The tall, reserved and distinguished-looking gentleman in a business suit must have appeared more to be a banker than a groundbreaking Post-Impressionist painter, but Georges Seurat was a bookish introvert who chose to pursue his studies on color theory rather than participate in the conviviality at the local pub with fellow artists.
Seurat was born into a financially comfortable family in Paris in 1859. Because his father was rarely at home, Georges spent much time with his mother at the nearby Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, which history would prove to have had a considerable influence on his paintings.
Initially Seurat adhered to the style and techniques of the Impressionists, with short soft brush strokes of mixed colors, often depicting scenes of bourgeois entertainment. After studying at Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1878, which was followed by a brief stint of military service, he set up his own studio near his parents’ home on the right bank, where he intently studied color optics and the overlap of painting and science.
Seurat spent much of 1883 laboring on his first large-scale project, “Bathing at Asnieres,” into which he introduced a new technique that came to be called Pointillism: painting with pure unblended colors in tiny precise dots on white which, from a suitable viewing distance, appeared as a blended composition that seemed to shimmer with light.
Seurat was insulted when the Paris Salon rejected “Bathing at Asnieres,” so he in turn rejected the Salon and started an association of young independent painters that came to be called Société des Artistes Indépendants. He became closely allied with another painter in the group, Paul Signac, who eventually wrote a definitive book on Neo-Impressionism, including a section on Pointillism.
Seurat’s greatest and most recognized painting is “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” now a part of the Chicago Art Institute’s permanent collection. This painstaking work is 10 feet wide and took two years — 1884 and 1885 — to complete. Sixty oil sketches, or studies, show his meticulous preparation for the completed work.
Stephen Sondheim created a Broadway musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” based on Seurat’s masterpiece.
About three years after “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was unveiled, Seurat moved to a quieter part of the city, where he led a secret life: He lived with a woman named Madeleine Knobloch, who was the subject of his painting “Young Woman Powdering Herself” and gave birth to two sons. Georges revealed his young family to his mother two days before his death from meningitis or, some say, diphtheria at age 31.