things differently.
I first learned about La Grande Jatte when I took an art history course during my semester abroad in Bologna. I forgot nearly everything else I learned in the course, but remember how much I was struck by this painting. I love the scale of the work (2.08 m x 3.08 m), though I’ve never seen it; the masterpiece by Georges Seurat lives in Chicago.
Notice the postures of the people. Notice their motionless profiles. It is said that Seurat was inspired by Egyptian and Greek art; one finds the rigidity and geometric precision that they have in common. The people enjoying a leisurely day at a public park mostly look water-ward, looking placid, almost bored. I find this so interesting, given that it is juxtaposed by the cheeky, frolicking movement of the animals (two puppies and… a monkey????) in the foreground. I think the painting would have carried a very different energy without the animals.
Also, pointilism is cool and feels like a precursor to this age of EVERYTHING IS PIXELLATED.
Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called divisionism at the time but now known as pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes.
My head hurts to think about the two years of painstaking, scientifically-minded mental and physical labor that went into constructing these colors. Seurat took great pride in the objectivist accomplishment, but there is much more to appreciate in this painting than the pointilist technique and mastery of color theory.
The overall warm and luminous quality of the painting comes from the distribution of sunlight; the entire front third of the canvas is in a shadow, which means that the viewer is looking out from the perspective of being under a shadow, onto brightly lit palette of — it must be either Spring or Summer. The way the shadow is cast, the movement of the sun in a leisurely afternoon is made implicit, the vanishing promise of day. I notice also the almost sprayed-on, dreamy quality of the tree leaves against the blue sky on the top left corner of the painting. The water shimmers and sparkles, reflecting trees, boat, people.
When you examine a pointilist work closely, all you see is dots. It is slightly dizzy-making. But once you step away, you see a cohesive, brilliant color. Pointilist work shares something with life that way; the way stepping away from something allows us to see something more clearly.
Though, the zoom-in version could be a stand-alone painting, and its mosaic-like abstraction very modern.
This is quite a different example of pointilism, The Milliner by Paul Signac.
Here, a milliner dropped her shears and is bending down to pick it up. I immediately fell in love with this painting because, aside from just thinking that the idea of a milliner is so romantic, I love when paintings capture really random moments, which the protagonist might almost be embarrassed by.
It feels intentionally voyeuristic, like peaking into someone else’s private moment. In this case, it is not the finished, beautiful hats we are interested in, but what goes into the sausage, so to speak. The intimacy is fun.
There are materials (thread, and… scraps of fabric? felt? I don’t even know) thoughtlessly strewn about on the working table and on the floor, as it so happens when crafts(wo)men are busy at work. We see the daring red of the hat, to which our eyes are naturally drawn, contrasted against the sober blues, browns and blacks elsewhere. The red hat which will presumably be sold to a woman of a different social station than those in the painting; what a story it tells.
If in La Grande Jatte, same technique was used to capture the dynamic of light in open air, camera zooming out, here, we zoom into a somewhat claustrophobic setting indoors.
I love that Paul Signac thought this mundane scene worthy of the technical and effortful rigor of the pointilist project. I love what he was able to achieve with the textures of:
- the wallpaper
- the woven tablecloth
- the woman’s tightly coiled bun and the curls cascading downward, the black hair reflecting the light with strands of blue sheen
- the wooden floor.