This revelatory study of Georges Seurat (1859–1891) explores the artist’s profound interest in theories of visual perception and analyzes how they influenced his celebrated seascape, urban, and suburban scenes. While Seurat is known for his innovative use of color theory to develop his pointillist technique, this book is the first to underscore the centrality of diverse ideas about vision to his seascapes, figural paintings, and drawings. Michelle Foa highlights the importance of the scientist Hermann von Helmholtz, whose work on the physiology of vision directly shaped the artist’s approach. Foa contends that Seurat’s body of work constitutes a far-reaching investigation into various modes of visual engagement with the world and into the different states of mind that visual experiences can produce. Foa’s analysis also brings to light Seurat’s sustained exploration of long-standing and new forms of illusionism in art. Beautifully illustrated with more than 140 paintings and drawings, this book serves as an essential reference on Seurat.
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About the Author
Michelle Foa is assistant professor of art history at Tulane University.
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The Art of Vision
By Michelle Foa
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Michelle Foa
All rights reserved.
Seeing in Series
Last week, when I was at Dieppe ... I was thinking of him, as I always do when I'm at the sea.
So wrote the Neo-Impressionist artist Charles Angrand in a letter penned sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century to fellow Neo-Impressionist Henri-Edmond Cross. It was to the memory of Georges Seurat, who had died in 1891, that Angrand claimed his thoughts turned whenever he was by the sea all those years later. Angrand was not referring to time spent with Seurat (the latter's extended visits to the coast were solitary ones), but, presumably, to his colleague's five series of seascape paintings, the product of five partial summers spent in different port towns along France's northern coast. That Angrand still thought of Seurat's seascapes so many years after his friend's death gives us a sense of how highly regarded these pictures were by Seurat's contemporaries. Indeed, some of the artist's most prominent supporters viewed these works as his foremost artistic achievements. Émile Verhaeren, the Belgian Symbolist poet and critic who was one of Seurat's most vocal advocates, opined in an exhibition review written shortly before the artist's death that "the triumph of Seurat is his seascapes and landscapes." A few months later, Jules Antoine, another prominent figure in the circle of Neo-Impressionist critics, wrote in his obituary for Seurat that "his canvases ... include a large quantity of seascapes and landscapes, which are, in our opinion, the best side of his talent." And other critics who were unreceptive to Seurat's figural paintings or to Neo-Impressionism more broadly would often make exceptions for Seurat's seascapes, expressing (sometimes begrudging) admiration for his work in that genre.
Despite the positive reception of Seurat's seascapes by the critics, these works were not generally given the same level of attention as his figural paintings. Critics, for the most part, didn't have a great deal to say, at least not explicitly, about the logic of his seascape series or about the relationship of these works to his figural paintings and drawings, although Seurat often exhibited these works together. This relative silence on the subject of the seascapes continued in later art historical scholarship, and the scholarly writings devoted solely to his seascapes can almost be counted on one hand. The paucity of commentary, both past and present, is likely due to a variety of factors, such as a long-standing tendency to focus more attention on individual "masterpieces" than on works whose singularity is subsumed by a larger grouping, and on figural paintings than landscapes. But there are also specific features of Seurat's seascapes that make them somewhat resistant to interpretation. With the exception of Honfleur, Seurat did not choose popular or touristic sites to depict. Moreover, Seurat's seascapes have been almost completely evacuated of human figures that would have provided a narrative entry point for the viewer. Lastly but importantly, the serial logic of these works, that is, the way that the individual paintings within a group relate to the others as a group, is initially difficult to discern, even though Seurat frequently exhibited all of the paintings in a given series together. In short, these seascapes don't declare their meaning very audibly, thus rendering the viewer somewhat at a loss for words. It is this silence that I aim to fill, and it is the specific logic of these series that I aim to articulate, in the following account of Seurat's seascape painting practice. I will do so via an examination of another underexplored aspect of Seurat's work, namely, his interest in visual perception. Although Seurat's pointillist method of paint application was and is nearly always discussed as a manifestation of his engagement with theories of color perception, art historians have not generally elaborated on the other aspects of vision that interested Seurat, nor on the myriad ways that Seurat's interest in vision is manifest in his pictures, besides in his pointillism. Thus, while an interest in vision has long been acknowledged by his contemporaries as well as by certain later art historians as central to his work, the precise nature of this interest, and the ways that it informs Seurat's body of work, is a significantly under-examined subject.
The fundamental aim of this book is to elaborate the ways in which Seurat's interest in visual experience extends well beyond color perception and his pointillist technique of painting. I will analyze how his diverse body of work constitutes an inquiry into the distinct ways that one engages visually with one's surroundings, and into the contrasting modes of being in the world that these different forms of visual experiences elicit in us. Vision, according to Seurat, situates us in very different kinds of relationships to the spaces, objects, and events around us. This book thus takes Seurat's concerns about the nature and conditions of visual experience and its representation in pictures as the central unifying issue that underpins the various parts of his oeuvre. And it is to his seascape series, to the ways in which the individual paintings relate to each other as a series, and to the way that these groups of works propose a specific model of visual experience that I now turn. These series are a key part of the artist's broader investigation into the conditions and limits of visual perception, into how vision enables us to comprehend and navigate the external world, and into the possibilities and limits of pictures for reconstituting our experience of our surroundings.
