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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Pointillism, a basic description

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

The term pointillism is used to designate a movement that is called neo-impressionism. It appeared at the end of the XIXth century between impressionism and symbolism, it is embodied by several painters Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, briefly joined by Camille Pissarro. Art of the reasoned color is sometimes qualified as scientific painting. Neo-impressionism bet on the rationalization of the impressionist painting whose themes it often takes again. Its main theorist and exegete is the French anarchist Félix Fénéon. By the new use of colors, neo-impressionism represented an essential stage in the history of modern art before the Great War.

History of movement

The neo-impressionist movement emerged in the Salon des Indépendants, founded in 1884 in competition with traditional salons. It was there that Georges Seurat, a painter with a classic temperament trained at the École des Beaux-arts, met Paul Signac, a self-taught artist, and admirer of Claude Monet.

In 1883, Seurat was busy creating a painting entitled Une Baignade à Asnières, which took up a theme dear to the Impressionists: activities on the banks of the Seine, against the backdrop of an industrialized landscape. At this time, he began to develop a new plastic language called divisionism. This technique is based on the rational use of pure colors, aiming to create maximum harmony and luminosity. At that time, Seurat did not yet use the dotted line.

A Bathing in Asnières is exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1884. Signac admires him, and the two artists get closer, although their characters are opposite. Seurat, nicknamed "the notary," is taciturn when Signac is sociable and curious about everything. In 1886, Seurat presented at the last Impressionist exhibition and the Salon des Indépendants the work that would become the manifesto of the new Impressionism: A Sunday afternoon at the island of La Grande Jatte. She is at the origin of the creation of the term "neo-impressionism" by the art critic Félix Fénéon, who became the painter's first supporter. This time, the painter uses a delicate and meticulous dotted line and places his characters in a revisited and idealized nature.

Correcting outdoor painting thanks to science, developing impressionism, these were the objectives of the painters who joined neo-impressionism. To achieve maximum intensity and colorful harmony, they made use of scientific discoveries, including that of optical mixing (Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Charles Blanc, Ogden Rood). Treaties in this area teach them that colors recompose on the spectator's retina. For example, to obtain a particularly intense green, it is better to juxtapose small blue and yellow spots on a canvas than to mix colors on the palette. The dotted line represents their way of applying the keys on the canvas; it is in no way an end.

The neo-impressionists use their method for a symbolist purpose, seeking to represent the harmonic laws of the world. Seurat and Signac take a close interest in the work of Charles Henry (1859–1926), a scholar who developed a theory called dynamogeny. It states that lines and colors allow you to express and generate specific types of feelings (sadness, cheerfulness).

The death of Seurat in 1891 marks a break in the history of neo-impressionism. The following year, Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross (another follower) settled in the South of France and brought Mediterranean light into modern painting. From 1895, both moved away from the doctrinal aspect of Seurat's style and used a wider point and a more lyrical palette.

Neo-Impressionist painters have offered a less naturalistic view of nature than the Impressionists. They have shown greater capacity for abstraction, partly inspired by Japanism. Neo-Impressionism is considered an essential step towards abstraction that bears great artists in the XXth century, such as Robert Delaunay, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky.



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