French Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat was born December 2, 1859. He was the creator of the technique known as pointillism. He studied at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts in Paris. When his new style was rejected by officialdom, he struck out as an independent and no longer exhibited at the Salons.
His 10-foot-wide chef-d’oeuvre, Un dimanche après-midi sur l’île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), which hangs today in the Art Institute of Chicago, took him two years to complete. La Grande Jatte pushed boundaries in its subject matter as well as its technique. To us today, it just looks like a pleasant scene, but it was revolutionary in depicting members of various social classes sharing the park in harmony – men in top hats and tails are virtually rubbing elbows with men in undershirts and working men’s caps. The painting inspired the Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George, by Steven Sondheim, in which the various figures come to life and interact with one another.
Even more striking is the technique. The entire canvas is painted with tiny dots of color that blend to form a harmonious whole when viewed from a distance. This technique, pointillism, was based on the work of a French chemist and tapestry restorer, Michel Eugène Chevreul, (as synthesized by Charles Blanc) who learned that the best way to produce a particular shade was to juxtapose two or more colors, often complimentary. The two distinctive shades placed close to one another on the canvas were perceived as a third shade by the viewer. This was a big departure from the idea of mixing colors on the palette and then applying them to the canvas.
Another major influence was French mathematician Charles Henry, who lectured about the emotional and symbolic properties of lines and colors. Seurat saw art as a series of natural laws that created a “language” that he called Chromoluminarism. He believed that the artist could create visual representations of feelings through deliberately combining tones, colors, and lines in a harmonious way.
“L’art, c’est l’harmonie” (lar seh lar-mo-nee) is a Seurat quotation that means “Art is harmony.” He died, probably of diphtheria, on March 29, 1891, when he was only 32 years old. His infant son succumbed to the same malady two weeks later.