Very few individual artists 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 with 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 one of the many public parks that dotted his Parisian neighbourhood. 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 the avant-garde colour of the Impressionists, the feeling of those gentle, quiet, carefree days. He chose as the subject of his first major work a scene depicting male bathers on the banks of the Seine outside Paris. Though influenced by the Impressionists, he lacked their spontaneous temperament. He worked inside, alone, tirelessly. He pushed Impressionist colour theory into the realm of scientific experimentation, breaking new ground with his tiny points of colour with every stroke. Exhibiting for the first time in the Impressionist's 1884 Salon de Refuse', even 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. He received little recognition.
Undeterred, Seurat went back to work, spending three more 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. This painting brought him some notice amongst the new breed of Post-Impressionists starting to rock the Paris art scene. Though stiff, formal, and stylised, the work literally shimmered with light as the tiny dots of colour did things to the viewer's eyes no painting had ever done before. His third painting, completed in 1888, turned his scientific/artistic colour studies to the effects of the rather dismal, artificial, gas lighting used to illuminate night-time entertainment in his beloved parks. Entitled 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 artists of this century were influenced to varying degrees by these few landmark paintings. Except for one or two other smaller pieces, and a few painted, preparatory colour 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.
contributed by Lane, Jim
16 March 1998