Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat

French Draftsman and Painter

Born: December 2, 1859 - Paris, France
Died: March 29, 1891 - Paris, France
"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together."
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Georges Seurat Signature
"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science."
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"Originality depends only on the character of the drawing and the vision peculiar to each artist."
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"Painting is the art of hollowing a surface."
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"Harmony is the analogy of contrary and similar elements of tone, of color, and of line, conditioned by the dominant key, and under the influence of a particular light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations."
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Summary of Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat is chiefly remembered as the pioneer of the Neo-Impressionist technique commonly known as Pointillism, or Divisionism, an approach associated with a softly flickering surface of small dots or strokes of color. His innovations derived from new quasi-scientific theories about color and expression, yet the graceful beauty of his work is explained by the influence of very different sources. Initially, he believed that great modern art would show contemporary life in ways similar to classical art, except that it would use technologically informed techniques. Later he grew more interested in Gothic art and popular posters, and the influence of these on his work make it some of the first modern art to make use of such unconventional sources for expression. His success quickly propelled him to the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde. His triumph was short-lived, as after barely a decade of mature work he died at the age of only 31. But his innovations would be highly influential, shaping the work of artists as diverse as Vincent Van Gogh and the Italian Futurists, while pictures like Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884) have since become widely popular icons.


  • Seurat was inspired by a desire to abandon Impressionism's preoccupation with the fleeting moment, and instead to render what he regarded as the essential and unchanging in life. Nevertheless, he borrowed many of his approaches from Impressionism, from his love of modern subject matter and scenes of urban leisure, to his desire to avoid depicting only the 'local', or apparent, color of depicted objects, and instead to try to capture all the colors that interacted to produce their appearance.
  • Seurat was fascinated by a range of scientific ideas about color, form and expression. He believed that lines tending in certain directions, and colors of a particular warmth or coolness, could have particular expressive effects. He also pursued the discovery that contrasting or complementary colors can optically mix to yield far more vivid tones that can be achieved by mixing paint alone. He called the technique he developed 'chromo-luminism', though it is better known as Divisionism (after the method of separating local color into separate dots), or Pointillism (after the tiny strokes of paint that were crucial to achieve the flickering effects of his surfaces).
  • Although radical in his techniques, Seurat's initial instincts were conservative and classical when it came to style. He saw himself in the tradition of great Salon painters, and thought of the figures in his major pictures almost as if they were figures in monumental classical reliefs, though the subject matter - the different urban leisure pursuits of the bourgeois and the working class - was fully modern, and typically Impressionist.
  • In Seurat's later work he left behind the calm, stately classicism of early pictures like Bathers at Asnières, and pioneered a more dynamic and stylized approach that was influenced by sources such as caricatures and popular posters. These brought a powerful new expressiveness to his work, and, much later, led him to be acclaimed by the Surrealists as an eccentric and a maverick.

Biography of Georges Seurat

Detail of <i>Le Chahut</i> (1889-90) by Georges Seurat

“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science” was what Seurat said and his development as an artist was a similar progression away from the scenic and emotional, and into the calculated and analyzed.

Important Art by Georges Seurat

Progression of Art
Bathers at Asnières (1884)

Bathers at Asnières

Seurat's first important canvas, the Bathers is his initial attempt at reconciling classicism with modern, quasi-scientific approaches to color and form. It depicts an area on the Seine near Paris, close to the factories of Clichy that one can see in the distance. Seurat's palette is somewhat Impressionist in its brightness, yet his meticulous approach is far removed from that style's love of expressing the momentary. The scene's intermingling of shades also demonstrates Seurat's interest in Eugene Delacroix's handling of shades of a single hue. And the working-class figures that populate this scene mark a sharp contrast with the leisured bourgeois types depicted by artists such as Monet and Renoir in the 1870s.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884-86)

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte

Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte was one of the stand-out works in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, in 1884, and after it was shown later that year, at the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendents, it encouraged critic Félix Fénéon to invent the name 'Neo-Impressionism.' The picture took Seurat two years to complete and he spent much of this time sketching in the park in preparation. It was to become the most famous picture of the 1880s. Once again, as in Bathers, the scale of the picture is equal to the dimensions and ambition of major Salon pictures. The site - again situated on the Seine in northwest Paris - is also close by. And Seurat's technique was similar, employing tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint that allow the viewer's eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors blended on the canvas or pre-blended as a material pigment. The artist said that his ambition was to "make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies." But the classicism of the Bathers is gone from La Grand Jatte; instead the scene has a busy energy, and, as critics have often noted, some of the figures are depicted at discordant scales. It marked the beginning of a new primitivism in Seurat's work that was inspired in part by popular art.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

La Seine à la Grande-Jatte (1888)

La Seine à la Grande-Jatte

La Seine à la Grande-Jatte of 1888 shows the artist returning to the site of his most famous painting - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte painted two years prior. This later composition demonstrates Seurat's continued interest in form and perspective, but reveals a much softer and more relaxed technique than La Grande Jatte. The soft atmosphere is made up of a myriad of colored dots that mix optically to mimic the effects of a luminous summer day.

Oil on canvas - Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

Young Woman Powdering Herself (1888-90)

Young Woman Powdering Herself

Young Woman Powdering Herself is a portrait of Seurat's mistress Madeleine Knobloch. It is an adoring likeness that jokingly contrasts the classical monumentality of the figure against the flimsy Rococo frivolity of the setting. It is also strongly marked by Seurat's increasing interest in caricature and popular art, sources which lent a new expressiveness to his work which accorded with the growing contemporary interest in Symbolism. Knobloch was a working-class woman with whom Seurat maintained a long-term secret relationship, keeping her separate not only from his bourgeois family but also from his bohemian friends. When the painting was shown in 1890, her identity remained concealed. Knobloch was given some of Seurat's paintings as an inheritance but she cut off all communication with his family after his death.

Oil on canvas - The Courtauld Gallery, London

Circus Sideshow (1887-88)

Circus Sideshow

Circus Sideshow is considered one of Seurat's major figure paintings. Yet it is much more condensed than his other mural-size paintings. This was Seurat's first nocturnal painting and it debuted at the 1888 Salon des Indépendants in Paris. It depicts a ringmaster and musicians under twinkling gaslight who are attracting a crowd of potential ticket buyers. The composition was drawn from on-site sketches he made in the spring of 1887, when Frenand Corvi's traveling circus performed in Paris (it appeared regularly in Paris between the 1870s and the First World War). Though Seurat frequently attended circus-like events in his leisure time, this painting was the first important picture Seurat dedicated to a scene of popular entertainment. The pattern of circles, ovals, and rectangles in the background has attracted much notice from critics, as many of the forms are hard to explain in terms of the structure of the setting. It has been argued that they derive from Seurat's understanding of various contemporary theories of expression, which advocated the use of particular forms and colors to convey particular types of emotion.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Circus (1890-91)

The Circus

Seurat's early paintings often feature a remarkable stillness, even with complex figure compositions, but The Circus features a scene of dynamic movement, and is typical of his late style. The scene is borrowed from an anonymous poster for the Nouveau Cirque, printed in 1888, although the horse and bareback rider have been reversed. The figure in the first row of seats, with a silk hat and a lock of hair visible under it, is the painter Charles Angrand, a friend of Seurat's. This painting was Seurat's last, and was left unfinished when he died suddenly in March of 1891. It was sold shortly thereafter to his friend Paul Signac.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan

"Georges Seurat Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan
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First published on 22 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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