The Grande Jatte

DEBUSSY-Reflections in the Water (1904)

Biographies (click painter's name)

Georges SEURAT (1859-1891), founder of Divisionism


The term Neo-Impressionism refers to a pictorial technique where color pigments are no longer mixed either on the palette or directly on canvas, but instead placed as small dots side by side. Mixing of colors takes place from a suitable distance, in the observor's eye, as an "optical mixture".

In the early 1880s, French painter Georges Seurat studied writings on color theory by French chemists Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), Charles Henry, and American physicist Ogden Rood, and invented a new painting technique that he named "separation of color" or "Divisionism", the main advantage of which is to give a greater vibrancy of color.

Seurat's first large painting (206x305cm) "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" - 1884-1886 may be considered as the founding masterpiece of Divisionism.


A Sunday Afternoon
on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Georges SEURAT, 1884-86
The Art Institute of Chicago


1886, the beginnings of post-Impressionism : Symbolism and Neo-impressionism currents

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte " was first exhibited at the last Impressionist Group Exhibition of 1886 where Pissarro forced the presence of Seurat and Paul Signac - who will later become the main propagandist of Divisionism - on Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Caillebotte who would retire from the exhibition.

1886 may be seen as a turning point in French painting :

Front of Tub
Paul Signac, 1888
Private collection

Looking at Seurat's Divisionism in this context, it appears at its beginnings to be only a pictorial variation of Impressionism, which Pissarro will call "a scientific Impressionism". Technics changes, but subjects and realism remain impressionist.

Seurat died at the age of only 32, leaving a major individual work.

Signac later renamed Divisionism as "Pointillism", but as soon as 1886, writer and art critics Félix Fénéon, who will become Divisionism greatest defender, call it "Neo-Impressionism".


Neo-impressionism spreads from France to Europe

Neo-impressionist painters will regularly exhibit their paintings at the Salon des Indépendants. This new Exhibition fair was created in 1884 on the initiative of some 400 artists disappointed with the Official "Salon de Paris", and will be opened to all artists without any jury.


At the first Salon des Independants of 1884, Seurat met Signac (1863-1935) and a few other painters who will soon form the first Neo-Impressionist circle : Albert Dubois-Pillet (1846-1890), Charles Angrand (1856-1926) et Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910).

With his painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte " exhibited twice at the Impressionist Show and at the Salon des Independants of 1886 in Paris, Seurat will soon attract new followers : Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), Léo Gausson (1860-1944), Louis Hayet (1864-1940)...

"The Grande-Jatte" will also be exhibited at the "Salon des Vingt" in Brussels in february 1887, and the new movement around Seurat will spread through Belgium with new disciples : Théo Van Rysselberghe, Henry Van de Velde, William Finch... who will exhibit as soon as 1888 on Seurat and Signac side at the Salon des Indépendants.

After Belgium, Neo-Impressionism will spread to Holland (Toorop, Bremmer...), then to Germany and Switzerland, and later to Italy.


Maria Sèthe at the Harmonium
Théo Van Rysselberghe, 1891
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerpen


Neo-Impressionism, imprisonment or liberation ?

Young Peasant Lighting a Fire,
Camille Pissarro, 1887-89
Orsay Museum, Paris

From the beginning Camille Pissarro was seduced by Seurat's Divisionism, and from 1886 to 1891 painted in a pointillist manner, although preferring small strokes to dots, before he finally went back to a more Impressionist technique, as he felt he was imprisoned in a too impersonal painting.

He later wrote in 1896 concerning the systematic division of color : "I find it impossible to follow my sensations, to give life and movement... Very likely I was not made for this art which gives me the feeling of death levelling". Nevertheless, Pissarro's technique will keep from this pointillist period a trend for small color strokes.

Van Gogh, as he arrived in Paris in 1886, also took a great interest in Seurat's theories and painted several works in a pointillist manner.


Until his death in 1891, Seurat will apply in his large major paintings an always more rigorous and austere divisionist technique. The post-Seurat Neo-Impressionism was to free itself from this strict pointillist technique in which Pissarro felt imprisoned, especially through Paul Signac's work evolution.


A new Neo-Impressionism with SIGNAC

From 1892 on, Signac, a sailing lover, regularly sejourns in Saint-Tropez. His style becomes more intuitive and his color touches larger, his palette more luxuriant.

"Compared with Signac's luminous and light paintings, Seurat's paintings seem grey and immobile", contemporary art critics Julius Meier-Graefe writes to describe the chromatic intensity of Signac's paintings.

Thus Signac gives birth to a second Neo-impressionism.


From 1895 on, Signac "illuminates" Neo-Impressionism through works as "La bouée rouge" (The red buoy) -1895, "Saint-Tropez, l'orage" (saint-Tropez, the storm) - 1895, "Voiles et pins" (Sails and pines) - 1896.

It is this new liberated Neo-Impressionism, its brilliant and luminous colors, which will later influence the Fauve painters and the Expressionists, whereas that of Seurat, more rational, will attract attention of Cubist painters due to its "scientific clarity of conception".

Unlike Impressionist painters, Seurat and Signac, wishing to give a scientific and meaningful basis to their painting, will write treatises which will have much influence over the young painters who were to do the art of the XXth century ("From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism" - Paul Signac, 1898).


Saint-Tropez, the Storm
Paul Signac, 1895
Musée de l'Annonciade, St-Tropez


Neo-Impressionism, also source of abstraction

Neo-Impressionism, as a movement, will have only been a transitional period in painting history, but its influence appears essential to the evolution of XXth century painting.

Evening Breeze
Henri Edmond CROSS, 1893-94
Orsay Museum, Paris


Only very few artists, such as Signac or Cross, will remain faithful to Neo-Impressionism, whereas for many others, e.g. Matisse, Derain, Braque, it will only be a step towards something new.




Luxury, Calm and Happiness
Henri Matisse, 1904-05
Orsay Museum, Paris

This is the case when Henri Matisse, after he had met with Signac at Saint-Tropez and Cross at the Lavandou, paints "Luxe, calme et volupté" ("Luxury, Calm and Happiness") - 1905, a work in which their influence appears clarly, in the composition as well as in the use of a divisionist technique .

It is then the beginning of Fauvism, the monotonous and regular division of color touches of Pointillism will extend to many other different forms, and colors will soon take precedence over representation concern.

Modern art in the XXth century will emphasize non-realistic stylisation in painting, to which Neo-Impressionism had opened the way.


Neo-Impressionism, a source of original works


Despite this aspect of Neo-Impressionism as an essential contribution to art history, there remain, besides Seurat and Signac, many beautiful works of little known painters.

One can measure the originality and the diversity of these Neo-Impressionist artists, who transformed a difficult technique into art : Dubois-Pillet, Angrand, Cross, Luce, Van Risselberghe, Finch, Lemmen, Toorop...


Quai de l'Ecole
Maximilien Luce, 1889
Private Collection