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: Seurat’s Port-en-Bessin


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In view of the rapidly diminishing supply of fine paintings of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition by the Institute of Seurat's Port-en-Bessin1 is a particularly noteworthy event. Housed for years in an English private collection, this landscape was little known in Seurat's oeuvre of some sixty canvases. Its subject matter, however, identifies it immediately as one of a series of oils, that he executed in the summer of 1888 at Port-en-Bessin, a small French fishing town on the Normandy coast.2This unimposing community was one of five towns along the Channel to which Seurat migrated during consecutive summers "to wash the studio light from [his] eyes." Discovered by Signac a few years before 1888, it was typical of Seurat's taste for the quiet, isolated villages by the ocean where he could pursue his research in color and light without disturbance. The major industry of Port-en-Bessin today is fishing-as it was during Seurat's time-but because of the favorable tides the Romans selected it as the port for Bayeux, which was later capital of Bessin, a district of Lower Normandy. During the tenth century, Port-en-Bessin was the harbor used by Rollon, chief of the Norman pirates. But because of the fierce north winds that batter the coast each winter, the large modern ships that might give it status as a commercial port avoid it.3 Thus its lonely shores and sparse population were somehow attractive to Seurat, who took refuge here as he did in other years at similar towns-Grandcamp (1885), Honfleur (1886), Le Crotoy (1889), and Gravelines (1890).A cluster of houses set against a hilly background, some sharply chiseled granite quays, and a few scattered figures captured Seurat's attention in this view of the waterfront.4 A man, a woman, and a child, widely spaced, occupy an otherwise unpopulated expanse in the foreground. In the middle distance additional figures are seen moving in front of an open fish market on one of the larger piers. Farther back, moving along the water's edge, one's attention is finally absorbed by the rough, grass-covered hills that rise behind the village. The scene is calm and undisturbed by daily labor—a view that one might find late on a summer afternoon. Indeed, we know that Seurat's interest was focused on such moments of unruffled relaxation in numerous other paintings, including his famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86) and A Sunday at Port-en-Bessin, a picture comparable to the one owned by the Institute.Born in Paris of middle-class parents, Georges Seurat rose to fame in a short career that was cut off by a premature death at the age of thirty-one. His period of major achievement was brief-from about 1883 to 1891-and during this short span he produced the seven large figure compositions that guarantee his reputation as a major artist of our time.5 As an innovator in the post-Impressionist period, his contributions rank with those of Cézanne and Van Gogh, although it is surprising that no exhaustive biography, study of style, or catalog of his work has yet appeared.6 And beyond his personal contribution to modern painting, he influenced a host of followers, some of whom, inspired by his ideas, had a positive effect on such twentieth-century painters as the Fauves and the Cubists.In looking at Port-en-Bessin we should understand that landscape studies fulfilled a double function for this artist. At the beginning, they were thought of a preliminary sketches for the large studio compositions that occupied him during the winter months. Small panels, or croquetons, that represent outdoor studies for Une Baingade (1884) and La Grande Jatte (1884-86) exist in profusion. These works were essentially preparatory studies and not complete in themselves. But by 1885 Seurat had begun to discover a kind of relief from the studio in working out a complete painting from nature, and Port-en-Bessin (1888) belongs to this group. In a sympathetic article, the Belgian poet Verhaeren pointed out that Seurat's existence was divided into two for art's sake, and that while his winter works might be called "canvases with a thesis," the aim of the summer landscapes was to "transcribe exactly [nature's] brightness."7What the Institute's new Port-en-Bessin has in common with Seurat's larger pieces of this period is a technique in which paint is applied in tiny touches. One might wonder why such a laborious method was used, since the point fuse when one moves far enough away from the picture. Léger, who was otherwise a great admirer of Seurat, thought that the latter's work would have been more appealing if he had laid the paint on in broad areas. Seurat's methodical application of small, individual dots of pigment is thought of usually as a scientific refinement of Impressionism, and the name of the movement he founded-Neo-Impressionism-bears out this notion. Although this may be true to a limited extent, the following paragraphs will try to suggest the origins and deeper significance of this style.Seurat's early training, unlike that of his younger colleague, Paul Signac, was along academic lines: he was enrolled at a neighborhood art school and then studied for two years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At first shielded from the "radical" art of the Impressionists, who were considered to be madmen by the academies, Seurat gradually became aware of color through an intensive study of Delacroix. However the infiltration of new ideas even at the Ecole could not be controlled, and one day in 1879 Seurat and two fellow students (Aman-Jean and Ernest Laurent) went to see the Fourth Exhibition of the Impressionists. According to Laurent's report, they received a "profound and unexpected shock"; so, having discovered a new, living art, these three young men decided to secede from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and work instead as a small group from the same models.8 Seurat became acquainted with the work of Renoir, while Laurent proclaimed his own admiration for the latter, along with Degas and Monet.9 Although his two