Who was Georges Seurat? Learn about the artist who invented Pointillism

By the late 1800s, the art had changed dramatically. Instead of submitting to the ideals set by the Paris Salon, radical artists began to create and exhibit rejected paintings that captured fleeting moments. These artists – who would become known as the Impressionists – fueled a wave of innovation among their contemporaries. One of these characters was Georges Seuratwho is credited with pioneering the Pointillist style.

The Paris-born artist has combined his classical artistic training and his interest in color theory to create a highly individualistic style recognized around the world. His most famous painting, A Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatteembodies this unique approach, with many dots of color blending together when viewed from afar.

Here we will learn more about this pioneering post-impressionist artist and how he invented pointillism.

Who was Georges Seurat?

Photograph by Georges Seurat

Photograph by Georges Seurat, 1888 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

french artist Georges Seurat (1859–1891) was a pioneering Neo-Impressionist painter who is credited with inventing the pointillist style. Born in Paris into a prominent family, he received an academic training in the fine arts at the École des Beaux-Arts, learning from the work of masters like Ingres and Delacroix. Later, when the artist was in his early twenties, he became interested in color theory and meticulously applied himself to inventing a new way of using color, which culminated in pointillism. His masterpiece A Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatte is the most famous and often cited example of this approach.

Carrier start

Vase of flowers by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Vase of flowers”, 1879-1881 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

In the early 1880s, the impact of the rebel Impressionist movement spread through Paris. Seurat’s early works show an interest in this new style, with looser brushstrokes and much experimentation in the application of color. In 1882, he was already applying tints in thick patches of color that blended together to create a unique texture.

The Farmers by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Farmers at work”, 1882 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Bathers at Asnières

Work by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Bathers at Asnières”, 1884 (Photo: National Gallery via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Seurat has completed his first significant work entitled Bathers at Asnières in 1884. This large-scale painting demonstrates the artist’s interest in the delicate tones of Impressionism, particularly in trees and water, while emphasizing the artist’s distinct way of smoothing his figures into soft sculptural forms.

Unsurprisingly, this work was rejected from the prestigious Paris Salon for its avant-garde approach. This led Seurat to exhibit it alongside the work of the Impressionists in the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants the same year. However, he did not stay with the group for long and eventually formed his own contingent with some of his contemporaries like Paul Signac called Société des Artistes Indépendants.

Invent pointillism

Paintings by Georges Seurat

Left: Georges Seurat, Study for “A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Latte”, 1886-1888 (Photo: Fitzwilliam Museum via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)
Right: Georges Seurat, Detail from “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, 1884-1886 (Photo: Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

After completing Bathers in Asnières, Seurat continued to make changes to his painting methods. Instead of mixing the pigments on a palette or on the canvas, he started laying out the colors individually on the canvas. This technique of applying paint in distinct dots of color has become known as Pointillism after an art critic used the term in the late 1880s to ridicule his appearance. However, he eventually became the name that made this unique style famous.

In pointillist works, tight dots can be made out when you look at the painting closely, however, the colors blend together and create a detailed image when you move away.

A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte

Sunday afternoon at La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, 1884-1886 (Photo: Art Institute of Chicago via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Without doubt Seurat’s most famous painting, A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte is a monumental piece representing the landscape surrounding an island in the Seine located west of Paris. He created many color sketches outside in preparation for this piece, carefully studying the colors that would be used to create this intricate scene. The pointillist technique required a detailed approach, so Seurat spent considerable time making sure he was happy with the result.

“Confronted with his subject, explained Paul Signac, Seurat, before touching his little panel with paint, scrutinizes, compares, looks with half-closed eyes at the play of light and shadow, observes the contrasts, isolates the reflections, plays for a long time with the lid of the box which serves as his palette, then… he slices from his little pile of colors arranged in the order of the spectrum the various colored elements which form the hue best suited to render the mystery he has glimpsed. The execution follows the observation, line by line, the panel is covered.

Work by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Grey weather, Grande Jatte”, 1888 (Photo: Le Met via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Paintings by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Models”, 1886-1888 (Photo: Barnes Foundation via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Late work

Work by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “The Circus Parade”, 1887-1888 (Photo: Le Met via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

After A Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatte, Seurat continued to apply and perfect pointillism in other paintings. The subject matter of these late works of art is primarily centered on the performing arts, including dance, music, and circuses.

In these pieces he simplifies his figures even further, finding the purest forms and repeating them without emphasizing details. As a result, these paintings possess a tapestry-like quality.

Work by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “La Chahut”, 1889-1890 (Photo: Kröller-Müller Museum via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

The circus was Seurat’s last major work, left unfinished when the artist died in 1891 at the age of 31.

This piece is significant for its use of the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) in conjunction with white. Here, Seurat’s stylized figures have been solidified in frozen, puppet-like poses, making the scene appear suspended in time.

The Circus by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “The Circus”, 1891 (Photo: Musée d’Orsay via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Legacy

Work by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat, “Young woman powdering herself”, 1889-1890 (Photo: Courtauld Institute of Art via Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Seurat’s very distinctive pointillist style had a lasting influence on future artists. In particular, the Cubists found inspiration in his scientific approach to color, which they would instead apply to shapes and forms.

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