Seurat, G. (1889–1890). Le Chahut (Cancan) [Oil on canvas].
The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
Pointillism is a technique used in painting that started at the end of the 1880s and ended, approximately, during the second decade of the twentieth century. It consists of applying “small dots of pure unmixed color directly onto the picture and relies on the eye of the viewer to mix the colors optically.” (Encyclopedia of Art History, n.d.). Founded by the French painter Georges Seurat and adopted by his disciple Paul Signac after Seurat’s death in 1891, pointillism rejects the impressionist fundamentals and promotes the emergence of a novel artistic movement known as Neo-Impressionism. This article stakes out the ground for an elaborate overview of the characteristics of pointillism and an understanding of the scientific theories that impacted the development of the neo-impressionist technique in terms of color contrast, light effect, optical vision, and three-dimensionality.
“Seurat, who is thought of as the inventor of the new method, paints not by employing the colors of a specific tone prepared on the palette, but by juxtaposing a series of small touches of pure colors which, from several steps back, produce the desired color by means of conventional optics.” (Émile Hennequin cited in Foa, 2015, p. 89).
As it is derived from divisionism, also known as Chromo-Luminarism, Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist technique is mainly influenced by ‘the color theory’. The scientific contributions of the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul’s On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors: And Its Timeless Applications in All the Visual Arts (1839) and the American physicist Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics: With Applications to Art and Industry (1879) served as a guideline to Seurat’s experimentation of color combination and the application of dots on the canvas.
“These colors, isolated on the canvas, recombine on the retina: we have, therefore, not a mixture of material colors (pigments), but a mixture of differently colored rays of light.” (Félix Fénéon cited in Foa, 2015, p. 89).
Seurat, G. (1888). The Seine at La Grande Jatte [Oil on canvas].
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.
In these terms, the pointillist technique implemented in the neo-impressionist painting promotes the application of dots of colors to be utilized purposefully and separately on the canvas. Hence, it allows the human eye to observe a blending rather than a detached display of colors. In addition to that, the ability to perceive the separate dots of colors combined in the shape of “colored light (what’s called 'additive mixing')” is at the core of Seurat’s artistic method (Foa, p.89). Therefore, the pointillist artist is opposed to the mixture and application of pigments on a canvas, which is known as “subtractive mixing” (Foa, p.89). Pointillism celebrates, thus, the optical effect of light and vision through color perception.
“[…] in reality, the dots of pure unmixed colour are not actually combined by the human eye, which still sees them as separate colours. However, they do appear to oscillate or vibrate, creating a type of shimmer.” (Encyclopedia of Art History, n.d.).
Seurat’s pointillist technique depicted in his figurative and landscape art is the result of another color effect in accordance with its oscillation or vibration: that of “a much more chromatically detailed representation of the depicted scene.” (Foa, p.89). Chromo-Luminarism reflects, thus, “the various chromatic interactions” that exist between the variety of colors, embodying the scene to be painted (Foa, p.89). Despite the difference of color shades and tints, the neo-impressionist painting revolves on the desired effect of color unity, rather than a division of colors. In other words, the effect of light plays a significant role to the realization of Seurat’s pointillist art. Coupled with this, the human eye perceives the light in a simultaneous and successive manner, and in this way, perception becomes affected by the relevance and diversity of color.
“Chevreul defines a wide variety of different types of color relationships, among them three kinds of contrasts of complementary colors. The first was called simultaneous contrast, in which the difference between two or more contiguous colors is heightened when they are perceived simultaneously; the second was successive contrast, in which our perception is altered by the prior perception of a color (such as when one experiences an after image); the third was called mixed contrast, which combines the effects of simultaneous and successive contrast.” (Foa, 2015, p. 90).
Seurat, G. (1885). Low Tide at Grandcamp [Oil on canvas]. Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, Japan.
Expanding on Chevreul’s study and theory of color, Foa (2015) points out the divergence existing between complementary colors. For instance, “complementary color contrast” on a canvas in terms of simultaneity takes places when the human eye sees the red color and the blue color placed next to each other (Foa, p.91). In this situation, one perceives the blue color appearing greener and the red color turning more orange. Whenever the blue color turns greener, we speak of “the complementary of red” (Foa, p.90); On the other hand, whenever the red color turns more orange, this leads to “the complementary of blue” (Foa, p.90). Nonetheless, this optical ability is implemented by the human eye from a physiological perspective. In this sense, it is worthy to inspect what was Seurat's motive in including color contrast in his paintings when knowing that the human eye can produce such simultaneous and mixed color effect.
