Seurat’s Secret

George Seurat: The Drawings, The Museum of Modern Art October 28,2007 - January 7, 2008

"The Echo" (Study for Baignade), (1893). Conte crayon on paper. 12 5/16 × 9 7/16". Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

One of the many extraordinary aspects of Seurat’s conté crayon drawings is that they make us newly appreciate the word atmospheric. It is atmosphere itself, formed from the way different degrees of light and darkness envelop a scene that is, in part, his subject in the drawings he made through much of his short career—a ten-year span that was abruptly ended by illness in 1891, when the French painter was thirty-one. The works in the Museum of Modern Art’s current survey, Georges Seurat: The Drawings, form a kind of encyclopedia of everyday moments that, suffused by specific, tangible atmospheres, have taken on a dreamy serenity. In images illuminated by moonlight, say, or the light from gas jets, waning daylight, or the muzzy light of a summer afternoon, we might see a heavyset man at his dinner, a horse tied to a tree, performers at a street fair, or an empty city square after a snowfall, with a lone carriage passing by and more snow forecast by the darkening sky.

Done primarily in shades of black, white, and gray, Seurat’s drawings, taken one by one, have a velvety physical presence, a magically right sense of balance, and a story-like fullness that puts them in a category of their own in the history of art. To see over a hundred at the museum is an overwhelming experience. We follow a very young artist whose ability to do justice to the sheer variety of existence is Shakespearian. From the evidence, he was as interested in women’s fashion or the movement of a locomotive or the mood created by trees in the rain as he was in the stance of a porter or the way a ragpicker trudges off on his nightly rounds.

"The Gateway", (1882-84). Conte crayon on paper. 9 3/4 × 12 3/4". Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Many of the drawings have the weight of complete novels. Maurice Appert (1886-88), for example, of a seated boy facing us foresquare in a darkened space, has about it everything that is lonely, unformed, and demonic about boyhood. The Gateway (1882-84), in which bright light illuminates the posts and wall of an entryway otherwise muffled in a vaporous, shadowy darkness, suggests the tension and allure of any kind of beginning or opening. The Couple (1882-83), also called At Dusk, a view merely of a man and a woman from the back, manages to be at once an abstract study of shapes, an affectionate summation of marriage, and (to me, anyway) a vaguely ominous image suggesting espionage.

Yet the show’s overriding spirit is hard to pin down. As Jodi Hauptman, who organized it, writes in its accompanying catalog, Seurat’s drawings bring to mind absence, silence, and uncertainty. Some of the strongest drawings happen to be of people, including a number of images of the artist’s mother’s moonlike face and a breathtaking one of Seurat’s friend the painter Aman-Jean, his wiry black hair seemingly being tweaked by the sumptuously staticky gray mass behind him. But we don’t clearly see their faces or anyone else’s face; and the lack of clear, direct views of people, and the lengths Seurat goes to achieve this—he is like a photographer working always to over—or underexpose his shot—is virtually a theme of these pictures. They show the world as a shy person might like to see it, as a place where people are rarely encountered directly but seem to emerge from and to disappear into the darkness or the light, their faces rarely visible, their bodies so many silhouetted shapes.

Yet to some extent the mysteriousness of Seurat’s drawings has been overstated. It has surely been fed by the secretive character of the artist himself. Not that there are large gaps in our knowledge of his life. His relationships with his family, his education, who his friends and supporters were, how he handled his exhibitions, where he went for vacations—all this and more has been documented. What he didn’t leave behind, either in recorded conversations or notes, letters or through the anecdotes of friends, was a sense of an inner self. In gatherings of any size, he was known for his silence. Perhaps the essence of his apparent detachment is the fact that it was a surprise to Seurat’s mother (with whom he was very close) and to his friends and associates that, as was revealed as he was dying, he had a mistress and that they had a child, with a second baby coming.

And in a way, the drawings are the work of someone whose inner life may be beside the point, in that they have a gamelike, mechanical nature. Seurat’s genius, in creating them, can seem to be as much about his willingness to play with the materials of his craft as about a quest or a vision. A gifted and inveterate drawer with academically trained skills he came on the idea in his early twenties of using conté crayon, which has an oily base, with a certain unevenly-surfaced, handmade French paper, which has a way of absorbing, or not absorbing—depending on how firmly or softly your hand bears down on the sheet—the black crayon. He found that for best results the crayon needed to be rubbed on, not drawn on with lines, and that the resisting force of the slightly ridgy paper is as crucial in determining the outcome of the given work as is the crayon held in the hand.

Rubbing the paper so firmly that the white, underlying sheet is obliterated produces a dense black. Rubbing less hard, and allowing the grainy paper to show through to one degree or another, results in a range of grays, while white is achieved when the paper is left untouched. A Seurat drawing can seem therefore like an emanation of a grained surface. It can resemble an image from TV’s early days in that it is never sharply in focus, and the darker and lighter tones that form it appear continually to be rearranging themselves.

With its palette inevitably running from deep black to white, any given Seurat drawing also represents a kind of scale, with a high and low point, or a beginning and an end, and a journey of sorts, in the form of the many luxuriant grays, in-between. Each sheet, moreover, is closer to a painting than a drawing in that, as with a painting but not necessarily with most drawings, there are rarely any neutral areas in Seurat’s conté works.

In his method, the whole sheet—he generally employed paper that was nine and twelve inches on its sides—had to be part of the image. This is because, for the white part of the paper to play its role in the given picture—whether as the moon, or that gateway reflecting bright light—any other white or untouched area on the sheet would have to be understood as some sort of related light. Seurat could, of course, place his image of, say, a nursemaid and her charge, with its range of tones from white to black on any part of a sheet of paper; but with that scene then surrounded by the plain white of the untouched sheet, his point would be dissipated.

Seurat’s drawings are in no way discoveries. The artist showed them along with his paintings at most of the exhibitions he participated in, signing and framing them and hoping for them to be taken as part of his overall achievement; and they remain the rare works that captivate artists, connoisseurs of drawing, and the general public in equal measure. They may even inspire some viewers who generally don’t make art with the thought that they can create their own versions of a “Seurat.” He can make you want to try out his method because he seemingly takes the training and expertise—and the command of anatomy, say, or the need for facial features or precise linear details—out of drawing. Especially in his more jagged-edged early drawings, everything appears to have been arrived at quickly, through a kind of etch-a-sketch pushing around of the medium.

The exhibition includes a number of Seurat’s paintings, too, which makes sense as his drawings take on an even greater resonance when they are seen in relation to his art as a whole. Although his involvement with drawing gradually diminished in the face of his ambitions as a painter, he was never able to translate one of the principle achievements of his work with conté crayon—the ability to show bodies, heads, and other forms as flat shapes that also have a breathing life—into the more imposing form of oil on canvas. Moreover, while he remained almost to the end an inventive artist in conté crayon works, his painting became increasingly cold and impersonal.

It might seem risky to generalize about the ups and downs of a career with an artist whose working span lasts ten years and is over at age thirty-one. By most standards, though, Seurat’s career was tremendously full. Besides his two hundred and thirty or so mature drawings (about double the number in the exhibition), he made a string of major oil paintings which, right up to his death, show a continual development in his thinking. He produced as well numerous landscape and seascape paintings and a larger number of small oil sketches. Along the way he was instrumental in creating a style of painting which had a following in his lifetime that stretched beyond France and included Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro (for a while) in its ranks.

Coming of age in the 1880s, Seurat could almost not help wanting to extend Impressionism, the advanced, new style of his youth. In his painting, he certainly seems to be thinking about how its lighter color-palette, its broken up paint surface, and its feeling for urban life could be made into a more orderly and monumental art. The “pointillism” (or Neo-Impressionism) that resulted was a painstaking method of applying paint with so many small, independent patches or dots of color; and whether it is thought of as giving a more optically precise sense of the color of this or that object in a certain light, or it is used to impose a greater appearance of control over a picture—or it is simply to enliven the surface of a painting—it remains, like stain painting, a tool for an artist.

Many of Seurat’s oils, in addition, are unquestionably brilliant and invigorating. This is especially the case with the coastal pictures and harbor scenes he did during summer vacations in Normandy. His small oil sketches, many of which are studies for his large figurative exhibition pieces, can also be sparklingly effective. Looking at those in the show, however, it is clear that they possess little of the tension or variety of the conté crayon works.

Thornier still is the issue of Seurat’s major efforts. The first two, Une baignade, Asnières (1883-84) and Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte (1884-86), will probably never lose their status as classics of the early modern era. Views of, respectively, working-class Parisians relaxing along the Seine on an embankment and middle-class Parisians sitting and promenading on the Grande Jatte, they memorably transform these anonymous French men and women into latter-day versions of figures from Greek and Egyptian art. In the highly pointillistic Grande Jatte, the combination of the work’s wraparound size (it is ten feet long), the complete legibility of countless doll-like figures going far back into space, and the feeling the work gives that a ton of confetti in every imaginable party color has suddenly landed in the form of this composition give the picture its one-of-a-kind power.

Yet already in La Grande Jatte Seurat is getting cute. Summed up by their cookie-cutter silhouetted shapes, some of the figures undermine the work’s complex layout and profusion of colored dots. And all of Seurat’s significant paintings from the years that follow—works showing models in a studio, a woman at her makeup table, and café-concert and circus life—suffer to one degree or another from figures and faces that are simultaneously lifeless and too firm in their outlines. He was trying to get the look and spirit of advertising into his art, and he was clearly seeing where the decorative, syncopated appearance of posters, where figures are summed up by the superstylized outlines of their facial features and bodies, would take him. The Met’s Parade de cirque (1887-88), with its fairy-tale light, is a fairly enchanting work, but his later pictures in general are emotionally inert, the figures little more than manikins.

In Seurat’s drawings for these paintings, however, there is scant trace of this graphic glibness or tone-deaf humor. The overly precise way he renders bodies, faces and other forms in his paintings would have been impossible to achieve in his conté crayon works anyway, which are by definition indistinct. Seurat’s later drawings include studies for Une baignade, La Grande Jatte, and of Parisian nighttime entertainments and of the ports he studied during his summer trips. In subject matter, he was moving in many directions. Yet the drawings for these scenes cohere so smoothly it comes as a surprise to realize they were done for separate projects.

We look at images where white, light-filled areas and many different grays predominate, and the figures go from having a cottony, mirage-like softness to—especially in his images of male bathers—a grave monumentality. These works, in turn, blend seamlessly with Seurat’s earlier drawings, with their shadows and flickering light, their fields and carriages at dusk, their sense of people out roaming through the night. All the images seem to be parts of one ongoing masterpiece. But is that due in any way to Seurat’s continued use of the same size sheets and the same paper and crayon?

By the same token, we can wonder about how, in his drawings, he was making full-fledged “Seurats” right from the start. Did he know beforehand that his goal was the balancing of subtly related tonalities and silhouetted forms? Or was it the materials he chanced upon that determined the art? And was it because those materials seemingly impelled him to make an art of flat shapes that, taking this idea further and further in his painting, he wound up making strangely lightweight, decorative canvases? Was his recipe of conté crayon and his particular paper, in short, as much a trap as a gift?

Well over a century after they were made, the ambiguities lurking in Seurat’s drawings and his art in general remain remarkably vivid. More remarkable, though, is the way these ambiguities merely add to the awesome pleasures the drawings already provide.

Contributor

Sanford Schwartz

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