Museum exhibitions about the great artist Georges Seurat and his band of Neoimpressionists usually delve into the new scientific theories of light and color that made many painters in the late 19th century experiment with novel ways of applying paint to a canvas.
Seurat and his friends used a technique known as pointillism — painting little dots of different color that were supposed to mix when they reached the retina of a viewer’s eye. The best-known work is probably his monumental “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” from 1884 now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. All this emphasis on technique is turned upside down by an exhibition that just opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
The curator of “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music,” Cornelia Homburg, is far more concerned with the influence of symbolist poets and avant-garde composers on the group than with the influence of scientific theories. Homburg, the former chief curator of the St. Louis Art Museum and now an independent art historian resident in France, has little patience for the idea that colors mix on the retina of the eye.
It “is not true. It is just made up. The artists knew this very quickly,” she said at a recent preview of the show. They continued their interest in the theories, she went on, because “the artists were trying to get a handle on colors and light.” But, she concluded, “they realized it was not the technique that was going to make the picture. Content was the crucial element, and that is what I wanted to show in this exhibition.”
The show offers more than 70 canvases from nine French artists, four Belgian artists and one Dutch artist. The best known are the French artists Seurat with 10 paintings, Paul Signac — the guru of the movement — with 12, and Camille Pissarro with six. Among the lesser-known artists are the French painter Henri-Edmond Cross, the Belgian Theo van Rysselberghe and the French Maximilien Luce. The show runs through Jan. 11 and goes nowhere else.
The name “Neoimpressionism” was conjured up by the ubiquitous Félix Fénéon, a French journalist, critic and anarchist who seemed to know everyone in Paris’ avant-garde cultural and left wing political circles. Neoimpressionism may have been a misnomer because the work was hardly a new kind of Impressionism. The Impressionists were trying to catch all the natural colors and light of a scene at a split-second in time. The Neoimpressionists, on the other hand, were not interested in capturing a realistic moment at all.
Many of the painters attended the Tuesday night salons of the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in Paris, and almost all were loyal readers of his work as well as that of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine and the Belgian symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature early in the 20th century). Fénéon publicized the symbolist writers as much as the Neoimpressionist painters and even helped write the principles of their movement.
Reacting against the naturalist novels of Émile Zola, the symbolists preached that it was more important to reveal the essence and true meaning of a scene than to set it down in realistic detail. The symbolists emphasized suggestion, feeling and a search for the ideal in their work, and, according to Homburg, most Neoimpressionists did the same.
Paintings such as Seurat’s “Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy” and Alfred William Finch’s “Country Road Near the North Sea” are austere and idealistic visions of scenery. They do not capture any action at any specific moment. They are idealistic in the sense that they show the scene at its best, undisturbed by weather or time of day or angle of the sun. Many landscapes depict magnificent scenery that probably attracted many leisurely onlookers in real life but are empty of people
Sometimes a decorative effect alters the natural scenery. In Signac’s “Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242,” an old man sits on a bench surrounded by trees whose branches shape into the form of arabesques. Van Rysselberghe’s “Canal in Flanders (Gloomy Weather)” displays a striking row of trees bending away from the canal as if swept back by powerful winds. Like most of the landscapes in the show, there is no one at the scene.
Seurat’s greatest works are so familiar that they could easily overwhelm the effect of the paintings of his colleagues. But none of his best-known large works are in the exhibition. There is an 1889 study for a larger oil painting known as “Le Chahut” (the name of a popular, sexually charged dance in the nightclubs of Paris). The legs of the dancers move exactly in the direction of the neck of the bass fiddle and the baton of the conductor.
This work by Seurat underscores how his colleagues believed that music had the power to capture the heights of emotion and suggestion more easily than painting; they often tried to match the level of music.
The Neoimpressionists and the symbolist poets were close to the composer Gabriel Fabre, who put the words of Mallarmé, Verlaine and Maeterlinck to music. Signac and Fabre became close friends; Signac painted a portrait of Fabre and large decorations for a concert by the composer.
Signac was so imbued with the closeness of music to art that he began listing his works with opus numbers and painted a series of four seascapes naming each as if it were a movement in a symphony. In one of those movements, “Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221,” Signac can make you sense the soft lapping of the water in the twilight.
Neoimpressionism had two centers — Paris and Brussels. In 1884 young French artists in Paris organized the Societé des Artistes Indépendants, which sponsored shows that included the work of any member without submitting it first to a jury. The Neoimpressionists exhibited their paintings at these annual salons. A group of 20 avant-garde artists in Brussels organized Les XX a year earlier. This association, which sponsored a show every year, championed the work of Belgian and French Neoimpressionists.
The Neoimpressionist painters, symbolist writers and avant-garde composers met one another in both cities. Les XX offered concerts by Fabre, Gabriel Fauré and other contemporary composers during their exhibitions. There was a bonus for the French admirers of the German composer Richard Wagner. As a result of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the staging of Wagnerian operas was discouraged in Paris, but you could see them at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels.
The paintings in the Phillips exhibition date from 1883 to 1896, the heyday of Neoimpressionism. Seurat died in 1891 at age 31, and most of the other painters soon grew bored with the painstaking pointillist method founded on a questionable theory.
But Signac continued to theorize and write about color and light for many years. He developed a more plausible theory called divisionism. Dispensing with dots of color, Signac (and a few followers) turned to strokes and slabs of color, studying how colors placed next to other colors on a canvas changed the perception of both. Signac painted until his death in 1935 at age 72, renowned as a master of the theories of color and light.