Progression of Art
A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte
This most famous and influential Neo-Impressionist work depicts a cross section of Paris society enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the park on an island in the Seine River just at the gates of Paris. Sunday was the time that middle-class Parisians escaped the city to enjoy the outdoors. The people primarily gather in small groups of two or three or sit alone in proximity to others. It is the relationship between these people that creates a sense of modernity, with its distance and disconnection, and nervous tension that lends the work an air of mystery.
Using a grid system and applying small dots of paint, Seurat took two years to complete this large-scale painting. He went to the park often, observing and making over 60 preliminary studies, including 15 in oil. Invoking Greek classical art, Seurat explained, "The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color." Seurat hoped to capture the permanence, or essential forms, behind the fleeting moments. Everyone here is caught in a still pose, except for the child in the orange dress skipping off into the trees, the man on the far left playing a trombone, and the furious little dog at the lower right. However, it seems a stillness that might burst into movement at any moment, just as the upper half of the painting moves into sunlight and the boats in the distance cut across the river. While Seurat invoked classical and Egyptian figures, some have interpreted the overall static effect of the composition and the stiffness of the poses as a critique of the artificiality of modern society and the boredom of middle-class life.
Oil on canvas - Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL
La Dame à la Robe Blanche (Woman in White)
This portrait of an unidentified woman was the first Neo-Impressionist portrait. As many of the group concentrated on depicting color in its greatest luminosity, their subject matter tended toward landscapes and cityscapes, but a few artists went beyond such subjects. The MAMC in Saint-Étienne, France has dubbed her "Madame P," but, at the time of the work's inception, Félix Fénéon called her Mademoiselle B. Seated in an upholstered chair, placed before a background wallpapered with floral arabesques, the woman dressed in white, a blue flower on her breast, looks with an indifferent gaze past the viewer.
Albert Dubois-Pillet was a career military officer and self-trained artist whose artistic endeavors were often discouraged by the military establishment. He met Signac and Seurat in 1884 and joined them in founding the Société des Artistes Indépendants. He began experimenting with Neo-Impressionism and by 1885 had adopted the Pointillist technique, becoming one of the first artists to do so. The shimmering effect of the subtle gold arabesques in the wall paper, the blue flower, and the touches of color in her white dress convey a sense of wealth and elegance, yet she seems static, as if her presence were meant to be the decorative element of the room.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Saint-Étienne, France
La Récolte des Foins, Éragny
This painting depicts a hay harvesting scene in the countryside near Éragny, where the artist lived with his family from 1884 until his death in 1903. In the center of the canvas, a woman uses a hayfork while behind her others do similar work in a brightly lit field punctuated by hay stacks.
Pissarro adopted the Pointillist technique in 1886, saying that "Neo-Impressionism was the next phase in the logical march of Impressionism." What set his work apart from the other Neo-Impressionists was his emphasis upon rural life and labor. Pissarro's depiction of peasant life along with his own scientific explorations of color speak to the anarchist theories he adopted in the latter half of the 1870s.
Pissarro felt that his scientific studies freed him from the Academy's strictures of how to see and depict reality. He also evoked the utopian visions of peasant societies he read about in the writings of anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin. Pissarro wanted "to educate the public," by portraying the common man, but he also wanted to avoid idealizing and sentimentalizing his subjects. In this work, he depicts the effort of hay harvesting, both in the man at the left arching his back to toss the hay up, and in the woman at the center, the strength palpable in her back and shoulders.
Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Self-Portrait with Felt Hat
While more famously known for his profound influence on the future Expressionist movement, Vincent van Gogh was greatly influenced by the Neo-Impressionist works he encountered in Paris in 1886. In the same year he painted this work and just before leaving for Arles, he was encouraged in his own explorations of color by a last minute visit to Seurat's studio, which he called a "fresh revelation of color."
In early 1887 van Gogh moved to Asnières, a Paris suburb, and met Signac, and he adopted the Divisionist style. Using short strokes of green and red in the methodical manner of Signac and Seurat, his Self-Portrait of 1888 is one of his first Neo-Impressionist works. He uses complementary colors - orange and blue for the background, green and red in his eyes and beard - to intensify one another.
