Pointillism and
Its Greatest Artists

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The main proponent of Neo-Impressionism, or Pointillism, was the French artist Georges Seurat (1879-1891).  Seurat made a great point ;-) of closely following the theories set out by physicists Hermann von Helmboltz and Ogden N. Rood, and most especially the color theory developed by chemist Chevreuil. At the time director of the dye works for the Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture, Chevreuil noticed that a given color was influenced by the colors it was next to.

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", by Georges Seurat

Getting Theoretical

Chevreuil's color theory, as set out in his "Laws of Simultaneous Color Contrasts", depended on what is called the "RYB"  (red-yellow-blue) model comprised of the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue and the complementary colors these primaries generate, shown left.  He also evoked a phenomenon that has come to be known as "Chevreul's illusion":  when bands of same colors at different intensities are put next to each other, their edges will seem to brighten with light.

Less ready than the Impressionists to bend the rules, Seurat tried to apply the system with a technique that consisted of painting small strokes of pure color.  These were calculated to combine optically into the color effect he was looking for; in fact, the same principle is used now in printing color photographs.

Modern printers use today's "CYMK" (cyan-yellow-magenta-black) model, demonstrated here, which is a little different than Chevreuil's system, but you get the point if you study what's happening to the right; putting small dots of color next to each other in close-up creates an effect of an overall color at a distance.  This is what these Neo-Impressionists played at.

In 1886 art critic Arsène Alexandre invented the term "Neo-Impressionism" to refer to what Seurat was doing; at the time it was also known as "Divisionism", in reference to this manner of breaking fields of blended color down into tiny fragments of pure color.  It finally became the term we use today.

Sunday in the Park with Georges

But calling it "Pointillism" is a bit deceiving. 

"Sunday in the Park" was the Seurat painting that more or less functioned as the movement's manifesto.  Yet, for example, it is not composed of "dots", but lightly long, regular brushstrokes that, when you look up close at them like I did recently, look more like a lot of little rectangles than anything else. 

Seurat was also careful about the direction of the strokes making sense; therefore upright figures tend to have vertical strokes, while the water is done in horizontal strokes.  By the time he got to the grass (he spent a total of two years making the painting with tiny strokes, mind) Seurat was visibly tiring of the rules, and we find a mix of squares, dots, and short strokes going either vertically or diagonally)!

Recognizing Pointillism

The Pointillists were serious about drawing; Seurat, for example, went through countless preparatory studies before moving on to creating the actual painting.  Others such as Pissaro, Dubois-Pillet or Signac did their drawings directing in the Pointillist style.

These are often pretty big paintings, easy to recognize with their thousands of tiny specks of color.  Interestingly, the frame is considered part of the artwork, and therefore gets covered with tiny fragments of color as well, generally complementary to those predominant in the painting proper.

The Pointillists had an interesting position in The big Line vs. Color debate.  Despite there being no line drawn in the strict sense of the term, line was still extremely important, because needed to clarify the outlines that otherwise would be have been lost in the dotty blur.  No outline, no readability, and the painting would have gone from being figurative to being abstract.  Indeed, the flat, cutout-like shapes nevertheless still look a little transparent and ghostly, even so.

So how did they get around the problem?  By putting very, very small touches of darker color as a kind of ring or shadow around the shape...

Great Artists of Pointillism

Georges Pierre Seurat (1859-1891), painter, draughtsman, was the leading light of Pointillism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), a friend of both Van Gogh and Seurat, a great experimenter, helped found the Pointillism movement.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was very important as a forerunner to Impressionism and a guiding figure for Neo-Impressionism.

Frenchman Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)  played a key role in shaping the second half of the Pointillism movement, and was an inspiration to Matisse.

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