Book Review: Georges Seurat The Art of Vision, Michelle Foa

“Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision”
Michelle Foa
Yale UP, 2 June 2015
Hardback, 21.3 x 26.2 cm (8.4 x 10.3 in), 235 pp., £45.00/$65.00
ISBN 978 0 300 20835 1
Not available for Kindle nor in the iTunes Store.

As the originator of Neo-Impressionism and its Divisionist or ‘pointillist’ technique, Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-91) had singular impact in his brief life. The Art Institute of Chicago’s acquisition in 1924 of his huge painting La Grande Jatte (1884-6) secured a dominant place for him in the history of painting in the nineteenth century, and ensured that the public would not forget this relatively brief movement and its role in the advent of modern art.

Like many such famous works and movements, we think that we know what it was all about. Michelle Foa’s mission is to get to the heart of Seurat’s works in a more complete way, and give us a deeper understanding. Her headline point is that Seurat was interested in much more than the perception of colour, and in his reading of contemporary science (particularly that of von Helmholtz) and in his paintings, explored much of visual experience.

Writing in accessible style, but clearly based on her doctoral dissertation from Princeton, she uses each of four chapters to explore a specific group of Seurat’s paintings, and rounds off with a Postscript.

Georges Seurat, Le Crotoy (Upstream) (1889), oil on canvas, 70.5 x 86.7 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit. WikiArt.
Georges Seurat, Le Crotoy (Upstream) (1889), oil on canvas, 70.5 x 86.7 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit. WikiArt.

The first chapter considers the groups of paintings made by Seurat in the period 1885-90 of ports on the French north coast, so often skipped over by critics and historians, and often only seen individually. Foa argues that each of these groups was a tightly-bound series, intended to be seen in specific relation to the others in that series, and as such forming a type of 3D panorama of the area.

Seurat’s concept of a series contrasts with the series paintings of Monet and other Impressionists, though; whilst Seurat constructed his series from different views and called on the cognitive abilities of the viewer to use them to visualise his extended motif, Foa considers that Monet’s had different appeal:
“To go further, Monet’s notation of visual experience as an instantaneous phenomenon implicitly severs it from any cognitive processes, a crucial difference between his conception of sight and that of Seurat.” (p 30.)

Whilst I agree her contrast, modern visual scientists would not accept that Monet’s series were severed from cognitive processes, and her conception harks back to the early science of von Helmholtz (with which she engages extensively, as did Seurat) which drew a distinction between ‘basic’ visual perception attributed almost to the eyes themselves, and higher visual analysis, which clearly resided in the brain itself.

The Impressionists’ approach lives on in the common exhortation to paint what you see rather than what you think you see. This is not devoid of cognition, but the goal of being faithful to perception (which only arises from extensive cognitive processing) rather than pre-conceptions about what you think you ought to see. In another sense Seurat’s decomposition of areas of colour into small dots or points of colours for ‘optical mixing’ calls for a different type of vision which is closer to uninterpreted perception.

In the context of the paintings within Seurat’s series composing a grander 3D model, Foa makes the puzzling claim that the ships in two paintings, The Maria, Honfleur (1886) (fig 13) and Corner of a Basin, Honfleur (1886) (Figure 14), are the same:
“the similarity between the two paintings nevertheless suggests – and I would argue that Seurat intended it this way – that these works depict the same ship painted from opposite perspectives.” (p 19.)
This cannot be true. Their funnels are shown as being marked differently, the ships are opposite ways round (both views showing the bows), and their livery is quite different. Thankfully this does not detract from her argument in any significant way.

Foa draws attention to many allusions in Seurat’s paintings to optical instruments such as lighthouses, and their significance at the time, and provides the reader with rich context for the features shown in the paintings.

Georges Seurat, Landscape - the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884), oil on canvas, 69.9 x 85.7 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Georges Seurat, Landscape – the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884), oil on canvas, 69.9 x 85.7 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

Chapter two tackles what has to be the central task of any work on Seurat, that of comprehending La Grande Jatte. Foa makes the point, using reproductions of croquetons and other studies, that it is a composite or synthesis of views, and an exploratory work which evolved over a two year period. Although other analyses have focussed on the figures placed within the final work, Foa argues that his previous depopulated paintings of the same motif show that Seurat was also interested in the representation of space and depth, and linear perspective in particular.

