A Pointillism Primer

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I realize as I’ve been writing this the past few days, that perhaps I should have started with some earlier painting styles such as Impressionism. Instead I’m jumping right into Pointillism, which I probably should have been progressed into the subject by way of an Art Movement Timeline. That said, while I was at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston recently I just couldn’t wait to share with you some amazing paintings. Throughout college, I took every art history/appreciation course I could, and loved every class. For several reasons, I love Pointillism. The term “Pointillism” was first used by art critics in the late 1880s to mock the works of these artists; it’s now used without its earlier, ridiculing connotation.

A Little Background on Pointillism

First, Neo-Impressionism was a term used to describe an art movement founded by Georges Seurat. Divisionism and ensuing Pointillism techniques were the dominant techniques in the beginning of the Neo-Impressionist movement.

The Neo-Impressionists’ use of small segments of color to compose a whole picture was considered more controversial than its preceding movement…Impressionism. Impressionism had been notorious for its spontaneous representation of fleeting moments (like a candid photograph) and textured brushwork. Neo-Impressionism evoked similar responses for opposite reasons. The brush strokes were meticulous and calculated, thought to be too mechanical…too antithetical to the traditionally accepted notions of the creative process set during the early 19th century. The practice of Pointillism was in sharp contrast to the traditional methods of blending pigments on a palette and the main subject commanding the viewer’s attention.

You see…earlier Impressionists began to relax the boundary between the subject and their background, so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often seems like a snapshot, a part of a larger reality, as if captured by chance. Keep in mind, photography was just gaining popularity. As cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to represent a moment in time, not only in the fleeting sunlight of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people. Pointillism continued this evolution; but, refined it…using more discipline.

Georges Seurat Young Woman Powdering Herself Closeup FaceDuring the emergence of Neo-Impressionism, Georges Seurat and his followers refined the impulsive and intuitive artistic mannerisms of Impressionism, still focusing on light and movement. Pointillists used disciplined networks of dots in their desire to instill a sense of organization and permanence. Mixing of colors was not necessary. Pointillism elicited a distinct luminous effect, and from a distance, the dots came together as a whole displaying the scene with maximum brilliance and conforming to actual light conditions.

As stated, at the start of the movement Neo-Impressionism was not welcomed by the art world and the general public. In 1886, Seurat first exhibited his (now) most famous work. One of my favorites, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (at the Art Institute of Chicago), incited tons of negative criticism. The commotion evoked by this artwork could only be described with words like “bedlam” and “scandal”. The great thing about art is that it everyone approaches each piece differently; what once was scandalous is now appreciated by many as the first true avant-garde movement in painting. Art history is fascinating; I happen to love European art during the mid 1800s onward because this was a dramatic period of change.

As usual, new technology had something to do with it…it wasn’t just cameras and photography; but, something to the core of creativity…. Impressionists and the ensuing Pointillists took advantage of the mid-century introduction of premixed paints in tin tubes (resembling toothpaste tubes), which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors. Previously, painters had to make their own paints individually, by grinding, mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, and then storing them in animal bladders. Also, many vivid synthetic pigments also became commercially available to artists for the first time during the 19th century. Progress toward a brighter, more spontaneous, candid style of painting was gradually occurring.

Artists Who Embraced Pointillism

Georges Seurat, was heavily influenced by contemporary (at the time) books on color including the works of Michel Eugène Chevrel, Charles Blanc, and Ogden Rood. Chevrel discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when seen from a distance. The discovery of this phenomenon became the basis for the Pointillist technique of the Neo-Impressionist painters. Chevreul also realized that the ‘halo’ that one sees after looking at a color is the opposing color, also known as complementary color. Seurat, interested in the interplay of colors, made extensive use of complementary colors in his paintings. Here you see Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself, painted in 1889. It’s small…notice my hand held up beside it (no, I did not touch the painting or the frame). This portrait of Seurat’s mistress (Madeleine Knobloch) was a study for a larger painting with a hidden self portrait which is located at Courtauld Institute of Art in London. As mentioned earlier, Georges Seurat initiated Neo-Impressionism.

Charles Angrand was a French artist who was known for his Neo-Impressionist paintings and drawings. He was an important member of the Parisian avant-garde art scene in the late 1880s and early 1890s. As typical of many artists, Angrand’s style evolved and changed a bit over time. His paintings during the early 1880s, generally depicted rural subjects and contained broken brushstrokes and light-filled colouration, reflecting the influences of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Through his interactions with Georges Seurat and others in the mid-1880s, his style evolved towards Neo-Impressionism, specifically…Pointillism. Angrand’s implementation of Pointillist techniques differed from that of some of its leading proponents. He painted with a more muted palette than Seurat, who used bright contrasting colors. Angrand’s painting, The Harvesters, from 1892, is just exquisite.

Théophile van Rysselberghe was a Belgian Neo-Impressionist painter who focused on Pointillist portraits from roughly 1888-1900. That was somewhat unusual as most Pointillist paintings were landscapes and scenes. So much could be written about this artist; I’ll have to save it for another time. During his long career as an artist, his style morphed over time, taking inspiration from a variety of sources. Most of his works are rarely be seen as they are still privately owned. This lovely portrait of Jeanne Pissarro was painted at the height of his Pointillist years. Jeanne was Camille Pissarro’s fourteen year old daughter at the time of the setting in 1895.

Why Pointillism Appeals to Me

There’s something about the technical aspects of Pointillism that appeals to my brain…the patterns…seen up close and at a distance are strikingly different, the disciplined use of dots or dashes…. And, as I look at the paintings at arm’s length, I’m fascinated that the artist likely had to continually back up to see the color pattern he was creating or was just amazingly talented to blend the colors in his mind’s eye. Whenever I see these paintings, I spend a lot of time getting close to examine how the artist captured the colors precisely, yet, usually with large strokes of color. Then I back up and look at a distance and I’m amazed at the details within the painting…so I get drawn in close to look again. I tend to do this over and over in front of paintings at museums, in general…much more so with Pointillist paintings. I’m enthralled at the technical ability and creativity of the artists. In addition, knowing the history…this was a period with an amazing amount of avant-garde change, unwillingly embraced at the time. These artists were renegades at the time, yet are celebrated now.

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