Art and Science: 10 Neo-Impressionism after Seurat

Théo van Rysselberghe, l'Heure embrasée (Provence) (The Glowing Hour (Provence)) (1897), oil on canvas, 228 x 329 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Weimar. WikiArt.

Georges Seurat was by no means alone when he was developing his new scientific style of painting, called variously Divisionism, Neo-Impressionism, or Pointillism. Early members of this new school of painting included Camille Pissarro, already established as one of the leading Impressionist landscape artists, Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross, Paul Signac, and Théo van Rysselberghe.

When Seurat died unexpectedly in March 1891, it was Signac who became his artistic heir. But inevitably those left to develop Divisionism after its inventor had their own approaches and flavours, none of which really tackled its problems of slow, mechanical painting, and the shortcomings of ‘optical mixing’.

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Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Haymaking, Éragny (1887), oil on canvas, 50 x 66 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Pissarro faced the biggest problems in his adoption of Divisionism. It was a major factor in dividing him from Claude Monet, and Durand-Ruel’s reluctance to purchase his Divisionist paintings cut his income significantly. Despite those, in the summer of 1887, Pissarro worked on this strongly Divisionist painting of Haymaking, Éragny. Although not a large canvas by any means, he found the work slow and tedious, something to occupy rainy days when he remained indoors. His labour was rewarded when this was taken on by Théo van Gogh, who sold it to a customer on the same day that he’d received it from Pissarro.

The differences between Pissarro’s technique and that of Seurat are readily seen: these are short brushstrokes rather than dots, many of which are made using low chroma paint.

Paul Signac, Un Dimanche (Sunday) (1888-90), oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Private collection. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Un Dimanche (Sunday) (1888-90), oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Private collection. WikiArt, Wikimedia Commons.

Signac first exhibited with the Société des Artistes Indépendents in its spring Salon of 1886, and continued each year (except 1915-19) until his death. Colleagues in the movement and the influential critic Félix Fénéon viewed his work as being more ‘muscular’ and less ‘cerebral’, in contrast to Seurat’s ‘scientific’ approach, and that’s reflected in his style seen in Sunday, from 1888-90.

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Maximilien Luce (1858–1941), Morning, Interior (1890), oil on canvas, 64.8 × 81 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (bequeathed by Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967)), New York, NY. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Morning, Interior (1890) is one of Maximilien Luce’s best-known Divisionist paintings from this period. Although it adheres to the technique of applying small marks of contrasting colours to build the image, Luce’s marks are less mechanical than those seen in Seurat’s paintings. In places they become more gestural and varied, particularly in highlights.

Camille Pissarro, Setting Sun and Fog, Éragny (1891), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset (Setting Sun and Fog, Éragny) (1891), oil on canvas, 54 x 65.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

Pissarro started to make the journey back from Neo-Impressionism before Seurat’s death. He painted this bank of locally dense fog at the edge of a wood near Éragny, in Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset in 1891. Early the following year this was exhibited in Paris, where it was still considered to be ‘Pointillist’, but it was bought by Durand-Ruel in February and sold on to a customer that same day.

Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Canal in Flanders (1894), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 203.2 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Canal in Flanders (1894), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 203.2 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

The Belgian artist Théo van Rysselberghe discovered Divisionism when he saw Seurat’s La Grande Jatte in 1886, and quickly adopted the style himself, at least in his own terms. While the eycatching geometry of his Canal in Flanders (1894) combines radical perspective projection, the intense rhythm of the trees, and meticulous reflections, it’s quite different in style from Seurat’s paintings.

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Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin (1860–1943), Berger rentrant ses moutons (Shepherd Returning His Sheep) (1894), oil, dimensions not known, Musée de Cahors Henri-Martin, Cahors, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Others like Henri Martin adopted their own versions of Divisionism during the 1890s. His Shepherd Returning His Sheep from 1894 not only uses short brushstrokes similar to those used by Pissarro, but he also uses longer strokes to form the texture of the wooden pillars.

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Théo van Rysselberghe (1862–1926), Pointe Saint-Pierre, Saint-Tropez (1896), oil on canvas, 78 x 98 cm, Musée Nationale d’Histoire et d’Art du Grand-duché de Luxembourg, Luxembourg. WikiArt.

After spending much of his career living and painting in his native Belgium, and the north of France, Théo van Rysselberghe travelled south in the company of Paul Signac, where he painted Divisionist landscapes such as this view of Pointe Saint-Pierre, Saint-Tropez in 1896.

Théo van Rysselberghe, l'Heure embrasée (Provence) (The Glowing Hour (Provence)) (1897), oil on canvas, 228 x 329 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Weimar. WikiArt.
Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), l’Heure embrasée (Provence) (The Glowing Hour (Provence)) (1897), oil on canvas, 228 x 329 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Weimar. WikiArt.

The following year, van Rysselberghe returned and painted The Glowing Hour (Provence) (1897) using the same technique.

After 1900, Divisionism became markedly less popular, and the remaining artists using the technique had travelled far from Seurat’s original scientific painting.

Paul Signac, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.

Signac’s Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (1905-6) is constructed from a great number of small rectangular tesserae of paint (detail below), coarser-grained in the foreground, finer and almost merging in the distance and sky. Its overall effect is of luminous and vibrant colour. The painting was shown in 1906 at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, and is perhaps one of the last Divisionist masterpieces.

Paul Signac, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (detail) (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles (detail) (1905-6), oil on canvas, 88.9 x 116.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.

Even Signac was soon to abandon Divisionism, and ended his career creating vibrant sketches in watercolour and crayon.

Divisionism had proved flawed in many respects. Among the most important for any professional painter was the painfully slow and mechanical means of creating a painting. It was as impractical as the highly detailed landscapes which John Ruskin had prescribed of the Pre-Raphaelites. Its science was also immature, and it has become known since that concepts such as optical mixing don’t work well in practice. But above all else, the idea that art should be created according to natural laws and physics was a sad misconception.