During every summer but one from 1885 until his death in the spring of 1891, Seurat produced a single group of seascape pictures, consisting of somewhere between two and seven paintings of a different port on France's northern coast. But Seurat's interest in the coast of northern France, specifically its ports, and his repertoire of images of the vessels, architecture, and navigational mechanisms that define those sites, first took shape years earlier, before he was a professional artist. In 1879, at the age of nineteen and after having completed one year of schooling at the École des Beaux-Arts, Seurat left Paris to fulfill a year of military service. Although this period in Seurat's life is never discussed at any length, the artist's experiences during that time relate directly to the body of seascapes that he would begin to produce in the mid-1880s. Seurat carried out his year of service in the Nineteenth Line Infantry Regiment, which since the early 1870s was garrisoned in Brest, on the northwestern coast of Brittany. Since the seventeenth century, Brest had served as one of France's largest and most important naval ports and, as one mid-nineteenth-century history of the city put it, "one isn't able to separate the life of the port and the navy from the city, because the one is the life, the soul of the other." Immersed in such an environment for an extended period of time, Seurat no doubt learned a great deal that year about the world of ports and maritime navigation.
Seurat kept a sketchbook while in Brest, but it has not survived intact. Most of its contents, except for individual sheets that have appeared over the past several decades on the art market, are unknown. Gustave Coquiot, Seurat's first biographer, apparently saw this sketchbook and describes its contents in his 1924 book on the artist. From Coquiot we learn that during his time in Brest, Seurat "developed a liking for the sea and for boats of all sizes" and that "he would draw in numerous notebooks, taking great care in depicting boat riggings, docks, smokestacks, anchors, masts, and moorings." Thus, Seurat's interest in the representation of the ports, the sea, and the vessels that moved between one and the other seems to have had its roots in his year in Brest. Coquiot also writes that Seurat spent his temporary leaves that year "roaming the length of the Channel," visiting a variety of locales along France's northern coast, many of them ports. Indeed, it was during these travels that Seurat first discovered some of the ports that he would visit again in the mid and late 1880s and explore in greater depth in his series of seascapes.
One of the sites that Coquiot tells us Seurat became enamored with during his year of service was Grandcamp, a small village to which he returned in the summer of 1885, where he produced his first seascape series. Located on the coast of lower Normandy, Grandcamp was predominantly a fishing village with a small port and very small tourist population in the summer months. Seurat produced five paintings of different sites along the shoreline of Grandcamp and the surrounding area (see figs. 1–5). Seurat's Grandcamp series is in fact an anomaly within his seascape practice, insofar as the connections among the paintings are much more tenuous than in his subsequent series. Nevertheless, this first series has a good deal in common with his later seascapes with respect to the concerns at work in these images. Although each of the Grandcamp paintings portrays a different aspect of the town and coastline, one notices that the works share similar compositional features when looked at as a group. In all five paintings the meeting of sea and sky at the horizon line plays a central role. Indeed, this is the single unifying element of this series of spare works, other than their general locale. Focusing on the horizon line running from one side of the painting to the other, the tension between the confines of the edges of the easel painting and the seeming infinity of sea and sky comes to the fore, evoking an awareness of the limits of what any single canvas can represent. These pictures also bring to the fore the possibilities and limitations of vision, for the horizon signifies the furthest reaches but also the boundaries of visual perception, the line beyond which one cannot see.
Once these issues of pictorial and visual finitude come into focus, one becomes more attuned to the other aspects of the series that address the conditions of visual perception and its representation. Boats(Bateaux) (fig. 1), for example, is perhaps the sparest of the Grandcamp paintings, constituted by roughly equal horizontal bands of brown, green, and light blue representing the land, sea, and sky.6 This simple tripartite composition is matched by three almost identical boats situated in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the painting. It is precisely the simplicity of the composition that gives it the feeling of a demonstration or exercise, in which the three boats make plain the simple truth that the same object becomes less and less visible as it recedes into the distance, and that the physical position of the object in space — diagonal, perpendicular, or parallel to the picture plane and the viewer — determines what we can and cannot see of it. The painting is also a demonstration of some of the ways that painting is able to convey the illusion of three-dimensionality, namely, through the use of foreshortening and by scaling objects to give the impression that they lie at different distances from the viewer. The representation of what appears to be the same boat in space from three different angles not only conveys the three-dimensionality of that object in the real world, it also communicates that the fundamental challenge of painting is to re-create this solidity and sense of depth on a flat surface.
