Artists Who Died Before 40: Georges Seurat
Artists are historians
Artists keep our memories and moments in history before we had cameras. Even more than that, they kept emotions and feeling of how people felt at that time, how they reacted to and behaved in moments that cameras could never capture. Artists have been important to our universal history since the first cave paintings were developed on the walls by budding historians. So it is sad when an artist dies at a young age. History, art and moments that could have made the world a better, more beautiful place are lost. Whether it is because of illness, depression, accident or self-destruction, many artists have left us before it was time. This artist died at the age of 31 of complications from diseases that could be easily cured today. This is the story of Georges Seurat.
Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Georges Seurat is one of the most important post-impressionist painters or Neo-Impressionists, and he is considered the creator of the “pointillism”, a style of painting in which small distinct points of primary colors create the impression of a wide selection of secondary and intermediate colors.
Have you ever seen a Georges Seurat painting?
Georges-Pierre Seurat was born in December 1859 in Paris to a middle class family, and is noted for his innovative use of a painting technique known as chromoluminarism but more commonly known as pointillism. The most famous of his paintings is the very large A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete. It quite literally changed the direction of modern art through the placing of pure dots of color to allow the eye to do the blending optically instead of the artist’s brush or pallet.
Originality depends only on the character of the drawing and the vision peculiar to each artist.— Georges Seurat
Mixing colors optically
Charles Blanc wrote on the theory that introduced Seurat to color and vision, stating that optical mixing of colors would produce more vibrant and pure colors than the traditional process of mixing pigments on a canvas. Mixing pigments physically is a subtractive process with red, yellow and blue being the primary colors, which mixed make the secondary colors but all together make mud or greyish brown. On the other hand, if colored light is mixed together, it is an additive mixture where primary colors added together makes white light. Seurat’s method is called divisionism, different from additive or subtractive because they are not mixed only placed near each other to intensify the relationship between the colors. This divisionism was so controversial at the time that it was either embraced or rejected with scorn. Critics and artists both either loved it or hated it. Other impressionists such as Monet and Renoir refused to exhibit with Seurat and spoke negatively of the technique.
Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.— Georges Seurat
The Science of Art
Seurat loved the science of art and his studies resulted in the theory of contrasts, which he used in all his work. Nothing in his upbringing pointed to the revolutionary role he would play in the history of modern art. His art study came to an end when he enlisted for a year of military service. Back in Paris he spent the next two years mastering the art of monochrome drawing, mostly black and white. In much of his work you can see the influence of his study of sculpture. Some works have a more cartoon feel, as many subjects are outlined and chiseled rather than soft and blurred.
The artist concealed his relationship with his model, Madeleine, until she became pregnant and gave birth to his son, Pierre-Georges. The cause of Seurat’s death is uncertain due to the times and lack of records. It could have been meningitis, pneumonia or even diphtheria. His son died two weeks later from the same disease. At the time of his death, Madeleine was pregnant with a second child who died shortly after birth.
Circus was unfinished.
When he died he left Circus unfinished. But his influence on later artists was fully formed. The idea of placing one color next to another for the viewer to see a third color was revolutionary and intriguing to the Cubists and other Modern Art artists.
Seurat was only 26 years old when he first showed A Sunday Afternoon on La Grade Jatte in 1884, and remains his greatest achievement. It is still one of the art world’s most recognizable images. It incorporates 3 dogs, 8 boats, and 48 people on the elongated island in the Seine just beyond Paris’s city limits. Not to be outdone by other spoofs and parodies, it has been made into everything from a children’s book icon to a superheroes and Star Wars icon. No famous paintings are immune.
Sold at auction for $35.2 million
In May of 1999, Island of the Grade Jatte, one of the preparatory studies for Seurat’s famous large-scale painting, sold at auction for $35.2 million dollars, including commissions. Previous to that, the largest sum paid for a Seurat painting was $2.7 million in 1996, for a landscape titled “Le Chenal”. I believe it was take some serious change to buy one today. However, there are many places you could buy a print of a Seurat for under $30.
Artist's stories are fascinating.
I love reading about and telling the stories of artists. In my many teaching venues, I used to tell stories about an artist without giving the name away until the very end. Putting in details about their life and struggles, their torture and ecstasy that most people don’t know about. Sometimes my students would guess but often they had no idea who I was speaking of until the very end, and that always gave me great joy. I had stumped the crowd, but more than that, I had educated them.
Sometimes artist only became famous because of an accident or being in the right place at the right time. I know I have looked at some “famous” art before and wondered how that piece actually was better or more skillfully done than a peer who did not become famous. Like many things, success in art is often a matter of who you know and when.