Just as von Helmholtz drew attention to the other cues to depth which can support linear perspective, so Foa shows us which Seurat uses in La Grande Jatte. She also tells us that the point of various unintelligible objects in the painting is to represent ‘blind spots’ within our comprehension of the picture.

Just as she reconstituted Seurat’s early series paintings, Foa considers La Grande Jatte, A Bathing-Place, Asnières (1884), and The Seine at Courbevoie (1885) to form a group or series, drawing on evidence in one of Signac’s letters.

Another common puzzle in La Grande Jatte is the doll-like and unnatural appearance of its figures. This, Foa states, is part of his deconstruction of the features of the tableau, and a reference to the primitive appearance of such figures in pre- and early Renaissance paintings.

Foa accepts the conventional view that in the technique of ‘pointillism’ Seurat was grounded in Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics, which was in turn based on the research of von Helmholtz, James Clerk Maxwell, and Thomas Young. She reveals a potential conflict with the work of Chevreul on simultaneous colour contrast, explaining the basis of ‘pointillism’ in terms of von Helmhotz’s insistence that subjective perceptual phenomena must be introduced into paintings.

Georges Seurat, Poseuses (1886-8), oil on canvas, 200 x 249.9 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. WikiArt.
Georges Seurat, Poseuses (1886-8), oil on canvas, 200 x 249.9 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. WikiArt.

Moving on to a more detailed consideration of the section of La Grande Jatte which is shown in Poseuses (1886-8), immediately after the former work, Foa considers in detail the perspective shown in the latter painting, and draws conclusions about the viewer’s position and the model of vision adopted. She takes this on to consider how elements in Poseuses fragment visual space and the objects within it.

Foa also treads more familiar ground in interpreting the three figures in Poseuses, in the context of depictions of the Three Graces, and of other female nudes. She then draws together – and apart – the differences in Seurat’s approach to his paintings of ports, La Grande Jatte, and Poseuses, using the latter as the key because it contains visual references to his other works.

This chapter concludes with discussion of one of Seurat’s stranger habits, in painting his frames and edges. Unfortunately history has not been kind in this respect, as most of his paintings have now lost their original frames, and the fragmentary evidence remaining in old photos is also limited.

Foa establishes that, as far as the evidence allows, Poseuses marks the start of Seurat’s reconsideration of the edges of his paintings. She identifies that this was part of Seurat’s interest in the perception of depth, and in spatial illusion, as repoussoirs, to use the term given by Matisse.

The third chapter turns to what for me have been Seurat’s most puzzling paintings, Parade, Chahut, and Circus, showing popular Parisian entertainments, in the couple of years before his sudden death. To these Foa quite logically adds Young Woman Powdering Herself (1889-90).

I was surprised to learn that the first of these, Parade, was exhibited alongside Poseuses, and Foa does not let this slip pass without her careful scrutiny.

Foa traces how Seurat’s pictorial depth had reduced from the deep spaces in Bathing-Place, Asnières and La Grande Jatte, to the shallow in Poseuses, and now the completely flat in Parade. She argues that this is part of the model of visual experience which Seurat is exploring in these later works: the entranced passivity of the audience results in partial unintelligibility, referring back to von Helmholtz.

However this passive viewing of spectacle is not condemned in Seurat’s explorations, we are told. Rather these late paintings convey the sense of mystification resulting from this viewing model. Foa highlights some of the subtle details within Parade in particular which enhance this, such as the depiction of layers of painted canvas within the painting.

Georges Seurat, Young Woman Powdering Herself (1889-90), oil on canvas, 95.5 x 79.5 cm, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. WikiArt.
Georges Seurat, Young Woman Powdering Herself (1889-90), oil on canvas, 95.5 x 79.5 cm, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. WikiArt.

Young Woman Powdering Herself is an opportunity for Foa to explore briefly Seurat’s relationship with Madeleine Knoblock, and then to examine his interest in not just Chéret’s posters for entertainment, but his consumer product advertisements. This confirmed my suspicions over the context of that painting, but I was surprised to learn of a hidden self-portrait of Seurat at his easel, which had been painted over in this work.

Foa confirms Chahut as an exploration of the hypnotic effects of erotic desire, and another visual pun on the subject of vision: in this case, the (male) spectators’ glimpses of what was under the skirts of the dancers. She then moves on to consider Circus, which Seurat had not finished when he died. She traces the motif to a German chromolithograph which was only discovered in Seurat’s possessions in the middle of the twentieth century, then rounds the chapter off by bringing it back to an early pre-Divisionist painting by Seurat, which is sadly only illustrated in thumbnail view.

