NEW YORK.- Georges Seurat (French, 185991), one of the most influential painters of the nineteenth century, was a prolific draftsman who, despite a brief career, created an extraordinary body of work on paper. Georges Seurat: The Drawings is the first exhibition in almost 25 years to focus exclusively on the artists luminous drawings. These drawings played a crucial role in Seurats career and are often seen as touchstones for the art of the twentieth century and forerunners of abstraction. This comprehensive exhibition surveys his entire oeuvre, with over 135 works, primarily the artists conté crayon drawings, along with a small selection of oil sketches and paintings, and explores his materials and methods, his subject matter, and the relationship between his drawings and paintings. The exhibition, organized by Jodi Hauptman, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings, The Museum of Modern Art, is on view through January 7, 2008.
This exhibition showcases one of Seurats greatest achievements: the artists exploration of the dramatic relationship between darkness and light. The placement of dark next to light so that each would amplify the otheran effect Seurat called irradiationgenerated a soft halo or glow around his figures. To achieve such glowing luminosity and velvety blackness, Seurat tailored his application of conté crayon to a French handmade textured paper called Michallet, leaving parts of the paper untouched to indicate illumination while building up his medium to intensify shadows. Ms. Hauptman states, Bathed in light that shimmers around them, nurses, street sweepers, elegant ladies, and a host of others emerge out of a mysterious, unreadable darkness.
Most of Seurats drawings were created as independent works. These drawings will be featured in the exhibition, along with a selection made during his academic training and groups of studies created for his renowned monumental canvases, such as A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (188486) and Bathing Place, Asnières (188384). Also, four of the artists sketchbooks, brought together here for the first time, have been digitized so that viewers may peruse them in their entirety.
Seurat, best known as the leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement and inventor of pointillism, a form of painting in which tiny dots of primary colors are used to generate secondary colors, had a tragically short artistic career that ended with his death at age 31 in 1891. Despite the lack of Seurats letters, diaries, archives, and photographs, it is known that drawing was of great importance for the artist, as seen from his extensive outputan extraordinary 500 works on paper (with about 230 dating from his mature period) have been catalogued.
Georges Seurat was born in 1859 into a Parisian bourgeois family. He began drawing as a boy, starting his formal training in a small neighborhood art school. When he was 18, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and made numerous drawings from antique sculpture and live models, and copied masterworks by such artists as Ingres, Raphael, and Poussin. During his required military service, completed in Brest, a town in northwestern France (18791880), Seurat began to turn away from his Beaux-Arts training. Without models and antique sculptures, Seurat sketched what was available, including his fellow recruits and his own hands. In addition, four sketchbooks (c. 187781) show that Seurat wandered through the city observing people and architectural details. In the unfolding of Seurats career, these sketches function as a hinge between his academic training and his mature style: the attention to the everyday, the use of cross-hatching for rendering light on a surface, and a line that seems to have an agency of its own rather than functioning as descriptive contour.
Seurats first publicly exhibited work was a drawingAman-Jean (c. 188283)at the Salon of 1883. Though traditional in subject, this large-scale portrait of his friend and fellow artist reveals the formal innovations that Seurat had already developed and would continue to refine throughout his brief career: the massing of tones to shape and form, the use of the conté crayon to create velvety blackness and glowing luminosity, and an evocative softness and mood.
Seurat's choice of materials was critical to the look of his mature drawings. In preparation for this exhibition, drawings in the Museums collection have been examined closely by MoMA conservator Karl Buchberg with the goal of understanding Seurats materials and working techniques. The drawings were examined using low power magnification and other forms of analysis. A French handmade paper called Michallet, a set of black stick media known collectively as conté crayon, and fixative have been identified as Seurats most important materials. Mr. Buchbergs research proves that the layering of conté crayon, the deployment of fixative to protect initial layers, and the judicious use of stumping (in which the medium, once applied, is manipulated with pointed rolls of paper, leather, or cork) are all key artistic techniques. Seurat exploited the texture of the Michallet paper by stroking the conté crayon across the sheets ridges, thus devising his own kind of draftsmanship: he massed dark and light tones, abstracting figures, spaces, and structures; exploited unmarked paper to signify light; incorporated the papers surface pattern into his compositions; layered pigment to create a range of densities, from a translucent scrim to impenetrable darkness; and offered accurate descriptions of subjects using the barest of means. The exhibition also addresses the relationship between Seurats drawings and his paintings and the similar ways he approached these different mediums. Once again, analysis by Mr. Buchberg and other MoMA conservators shows the parallels in Seurats exploitation of his chosen support, whether it was paper, canvas, or wood panel. Moreover, lessons learned from working with conté on paper helped Seurat better understand chromatic relationships; in the exhibition visitors will see the links between the artists tonal rendering and his particular use of color, as well as the way he uses drawing to refine the positions, modeling, and lighting of his figures. Mr. Buchbergs research is explored in depth in his essay in the exhibitions accompanying catalogue and on the exhibitions Web site, moma.org/seuratdrawings.