Prior to a thorough explanation of such enquiry, it is necessary to comprehend the origin of Seurat’s interest in color contrast and visual perception. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz conducted studies on optical vision and its cognitive mechanics. His work included theories of visual perception related to space and research on color perception. It is only after Seurat’s death that his disciple Paul Signac confirmed the French neo-impressionist’s influence on Helmholtz’s works. Correspondingly, Seurat’s artworks explore the limits of visual perception on the world depending on cognition. Helmholtz’s Treatise on Physiological Optics, published between 1856 and 1867 points out the relevance of scientific studies on “binocular vision and the movements of the eye(s), head, and body” (Foa, p.22). The physiological and cognitive function that binocular vision provides the human eye with is that each eye is able to receive information connected to a specific spatial angle; what is also referred to as “binocular disparity” (Foa, p.22). The human sight is, thus, able to perceive and depicts various set of images thanks to the ‘binocular disparity’ in terms of eye movement. Consequently, it engenders another dimensional aspect, that of a “sense of distance and three-dimensionality.” (Foa, p.22).
“[…] the perception of three-dimensionality is acquired through a process of experimentation, by which we repeatedly move our bodies and engage haptically with surrounding objects, while simultaneously receiving a series of visual and ocular-motor sensations.” (Foa, 2015, pp. 22-23)
The perception of space as a three-dimensional setting, including length, width, and depth, is restricted to the human vision. In fine art, precisely in the neo-impressionist painting, Seurat revolutionized the representation of the real world in his paintings thanks to his influence on Helmholtz’s works. Painting sceneries or other subjects was approached differently as it prioritized the brain abilities to interpret art and explore color perception. Moreover, pointillism brought more “depth and solidity” to the representation of the visual world on a neo-impressionist painting (Foa, p.23). Therefore, Seurat’s paintings have no longer been restricted to two-dimensionality, but rather to three-dimensionality highlighting, thus, the significance of depth regarding the subjects and landscapes being painted.
Seurat, G. (1886). Entrance of The Port of Honfleur (Entrée du port d’Honfleur) [Oil on canvas].
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
To exemplify such claim, Foa (2015) uses the example of Seurat’s paintings of Honfleur and Grandcamp in Normandy to demonstrate that his paintings are tainted by a sense of depth, instead of flatness. In fact, Seurat’s Grandcamp paintings portray “roughly equal horizontal bands of brown, green, and light blue representing the land, sea, and sky” (Foa, p.10). In this sense, they reflect the flatness of the scenery, which was, commonly, a criterion in most landscape paintings of the late nineteenth century. Yet the technique of foreshortening used by Seurat in his pointillist approach to art, accentuates “the illusion of three dimensionality” (Foa, p.10), by rendering the depicted scene to be perceived differently. In this way, it contests linearity and flatness as it experiments the essence of visual perception through color contrast, figures’ shape, and landscape drawing.
“Seurat’s paintings come together to build a legible, spatially illusionistic image.” (Foa, 2015, p. 92)
On the whole, Seurat’s revolutionary and unconventional technique of pointillism reshaped landscape and figurative art at the end of the nineteenth century. Not only did pointillism question the value of shape and space perception, but it also invited the Neo-Impressionist painters, including Paul Signac, Theo van Rysselberghe, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Camille Pissarro, and Henri Matisse to experiment color variations and contrasts in terms of optical vision and cognition. Due to Seurat’s pointillist technique, fine art was experimented otherwise, by adopting a scientific approach in accordance with Chevreul’s, Rood’s, and Helmholtz’s researches and studies on space perception and color contrast.
Seurat, G. (1889–1890). Le Chahut (Cancan) [Oil on canvas]. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. https://krollermuller.nl/en/georges-seurat-le-chahut
Seurat, G. (1888). The Seine at La Grande Jatte [Oil on canvas]. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium. https://useum.org/artwork/The-Seine-at-La-Grande-Jatte-Georges-Seurat
Seurat, G. (1885). Low Tide at Grandcamp [Oil on canvas]. Pola Museum of Art, Hakone, Japan. https://www.polamuseum.or.jp/language/english/exhibition/20201114p01en/
Seurat, G. (1886). Entrance of The Port of Honfleur (Entrée du port d’Honfleur) [Oil on canvas]. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. https://collection.barnesfoundation.org/objects/5796/Entrance-of-The-Port-of-Honfleur-(Entree-du-port-d%27Honfleur)/
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