Biography of Georges Seurat, Father of Pointillism

Portrait of Georges Seurat
Portrait of Georges Seurat, circa 1888.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons 

Georges Seurat (December 2, 1859 – March 29, 1891) was a French painter of the post-impressionist era. He’s best known for developing the techniques of pointillism and chromoluminarism, and one of his iconic paintings was instrumental in ushering in the era of Neo-Impressionism.

Fast Facts: Georges Seurat

  • Full Name: Georges-Pierre Seurat
  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Creating the techniques of pointillism and chromoluminarism, with scenes emphasizing smooth lines and colors blended by visual observation, not mixed pigments
  • Born: December 2, 1859 in Paris, France
  • Died: March 29, 1891 in Paris, France
  • Partner: Madeleine Knobloch (1868-1903)
  • Children: Pierre-Georges (1890-1891), unnamed child (died at birth, 1891)
  • Notable WorksBathers at Asnières, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe

Early Life

Georges Seurat was the third and youngest child of Antoine Chrysostome Seurat and Ernestine Seurat (née Faivre). The couple already had a son, Émile Augustin, and a daughter, Marie-Berthe. Thanks to Antoine’s success in property speculation, the family enjoyed considerable wealth. Antoine lived separately from his family, visiting them weekly rather than living under the same roof.

Georges Seurat began studying art early; his first studies occurred at the École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, an art academy run by the sculptor Justin Lequien near the Seurat family’s home in Paris. In 1878, he moved to the École des Beaux-Arts, where his studies followed the typical courses of the time, focusing on copying and drawing from existing works. He finished his artistic training in 1879 and left for a year of military service.

Early Career and Innovation

When he returned from his military service, Seurat shared a studio with his friend and fellow artist Edmond Aman-Jean, where he worked to master the art of monochrome drawing. In 1883, he had his first work exhibited: a crayon drawing of Aman-Jean. The same year, he spent most of his time working on his first major painting, Bathers at Asnières.

Final Study for Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat
Final Study for Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat. Francis G. Mayer / Getty Images

Although Bathers at Asnières had some impressionistic influences, specifically in its use of light and color, it broke from that tradition with its textures and outlined figures. His process also departed from impressionism, as he sketched out several drafts of the piece before actually starting to work on the final canvas itself.

The painting was rejected by the Paris Salon; instead, Seurat showed it in May 1884 at the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants. Among that society, he met and befriended several other artists. However, the society’s disorganization soon frustrated Seurat and some of his friends, and together, they split from the Indépendants to create a new artists’ society of their own, called the Société des Artistes Indépendants.

Georges Seurat was heavily influenced by contemporary ideas about color theory, which he tried to apply to his own works. He subscribed to the idea of a scientific approach to painting with color: that there was a natural law to the way colors worked together to evoke emotion in art, similar to how musical tones worked together in harmony or dissonance. Seurat believed that he could create a new artistic “language” using perception, color, and lines. He called this theoretical visual language “chromoluminarism;” today, it’s included under the term divisionism, referring to how the technique requires the eye to combine adjacent colors, rather than the artist mixing pigments before painting.

Family Life and Famous Work

Right on the heels of the debut of Bathers at Asnières, Seurat began work on his next piece, which would come to be his most famous and enduring legacy. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte depicts members of different social classes all spending a leisure afternoon at a park on the waterfront of the Seine in Paris.

Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat
Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.

To create the painting, Seurat used his color and pointillism techniques, using tiny dots of individual colors overlapping and adjacent to each other so that they would be “blended” by viewers’ eyes, rather than mixing the paints themselves. He also prepared for the painting by spending significant time at the park he depicted, sketching his surroundings. The resulting painting measures 10 feet wide and currently is displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. A smaller, related study, Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, resides in New York City in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although Seurat never married, he had a significant romantic relationship with Madeleine Knobloch, an artist’s model. She was the model for his 1889/1890 painting Jeune femme se poudrant, but they took pains to conceal their relationship for some time. In 1889, she moved into Seurat's apartment, and she became pregnant sometime in 1889. The couple moved to a new apartment to accommodate their family, and Knobloch gave birth to their son, Pierre-Georges, on February 16, 1890.

Final Years and Legacy

During the summer of 1890, Seurat spent most of his time at the commune of Graveline, along the coast. He was incredibly prolific that summer, producing four canvas paintings, eight oil panels, and several drawings. Out of his works from that time period, the most notable was his painting The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe.

The Channel at Gravelines, in the Direction of the Sea by Georges Seurat
The Channel at Gravelines, in the Direction of the Sea by Georges Seurat. Francis G. Mayer / Getty Images

Georges Seurat began working on another painting, The Circus, but he did not live to continue innovating and working. In March 1891 he fell ill, and on March 29, he died at his parents’ home in Paris. The nature of the illness that caused his death is unknown; theories include meningitis, diptheria, and pneumonia. Whatever the illness was, he passed it on to his son Pierre-Georges, who died weeks later. Madeleine Knobloch was pregnant at the time, but their second child did not survive long after birth.

Seurat was buried on March 31, 1891 at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. He left behind a legacy of significant artistic innovation, despite dying at the very young age of 31. Seurat’s use of color and his work with pointillism have been his most enduring artistic legacies.

In 1984, nearly a century after his death, Seurat’s most famous painting became the inspiration for a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Sunday in the Park with George is inspired by the painting, and the first act of the musical depicts Seurat himself in a highly fictionalized way, imagining his creative process. The musical focuses more on his artistic pursuits but also does depict a fictionalized version of his personal life, notably in the character of his mistress “Dot,” who seems to be an avatar for Madeleine Knobloch.

Art students still study Georges Seurat today, and his influence on other artists began not long after his death. The cubist movement looked at his linear structures and form, which then influenced their ongoing artistic developments. And of course, even young children in the modern world learn about pointillism, usually through A Sunday Afternoon. Despite his short life, Georges Seurat established himself as a key and permanent player in the art world.

Sources

  • Courthion, Pierre. “Georges Seurat: French Painter.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Georges-Seurat.
  • Georges Seurat, 1859–1891. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1991
  • Jooren, Marieke; Veldink, Suzanne; Berger, Helewise. Seurat. Kröller-Müller Museum, 2014.