Van Gogh varied the Neo-Impressionist technique in a highly individualized manner. His short brushstrokes are slightly longer and move in varying directions, creating a rhythmic swirl of paint across the canvas. Rather than a mosaic-like effect, the brushstrokes create an emotional intensity and scathingly honest self-observation that presages Expressionism.
Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of Félix Fénéon
Signac depicts the art critic Félix Fénéon in profile in front of a swirling, mesmerizing backdrop. With his distinctive goatee, top hat, and cane, and holding a flower in one hand, Fénéon is the very image of a flâneur, an erudite wanderer of city streets who both observed and critically participated in urban life. The background is remarkably innovative with its abstract swirls of complementary colors that resemble a color wheel, and its stars and planet-like circles suggest a kind of rainbow view of the cosmos, arranged harmoniously around its central human figure. Signac depicts the critic as a kind of trail blazer initiating a new world of art.
Signac's use of the word "enamel" in the title suggests the influence of decorative arts and of Cloisonnism, a style used by the artists Paul Gauguin, Louis Arquetin, and Emile Bernard, among others, based upon stained glass and medieval cloisonné work that used intense color planes with defined outlines. Signac did a number of preparatory studies for the background to come up with the right pattern, which was finally based upon the material of a kimono in a Japanese Ukiyo-e print that he owned.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Evening Air
Living in the South of France in 1893, Henri-Edmond Cross painted this work in response to a friendly challenge from Signac: "Since we both know and love this sunny land, why don't we both raise a decorative monument to it?" Signac painted In a Time of Harmony, and Cross created this painting, depicting a number of women in a wooded area along the seashore where several sailboats glide past. The setting sun bathes the Arcadian landscape of southern France in soft but vibrant colors and the women in classical attire seem timeless.
Cross, like Seurat and other colleagues, was influenced by the classical composition and ideal landscapes of Puvis de Chavannes. Here Cross looks specifically to Sweet Land (1882) for his composition. Cross adapted the Pointillist technique to the large scale of his canvas. Rather than tiny dots, he used larger rectangular brushstrokes to create a mosaic-like effect. In its decorative and monumental intent, the work was a new direction for him. In 1894 after exhibiting it at the Salon des Indépendants, he gave the work to Signac who displayed it in his dining room. There, the artist Henri Matisse first encountered the painting, which inspired his Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904).
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure)
This painting depicts a sunny shore on the French Rivera, where six nude women in classical poses gather around a picnic blanket before which a clothed and bearded older man is sitting. The sea reaches to the horizon, its expanse broken by the diagonals of a thin yellow cloud and the folded sail of a boat.
The title of the work is taken from Charles Baudelaire's poem "L'invitation au voyage," "There, all is order and beauty, / Luxury, peace, and pleasure." Matisse depicts his interpretation of this idyllic landscape of aesthetic pleasures.
While spending the summer in St. Tropez in 1904, Matisse worked closely with Signac and Cross, depicting the view of the shore from Signac's house. The classical forms and the short brushstrokes signal Matisse's interest in the subjects and techniques of Neo-Impressionism, yet Matisse seems less interested here in the optical mixing of the colors that was so important to the movement. Instead, the strokes, a little too far apart, signal the flatness of the picture plane. Its dynamic and brightly clashing color palette and its almost cut-out figures made it the first work of the new Fauvist movement.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Coucher de soleil no. 1
Metzinger presents a lush Mediterranean landscape with trees, a body of water in the background, and bright vegetation, all lit by the radiance of the setting sun. It is only on close inspection that the viewer notices two small, nude female figures who practically meld with the landscape.
Active in the Neo-Impressionist revival, Metzinger began to move away from naturalism in the early 1900s by incorporating Cross's brushstrokes that created a mosaic effect and Seurat's geometry. The landscape is very much a paradise, and the nudity of the two women, by not being featured prominently, is just an aspect of a freer and more natural state of being.
The sun here is a solar disk, as the art historian Robert Herbert wrote, paying "homage to the decomposition of spectral light that lay at the heart of Neo-Impressionist color theory..." An image of the sun vibrating in concentric circles was also used in Robert Delaunay's Paysage au Disque (1906-1907), who adopted the image as a personal symbol. Close friends and colleagues at the time, the two artists painted portraits of each other that used small blocks of contrasting pigments, which were called "cubes," and developed into a proto-Cubist style.
Oil on canvas - Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo