Georges-Pierre Seurat is perhaps one of the best known of the neo-impressionist painters. The neo-impressionists were a group of painters who were keen on applying scientific principles to art. They thought that scientific precision and specific rules would enhance art rather than getting rid of spontaneity. They followed the work done by Rood, Helmhotz, and Chevreul in the fields of Optics and Vision, and tried to incorporate their discoveries and theories into their paintings.
The main problem they encountered was that color pigments behave in a far different manner than that of light rays, but that didn't daunt their enthusiasm. They spent long hours creating large paintings using the techniques of Pointillism and Divisionism. Although spending an extraordinary amount of time over one painting doesn't make it a masterpiece, many of these works are very atmospheric and enchanting.
Incidentally, the name 'neo-impressionists' wasn't coined in the traditional manner of irritated pique, but was given to them with kind intentions by the art critic Felix Feneon; he was a great admirer of their works and was especially taken with Seurat's paintings. As a writer for Vogue magazine, Feneon's articles helped bring more public attention to the neo-impressionists.
Seurat was born on 2nd December, 1859, in Paris. His parents were very well-off and left their son a comfortable allowance that saved him all his life from the financial trials that many of his contemporary artists had to endure.
His father, Antoine-Chrisostome, was a solitary man who didn't seem to like spending much time with his own family. Seurat and his siblings were brought up for practical purposes by his mother, Ernestine Faivre. Seurat was a very reserved and dignified personality and his closest friends usually had very little idea about both his personal life and his working methods.
After an uneventful school education and an art instruction course with the sculptor Justin Lequien, Seurat enrolled in 1878 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He studied here for two years and then left to serve the mandatory year-long military service at the port of Brest in Brittany. Although of an easy-going, mild-mannered disposition, Seurat was a person of a strong character and the harsh discipline of the military didn't seem to have bothered him at all. He did what was to be done, and improved his sketching skills in the rest of the time.
By the time he returned to Paris, he had developed artistic ideas that didn't conform with the traditional teachings of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and so he decided to do it on his own. He shared a studio briefly with a couple of friends, and then after getting one for himself, he threw himself wholeheartedly into developing as an artist. Such was his dedication that he spent two entire years just teaching himself to work in black and white. His black and white drawings show a beautiful feel for light and shade.
Scientific precision and logical method appealed to Seurat rather than instinct. All his paintings were carefully mapped out beforehand. He made numerous sketches and referred to these for the final work. The idea behind using contrasting dots of pure colors in his paintings was to preserve the purity and vibrancy of the colors and thereby achieve an optical mixing in the eyes of the audience. He called this Divisionism. He later experimented with the psychological meanings of lines in his paintings.
Since it wasn't crucial for him to earn a living, Seurat could afford to ignore the tastes of art patrons and paint entirely to please himself. He could continue with his art experiments and develop techniques that he considered important.
His painting of his friend Aman-Jean was selected for the Annual Salon Exhibition in 1883, but the following year the Salon officials showed no enthusiasm for his work 'Une Baignade, Asnieres'. Seurat, undaunted, joined the newly formed Society of Independent Artists and exhibited the painting with them. The Society was made up of artists like Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, and others that the Salon had rejected. Their mission was to hold annual shows, unencumbered by a critical jury.
Seurat and Paul Signac shared similar ideas about painting, and quickly struck up a friendship. Seurat took up a new studio adjoining Signac's in Montmatre's Boulevard de Clichy and came in contact with the Impressionists. He also met Puvis de Chavannes, whose work he intensely admired. Having the support of Signac and Felix Feneon was important to Seurat since not many people appreciated what he was doing at the time.
The first artwork that Seurat exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists was 'Bathing at Asnieres'. After this, came his best-known work 'Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' which he began in 1884 and finished in 1886; this work was the culmination of over 200 detailed, on-the-spot studies that he carried on steadfastly for several months. 'La Grande Jatte' was displayed in 1886 with the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition where it caused a great stir. It is a very sedate and stately painting―a reflection more of the artist's personality than the actual population of the island of La Grand Jatte.
In his lifetime, Seurat finished only seven large paintings; each took at least a year to finish. He also has several smaller paintings and numerous drawings and sketches to his credit. The subject matter ranges from landscapes, Parisian life, cabarets, to circuses. His last painting, 'The Circus', was left unfinished.
In 1891, as the Independent Artists were preparing for a new exhibition, Seurat was suddenly taken ill with meningitis and died within a week. He was only 31. He had led such a secretive personal life that it was only two days before his death that his parents learned about the existence of his mistress, Madeleine Knobloch, the model for the painting 'Woman Powdering herself', and his one-year-old son, Pierre-Georges.