The painting technique in which dots of colour are applied to create optical effects. This technique was developed by Neo-impressionist painters such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac who used the term 'Divisionism' to describe their theories of colour separation on which the technique is based. The two terms are frequently used interchangeably.
A New Impressionism
While Impressionist painting captured the spontaneity of fleeting moments, the carefully planned, solid world of Pointillism that rose in its wake was a stark contrast. But despite first appearances, there were many overlaps between the two. The tiny dots of carefully applied colour in Pointillist paintings echoed the repetitive brush marks of the Impressionists, while both schools were drawn to two key themes - the new urban lifestyle and the optical effects of colour and light.
In the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886 it was clear that times were changing; Impressionist painters had all branched out in individual directions. Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro encouraged the inclusion of work by several young artists exploring a new approach to painting into the exhibition, including work by his son Lucien Pissarro, as well as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. These were hung in a separate room to emphasise a contrast between old and new. The new painters revealed a style that was methodical and scientific, portraying shimmering surfaces of tiny dots awash with light and colour.
Chevreul’s Colour Theories
Late nineteenth century advancements in colour theories had a profound influence on the young Seurat, particularly the discoveries made by French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul. As an employee at a tapestry works, Chevreul was asked to improve the vibrancy of colours being produced in their weavings. He discovered the key to making colours appear brighter was to place complimentary colours alongside one another, such as blue and orange, which enhance each other’s intensity when seen from a distance. Chevreul went on to develop his 'principles of simultaneous contrasts', discovering when the eye sees a colour, it automatically produces an after-image of its complimentary hue, and that complimentary colours placed next to each other will ‘blend’ in the eye, theories which were expanded in his famous publication Principle of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and Their Application to the Arts, 1839.
Chevreul’s manual was a source of great fascination for Seurat, providing the bedrock for much of his Pointillist practice. In 1884 Seurat met the painter Paul Signac and the two began working together to produce strikingly similar paintings as influenced by Chevreul’s ideas. Together they also studied the latest scientific texts on colour including Students’ Text-book of Colour: or, Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry 1881, by American physicist Ogden Rood.
Painting by Dots
Scientific colour theories were brought to life in Seurat and Signac’s paintings through the application of tiny dots in pure complimentary colours that seem to ripple across the surface of the canvas. Although Seurat and Signac preferred the term Divisionism, or Chromoluminarism, with Signac even stating, 'The Neo Impressionist does not paint with dots, he divides,' French art critic Felix Feneon championed the style, describing it as 'peinture au point' (painting by dots) and the name stuck. Signac famously painted Feneon in the Pointillist style in Portrait of Felix Feneon, 1890, thus cementing his role as their greatest patron.
In the 1880s Seurat produced several masterpieces. Une Baignade, Asnieres, (The Bathers at Asnieres), 1884, depicted bathing figures escaping from the summer heat in the countryside on the outskirts of Paris. Seurat made over 14 sketches in oil as studies for the painting, along with a series of charcoal drawings that explored form and light, including Seated Nude, Study for Une Baignade, 1883 and A Study for Une Baignade, 1883, while the final painting was produced in his in his studio over several weeks. He also lent his figures a sense of weight and solidity through the effect of cast light and shadow. Seurat’s La Luzerne Saint-Denis, 1884-5 and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1886 continued in the same style and subject matter, relating to the world of leisure just beyond the city’s walls. The latter was the most ambitious painting he would ever make in terms of scale and complexity, with dots of colour even extending onto the picture frame.
Seurat died young at the age of 31, but both he and Signac left a significant legacy. Divisionist theories spread throughout Europe, most notably in Brussels and in Italy, where they became the basis of Italian Futurism. The radical ideas also attracted younger artists in France who briefly flirted with the style before moving in their own avant-garde directions, including Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, while Fauvist painters including Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy took their celebrations of colour and light ever closer to abstraction. In the later nineteenth century, their influence continued to be felt in the ‘heat haze’ and afterimage effects of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely’s Op Art, and in Roy Lichtenstein’s Benday dots. Minimalist sculptor Dan Graham even cites Seurat’s socialist paintings, depicting people at leisure, as a powerful influence on his practice.