Seurat's demonstration of the conditions and limits of visual perception and its representation in Boats is further manifested by the boat in the foreground whose mast touches the top border of the painting. The contact between this boat and the edge of the picture plane hints at the visual limitations of proximity and is mirrored, at the other extreme, by the tiny white triangle in the far left of the painting along the horizon, situated too far away for the viewer to decipher with certainty. That which is too near may be just as difficult to see as that which is too far away, and there is no ideal position that offers full visual comprehension of the observed scene. Rather, each vantage point provides and denies access to different aspects of one's surroundings, with each view supplementing the others.
Like Boats, the compositions of the other pictures in the series, such as The Fort Samson (Grandcamp), The Roadstead at Grandcamp (La rade de Grandcamp), Grandcamp (Evening) (Grandcamp [soir]), also highlight the tension between the expanse of land, sea, and sky and the edges of the painting that fragment and frame these expanses (figs. 2, 3, and 5). In The Roadstead, Seurat emphasizes the lateral limits of the visual and pictorial field by focusing on the numerous boats on the water that have just entered or are about to drift out of the field of vision and beyond the confines of the picture. The Bec du Hoc (Grandcamp), which portrays a prominent rock formation that juts out from the coastal cliffs that surround the town of Grandcamp, is the only work in the series to present the viewer with a dramatic vista (fig. 4). This particular site offers an especially unencumbered view of the sea and the surrounding coastline, which is likely why it appealed to Seurat. But the allure of the vista is undercut by an awareness of the limitations of what any single painting can represent of this expansive view. The Grandcamp series as a whole, then, constitutes Seurat's preliminary investigations into the limits of vision from any single vantage point, and the representational limitations of the single easel painting.
Seurat's next seascape painting campaign, which he undertook in Honfleur in the summer of 1886, resulted in a more intertwined set of images (see figs. 6–8, 11–14). Honfleur is a port town located on the western side of the mouth of the Seine; it was the only coastal town Seurat painted that was a somewhat popular destination for artists and tourists. The seven Honfleur paintings depict a series of views of the entry to the port, its interior basins, its lighthouses, its jetties, and the surrounding coastline. As one tries to articulate what these images are about, to locate where their meaning may lie, one also finds oneself realizing what these images are clearly notabout. One important exclusion is that of human figures from all seven paintings, which not only discourages an anecdotal interpretation of these pictures but also situates Seurat as their protagonist, foregrounding his experiences of these sites. Relatedly, although the day-to-day comings and goings of the ships — and the navigation aids and port infrastructure that this maritime traffic relies on — are clearly very engaging for the artist, the socioeconomic aspects of these phenomena do not seem to be of much interest to him. Other important absences from most of the Honfleur paintings are the ephemeral effects of light or weather on the scene, which were so prominently featured in many Impressionist landscapes. And just as the aim of representing an instant of perception ostensibly necessitated (at least the appearance of) an abbreviated method of paint application in Impressionist pictures, conversely, Seurat's careful, pointillist or semi-pointillist method of brushwork in the Honfleur paintings conveys that these works are not about the hasty recording of transient effects.
It is imperative that these works be studied not only individually, but also in the context of one another, for it is only when they are viewed together that the logic of the series emerges. Crucially, when the Honfleur paintings are looked at as a group, several overlaps and repetitions from one picture to another come into view. In Entrance to the Port of Honfleur (Entrée du port d'Honfleur) Seurat shows us the two jetties that frame the entryway of the port, each of which culminates in a small lighthouse (fig. 6). These small lighthouses, often referred to as harbor lights or feux de port, served to mark the entrance to a port and to convey information about water levels. On the right of the painting is the eastern jetty of Honfleur, at the end of which stood not only a harbor light but also a tide signal. A common feature of port entrances, tide signals communicated information about the movement of the tides and the height of the water above two meters by displaying various combinations of balls and flags hoisted on a cross-shaped mast. At the far left of the picture, in the middle ground, we see the end of the western jetty, its harbor light just barely visible from where Seurat was standing at the tip of what was called the jetée du transit, facing the two longer jetties. The subject of Tip of the Jetty of Honfleur (Bout de la jetee d'Honfleur) (fig. 7) is the same western jetty and harbor light in the far left of Entrance to the Port, now seen from a much closer vantage point, which was the tip of the seawall that encloses the bassin de retenue. This same small lighthouse and jetty make their appearance in a third Honfleur painting, The Hospice and Lighthouse of Honfleur (L'hospice et le phare d'Honfleur) (fig. 8). Here we see the largest of Honfleur's three lighthouses (usually referred to as the "lighthouse of the hospice" or the "lighthouse of the hospital") in the middle ground and, to its left and in the far distance, the western jetty and its harbor light. In other words, Seurat shows us the same lighthouse and jetty from afar, from close up, and from the side, three images constituting three overlapping views, produced by the artist taking up a series of different vantage points in space.
Excerpted from Georges Seurat by Michelle Foa. Copyright © 2015 Michelle Foa. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Seeing in Series, 7,
2 Figuring Out Vision, 63,
3 Seductive Sights, 113,
4 Sight and Touch in Black and White, 155,
Postscript: The Eiffel Tower as Urban Lighthouse, 197,
Illustration Credits, 233,