friends-now forgotten-were to have continued success at the official Salon, the jury accepted none of Seurat's paintings (one drawing of his was shown in 1883). That they exhibited at the Salon but at the same time rebelled against the academies might seem incongruous, but in the early eighties the rules of the Salon had been relaxed somewhat, permitting a heterogeneous display of styles; some of the yearly exhibitions even witnessed the inclusion of radicals such as Manet and Renoir. Seurat and his friends never intended to become full-fledged Impressionists, but hoped to utilize the discoveries to this group in "preparing themselves, without restrictions, to create a free art."10 A later article on Laurent cites his aims in a phrase that might apply with equal justice to Seurat (indeed, Seurat may have been instrumental in the formulation of this aesthetic): "In the formation [of Laurent's style] the synthetic spirit of the Renaissance collaborated with the analyses of Impressionism. 11 In this sense, we may see the application of the Impressionist's discoveries about color in Seurat's work as one facet of his total individual style, and not, as Signac would claim, as a reformation of the erroneous, unscientific randomness practiced by the older group. A glance at his large compositions from 1884 to his death in 1891 will confirm their very slight debt-aside from color-to the Impressionists. This relationship was noted by his friend Pissarro, an old-guard Impressionist, who remarked that "Seurat belongs to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts—he is impregnated by it."12If twentieth-century critics wish to condemn an artist to oblivion, the surest method is to call him "academic." The conservatism of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Seurat's day was indeed one of the stumbling blocks in the path of an emerging modern art, but its tenets were not entirely bad. The value of the school lay in its rigorously disciplined course of study and the insistence on the worth of the old masters. The library of the Ecole, which partly determined Seurat's ideas, contained a huge collection of books, prints, and photographs. In his case, academic training was undoubtedly in agreement with his methodical character, and Seurat's early admiration for Ingres and the old masters can be traced to these formative years. Thus, after he came into contact with Impressionism, our artist did not accept in unreservedly, but turned it to his own ends. For a few years (1882-86), however, Seurat's small oil sketches executed from nature coincide remarkably with the mature styles of Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro. But none of his larger pictures was ever carried out with this spontaneous vision and uninhibited brushstroke. The reason for his dissatisfaction with the mere recording of visual sensations may be found in the changing attitudes toward Impressionism evident in the early 1880s. Men who had previously believed in the aims of that group, such as Cézanne and Renoir, began to turn their attention more and more toward pictorial structure. Apparently, they shared the general feeling that Impressionism was too weak in drawing and design. Seurat and his friends of the younger generation matured under this artistic state of affairs and, whether it was done consciously or not, they effected a renewal of traditional values in painting-values that the Impressionists had largely denied in the subordination of their organizing faculties to the integrity of the motif. Seurat's reinstatement of intentional planning in pictorial representation took two forms. The first was his concern for legible tonal relationships between dark and light-illustrated beautifully in his drawings. His second belief was in the logical space-organization of the picture which would leave nothing to chance. Among other artists of this time, Degas and Puvis de Chavannes had shown a similar interest in, and in its own way, Cézanne's search for structure also exemplified this "renaissance of classical feeling" of the 1880s.13 It should be clear, of course, that the "classicism" of the late nineteenth century was quite different from that of ancient Greece, the High Renaissance, or of the Napoleonic era. Rather, it was from the extreme fidelity to appearances, as practiced from Courbet to Monet, to the reliance on man's ability to regulate his sensations. However, these sensations which were valued so highly by the Realists and Impressionists, were not suddenly dismissed, but formed the basis of the art of the new generation. What Seurat desired in his ambivalent position between an intellectual classicism and the sense-data of Impressionism was, above, all to be modern. Without this aspiration he could have become little better than his now-obscure colleagues of Beaux-Arts days.Seurat's modernism was expressed in two ways: by his choice of contemporary subject matter and his adoption of methods used by science. An every-day scene, Port-en-Bessin presents an effect of bright sunlight, airy shadows, and an all-pervading atmosphere. But Seurat felt that these naturalistic values could be communicated only by his special rational method. While the Impressionists recorded what they "saw" in nature, by means of high-key complimentary colors, Seurat sought to understand the "laws" of color that would govern every possible combination of different lights on a particular subject. Through studying such principles, his creative process began to vary widely from Monet's during the same years, until he reached the point where any desired effect of illumination could be predetermined without constant reference to the actual motif supplied by nature. This difference was summed up by the critic Felix Fénéon in the following excerpt:"The phenomenon of the sky, of water, of shrubbery, varies from second to second, according to the original impressionists. To cast one of these fugitive aspects upon the canvas-that was the goal. Hence the necessity to capture a landscape in one sitting and hence an inclination to make nature grimace in order to prove conclusively that the moment is unique and will never occur again. To synthesize landscapes in a definite aspect which will preserve the sensation implicit in them is the Neo-impressionists' endeavor. Moreover, their procedure makes haste impossible and necessitates work in the studio."14Carrying this idea one step further, we might recall the stories of Seurat working late into the night under a distorting blaze of artificial light, reflecting his uncanny ability to compose colors a priori.What was the secret of his technique? The answer will become evident if we examine Seurat's Port-en-Bessin closely. First, let us reconstruct his logic in analyzing the tones presented by the scene. Perhaps he was first struck by the "local color" of the objects, that is to say, their characteristic hue if seen close by-the purple of a dress, the yellow of a stucco wall, the blue of the sky, and so on. Next in importance was probably the "color of the illuminating light." We think abstractly of light as being colorless, but in practice it is not; most photographers are familiar with the varying degrees of warmth, or "color temperature," of light as it changes from early morning to sunset. Also, Seurat would have to consider the diminishing intensity of color as objects gradually receded from the observer. To this we could add his understanding of shadows as areas of reduced color, infiltrated by light-unlike the "brown sauce" of the academies. The question, then, is: how did he transcribe these elements in combination? We know that after a few preliminary drawings Seurat's first step was to lay in the local colors of the picture with broad brush strokes. (At this stage it might have looked somewhat like an early painting by Corot, whom he admired.) Next, these areas would be made to vibrate by the juxtaposition of hues close to each other on his palette, following Delacroix's precept that colors broken in this manner produce a more lively effect. The state of the picture was then changed according to the influence of the sun's light by the application of small flecks of "solar orange" in the illuminated areas and, to a lesser degree, in the shadows. Like the Impressionists, Seurat knew that if the source of light was warm, the shadows would normally be cool and that their bluish quality in an outdoor scene was intensified by the reflection of the color of the sky into the shadows. Further, he recorded by the appropriate addition of colored dots the mutual reflections of object in close proximity, just as Rubens had done in the seventeenth century. Finally he added what Fénéon called "ambient complimentary colors."At this point, it might be well to pause for a moment to examine the idea of the complimentaries, which are any two hues directly opposite each other on the color circle that, if mixed as pigments, would tend to result in black and if combined as colored lights would produce white light.15 The Neo-Impressionists were obsessed by the inherent possibilities of these complimentaries and borrowed many ideas from scientific books, such as O. N. Rood's Scientific Theory of Colors16 and Chevreul's On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors.17 Here they found that two complimentaries laid side by side would intensify each other mutually, and that if they were reduced sufficiently in intensity by the admixture of white, they would behave like colored light and fuse at the proper distance into a luminous gray. Gradually, these painters saw complimentary contrast not only as a specific phenomenon of color, but as a general principle to be followed on the aesthetic level. Thus, in later years, Signac could say:"To juxtapose two vigorous colors doesn't mean creating color, and even less, light. One can only reach the maximum of these qualities by observing the laws of contrast; for a color to be beautiful it should influence its neighbor by harmonizing and subduing it, for their common benefit. From this charming duo is born perfect harmony. . . It is the great scientific and philosophic law of contrast, which is not respected-and outside of it, no Salvation!"18On the level of pure representation, the principle of contrast had still another function. Monet and Pissarro, among others, were able to see that a yellow-orange object might be surrounded by a subtle halo of blue when viewed under the right conditions. At the same time, the youthful Seurat had rediscovered a similar principle in his rendition of nature in black-and-white. For example, he found that when two areas of different value were juxtaposed, the darker one generated a slightly lighter aura along the edge of the other: this can be seen in the male figure in the left foreground of Port-en-Bessin. The same device operates in reverse where the man's chest meets the background wall-here, an extra dose of darker dots forces the contrast. This mode of sharpening the visual image was brought to a high point of development by the great Venetian masters of the sixteenth century (whom Seurat studied) and was revived periodically whenever the over-all tonal plan of painting became more important than the illusionistic copying of light and shade on independent objects.As his drawing style matured in the early eighties, Seurat also began to perceive color contrast empirically, rather than merely reading about it in scientific texts. His friend Angrand noted:"On the boulevard Courbevoie, recently built along the river, they had just planted some trees. Seurat was delighted to point out to me that their green mass against the sky was haloed with pink."19The end result of making complimentary halos and forcing the value contrasts between planes was the intensification of the optical immediacy of the scene. Now, for Seurat, the incredible task of balancing these two elements (hue and value), along with the Impressionist-type data enumerated above. From all of the possible alternatives—he went through many experiments do discover this—his final choice was the petit point. The "dot" begins to emerge about 1885, when it was used first near the edges of the canvas to intensify the contrast of the actual picture from the enclosing border and frame. Before this date, the majority of his oils were done either with an elongated dash-like stroke or else with a cross-hatching of pigments