Georges Seurat, Embroidery (1882-3), Conté crayon on Michallet paper, 31.2 x 24.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. WikiArt.
Georges Seurat, Embroidery (1882-3), Conté crayon on Michallet paper, 31.2 x 24.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. WikiArt.

The final chapter considers some themes from the over 200 surviving drawings by Seurat, many in Conté crayon. In the course of its just over forty pages, it can only pick out salients, and Foa is careful to avoid getting bogged down in doing so. Although these drawings have received far less attention than his paintings, Seurat exhibited them together quite regularly, and clearly considered them to be more than mere exercises or studies.

Foa doubts the conventional view that Seurat’s drawings predate his mature painting practice, although as very few are dated it is hard to be sure. She presents some of the critical themes which have been debated by others, including drawing as involving sight and touch, the avoidance of ‘dirty’ pigments (a particular obsession on the part of Signac, it appears), and being more personal than the mechanical process of applying dots of pigment in a Divisionist painting. These are discussed in the context of Seurat’s drawing materials and practice.

Seurat’s choice of subjects for his drawings is also fascinating, as – perhaps appropriately for a medium so dependent on touch and hands – many of his figures are also engaged in activities with their hands. His drawings are also vindication that Seurat was not some emotionless machine who scientifically applied dots of pigment to canvas, an image as popular in his time as it is now. This is perhaps strongest in his drawings depicting family loss, such as the moving Anaïs Faivre Haumonté on her Deathbed (1887) in the Musée d’Orsay.

His drawings are also remarkable for being concerned not with line, but tone, and Foa illustrates this by comparison with contemporary photography, including a Daguerre image from 1838.

Foa then tackles those drawings which were produced in connection with his paintings. She shows by examples how those drawings went well beyond their essential role as studies, and how their significance can only be revealed when put into the context of the derived painting.

Foa’s Postscript is a short essay on Seurat’s Eiffel Tower, painted in 1889 just after its opening. She points out that it is the odd man out among his paintings, neither a study for something more finished, nor exhibited as a finished painting in its own right. Seen as an urban lighthouse, it brings us full circle to the lighthouses and other optical devices which Seurat had painted in his coastal series, and she examined in the first chapter.

Although not intended to be a gaze-in-amazement spectacular, this book is thoroughly well illustrated, and all the key paintings are shown at good size, together with many details and supporting images which you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

The end matter includes lengthy endnotes which embed all the references to literature, and a single consolidated index. The latter becomes unmanageable in some entries, with many lines of page references, and could have been better constructed. I am also disappointed that there is no separate bibliography, forcing you to wade through the endnotes, although at least they do not annoy with lots of op. cits.


We are used to hyperbole on dust-jackets, and when I first read the quotation from James H Rubin I thought that was the case. He is quoted as remarking:
“Michelle Foa has written a stunning and important book, paradigm-changing and challenging. It will be the book on Seurat that everyone will have to read.”

It is. ‘Game-changing’ is the term that springs to my mind.

And I dearly wish that more books about Impressionism were as thoroughly researched and thoroughly mulled over.

However it is not going to be the last word. There are three fields which it leaves unexplored for the moment, and I make no criticism of Foa for (wisely) leaving them for later, as I hope that she will be able to follow them up, given her achievement here.

First, and perhaps most critically, this book examines Seurat’s work in the context of contemporary (von Helmholtz and others) concepts of vision science. In the 125 years or so since, the science has changed beyond all recognition. Although von Helmholtz was a great pioneer, there is a need to consider how Seurat’s experiments worked out, and how they accord with modern vision science.

Following on from that is the need to broaden the account of Neo-Impressionism and its experiments with vision, to encompass the work of Pissarro, Signac, and others. For although Seurat was its theoretician, originator, and leader, he was not the only practitioner engaged in its research and visual experiments. There is a lot of scope for comparing and contrasting what each of the Neo-Impressionists painted, and how they were also exploring visual systems.

Perhaps the elephant in this book though is the question as to why, given Seurat’s achievements, Neo-Impressionism ultimately failed in its objectives, and why it took so long for others to go the way that Pissarro did. Looking today at their Divisionist works, I cannot help but wonder why they each spent so many years applying tiny spots of pigment in such a mechanical fashion. Revelatory though Foa’s book is, it stops short of tackling that greatest of enigmas.