The exhibition dedicated to one of the most famous Seurat’s works is open at the Met Museum through May 29, 2017. More than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, period posters, illustrated journals, supplemented by an array of documentary materials, and – voila – one-painting-exhibition turns a complete immersion into the artistic life of Paris at the end of 19th century.
Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859 – 1891) is mostly known to the public by his innovative if not extravagant technique of “pointillism”. The term is not quite correct, and we’ll return to this later, but the truth is that his invention hadn’t got a lot of admirers in his time. “It’s done mechanically?” – “No, Monsieur, by hand” – they spoke in 1894 at a Neo-Impressionist exhibition.
Even Impressionist painters treated Seurat with coolness. Unlike most of the progressive artists, Seurat came from a wealthy family; he studied at conservative École des Beaux-Arts and Brest Military Academy. He was always dressed dark blue or black with an upright and neat appearance.
Degas nicknamed him, in a moment of humor, “the notary”.
He was tall (five feet, nine and a half inches) and robust -
He was tall (five feet, nine and a half inches) and robust -
“a solid being, a grenadier”, Signac wrote once.
Add some passion to scientific theories.
He began to search “an optical formula” at sixteen. All of this doesn’t fit the image of a scandalous Impressionist.
Georges Seurat. 1888
But Seurat has never been an Impressionist
The Impressionists’ idea to consecrate art to the immediate present seemed petty to him. His goal was to explore permanence and find the “essence” with his works. Unfortunately, Seurat had little time to bring his ideas to life. His artistic career was just about 10 years long. Seurat died at the age of 31 in an epidemic of virulent diphtheria and left only 6 big canvases. The “Circus sideshow” (origin. “Parade de cirque”) is one of them.
The canvas depicts five musicians, a ringmaster, and a clown play to potential customers in front of the circus building. We observe the show from the rear of the assembled crowd. But the whole mood of the painting more reminds of Mikalojus Čiurlionis dark symbolist fantasies than of a colorful circus show. Murky colors. Restrained emotions. It seems that the painting radiates light. We see the musicians but the whole scene feels very calm and quiet. It also brings the associations with some ancient ritual. The gaslights above look like exotic flowers.
This unusual work debuted at the Salon des Independants on 1888 and even Seurat’s close associates were seemingly dumbstruck, confining their remarks to its novelty as a “nocturnal effect.” Seurat himself never mentioned the picture, nor did he exhibit it again. He even effaced his signature at lower right as recent technical findings reveal. “Circus Sideshow” remained the author’s property until his death. It was sold with another work from the artist’s estate in 1900 for just 1000 Francs. (around $4000 in contemporary prices)
The audience of 1888 exhibition did not appreciate the painting because of its novel style. Today’s audience has the other problem. We are much more adapted to visual experiments but probably need an explanation of what is particularly happening in the picture. That’s one of the reasons why the curators paid so much attention to the context of the Parisian nightlife in 1880’s.
“Come one! Come all! Step right up and enjoy the show!”
This refrain, bellowed by the barker outside the circus building, hailing the wondrous acts in store for the mere price of a ticket, is all part of the promotional sideshow – “parade” in French.
Georges Redon’s “Champ de Foire: 25, rue Fontaine.”
The teaser performances attracted not only potential customers but also artists. Some of them used to draw theatrical posters and caricatures just for living. There’s an irony that we can see works that were never meant to be exposed at the museum even by their authors. But those artworks are necessary to understand the cultural reality of the time. They look excellent though.
Other artists took inspiration from colorful shows to reach their own creative goals. There are several paintings at the exhibition with completely the same subject – circus sideshow.
Leon Dehesghues. The Fair at Neuilly - "Let's go and see Marseille". 1884. Oil on canvas.
The Fair at Motrouge, 1885
Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
One of the brightest moments of the show - Grimaces et Misères (Les Saltimbanques) by Fernand Pelez.
It was exposed first at the same 1888’s Salon Independants that Seurat’s work. Huge canvas in five sections, more the six meters total wide painted in a naturalistic manner. The artist focuses on the characters but his artistry, and proficiency in work with colors, and attention to the details are remarkable too.
Grimaces et Misères (Les Saltimbanques), 1888
Oil on canvas, in five sections
“Grimaces and misery” drew mixed reviews in 1888 – it’s dry and uninspired reportage couldn't bring a commercial success at the time. The painting was awarded a silver medal next year at the Exposition Universelle.
A detail of Fernand Pelez’s “Grimaces and Misery — The Saltimbanques.”
You probably noticed the instruments old musicians holding in their hands. Thanks to the diligence of the curators (and inexhaustibility of the Met’s funds) we can see the authentic musical instruments from the 19th century at the show too.
Another small but notable work is Tight-Rope Walker (1885) by Jean-Louis Forain. The amazing light effects and a certain surrealistic flavor of the real scene can tell more about the night life of old Paris than any historical book.
The dramatic and visually rich circus and theatrical life were the constant subjects of the press and caricatures of its time. We can see about a dozen works of Honore Daumier which made a small “exhibition in an exhibition”. Daumier’s pictures are related to the exhibition not only with their subject but with Daumier’s style, which influenced virtually every French painter of the second half of 19th century.
Charcoal, pen and ink, watercolor, and conte crayon on paper
Honoré Daumier’s “Bring Down the Curtain: The Farce Is Over.”
The Sideshow 1865-66
Charcoal, pen and ink, watercolor, conte crayon on paper
But why is the Seurat’s vision stands out so much from all the others artist’s treatment of the same subject?
Seurat himself called his method “chromoluminarism”, but “divisionism” was the more commonly used term even in times he lived. The idea was to combine the colors optically in viewer’s retina instead of mix pigments physically on the palette. Using the restricted amount of colors and applying some rules of how colors work together being placed as small dots Seurat sought to achieve the perception of the whole spectrum and maximize the luminosity. (That’s the principle difference with the “Pointillism”, which uses dots of any color and mostly reduced to just a method of placing paints on the canvas)
This idea came from Seurat’s understanding of the scientific theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood, Charles Henry, and Charles Blanc about optics and color perception. By the way, the same technique used everywhere in color printers, offset machines, and computer displays today.
Seurat was probably the first who used this idea to create a real image, not a physical experiment.
In addition Seurat developed a theory about “expressive lines” – upward lines induce a feeling of gaiety, downward lines induce sadness, horizontal lines – calmness and so on. Early commentators believed that Seurat was virtually a scientist. Maybe, but he wasn’t alone. His friends, especially Paul Signac, were intrigued by the physical theories of colors too.
He was “technician, risk-taker, inventor,” Emile Verhaeren wrote.
Application of Charles Henry's Chromatic Circle, 1889
Color Wheel, 1886
Watercolor and gouache on paper, laid down on board
If we take a look at Seurat’s (mostly graphical) sketches made while he prepared to paint “Circus Sideshow” (the whole work took 6 years) we’ll see no science at all. Seurat searched for simple, laconic but maximum expressive forms and lines. The aspiration to attain the nature of things and skip all unnecessary details puts Seurat close to Symbolists. They actually were friends – Seurat and French Symbolist poets, he gave paintings and drawings to several of them, and they gave appreciative reviews of his work.
The exhibition itself is a piece of true professionalism in art history. It couldn’t be more comprehensive as it is. The curator’s work is really impressive. The other impression is hard to put in a verbal form. It’s close to respect but it’s deeper than this. How brave, uncompromised and patient the artist should be to get beyond the everyday reality and ahead of time.
Go to the Met Museum and feel it yourselves. Highly recommended!
A view of the exhibition “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Robert L. Herbert “Georges Seurat” NY, 1991