that can be described only by the French verb balayer (to sweep over). By 1887-88 Seurat had moved beyond the simple analysis of color evident in La Grande Jatte and had discovered the great possibilities of a picture composed entirely of small dots. First of all, such a technique gave him a consistent basis for creating a predictable resultant from the many different colors posed side by side on the canvas. When the observer moved back from the painting, the myriad points of pigment would fuse into a new tone that was not discernible from the close view. Also, the painfully slow execution allowed Seurat to control the dosage of any desired area. If he wished to cool off a too-warm portion of the painting, it was simply a matter of spreading a thin haze of blue or violet pigment over it by means of his pointillist technique. But more important, he could adjust the graduation of color and value simultaneously. When some of the brighter local colors were obscured by shadow, as along the slanting banks of the quays, Seurat darkened the area by juxtaposing spectral colors at full intensity, avoiding the use of the traditional brown or black. From a reasonable distance they flow together producing a darkish value that glows with the atmospheric luster. Seurat and his friends insisted that they had simply followed nature's mode of operation and that in any case, there was no black in nature (since black is the absence of light).The idea of optical mixture became very important to the Neo-Impressionists, because they believed that the resultant colors achieved by their divisionist technique were more luminous than physically-mixed flat tones. One hears often that in order to obtain luminosity, these artists spoke out against the mixture of paints on the palette and that they applied only the primary colors to the canvas. But, as we can see in Port-en-Bessin, a wide variety of hues is used, as evidence also by the illustrated palette diagram. Moreover, the Neo-Impressionists mixed colors frequently if they were contiguous on the color circle: green and yellow-green combined on the palette would not dull each other. They did object, however, to the soiling of intensities by mixing two opposed hues-purple and green, for example. Thus obtained, this luminosity was regarded by some critics as greater than that achieved by the Impressionists. And Seurat, himself, thought that "chromo-luminarism" described his aims better than the more popular term Neo-Impressionism, which was coined by Fénéon.A key change in viewpoint between the "romantic Impressionists" and the "scientific Impressionists"-to borrow Pissarro's labels-can be seen in Seurat's crusade for luminosity. While both camps attempted to transcribe the authentic brightness (or dullness) of nature by pure, spectral colors, the younger generation took advantage of the latest research in scientific color theory. In the experiments of Young and Helmholtz, whose discoveries were summarized clearly by O. N. Rood, Seurat and Signac found that, under the right conditions, artists' pigments could be made to behave according to the laws of light. That is to say, if tiny dots of paint were placed beside each other and viewed from the necessary distance, a sense of light could be created by their optical mixture. But, as Port-en-Bessin demonstrates, this luminous quality was not limited to certain bright passages of the picture; instead, it is as if one had turned on a powerful lamp behind a thin canvas which then transformed the dots of pigment into miniature jewels of light. Signac was aware of this phenomenon when he wrote of Seurat's last landscapes: "It is like soft and harmonious light glowing on these walls. . . I believe that the soft apartment light is most favorable to this painting which does not require strong light, since it creates its light itself."20 As in the photographic color transparencies of the early nineteen-hundreds, a genuine additive mixture of color occurred-and we can see the same principle at work in the three-color, photo-mechanical reproduction methods used in printing today.There is not conclusive evidence to prove that Seurat was aware of the primitive color photography of the 1880s, but we can be certain that he studied the theories of Helmholtz and Maxwell, two physicists who furnished the principles upon which three-color photography was based. They believed that the retina of the eye had three receptors that were sensitive to red, green, and blue; and they showed experimentally that the combination of these three primary colors produced white light. Also, by the mixture of colored light to any primary colors could be made to produce an intermediate or secondary hue, as we can see in Maxwell's triangle.21 By varying the proportions of the primaries any desired color could be obtained. The system of mixture in early color photography was remarkably close to Seurat's method: small transparent grains of red, green, and blue starch were juxtaposed on the surface of a glass plate, which, when projected on a screen and viewed at a distance revealed a wide range of spectral colors approximating those of the original subject. Seurat realized that in order to make this system operate in painting he would have to boost these colors by inserting other spectral hues, including the secondary colors, and white; nevertheless, the end result in Port-en-Bessin is similar to the vibrating, mysterious shimmer experienced when one views a color slide projected in a dark room. Such a phenomenon was observed recently by the present writer at the exhibition in New York of paintings and sculpture from the exhibition of New York of paintings and sculpture from the collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.22 In a gallery that was almost totally dark, Seurat's Port-en-Bessin was illuminated by a single picture-light focused only on the painting itself. As a result, the scene took an uncanny brilliance, much like the fully illuminated state in a dark theatre. The same idea was behind Seurat's conviction that a band of complimentary dots around the picture would set it off distinctly from its neutral environment.A problem that has troubled many observers is the disagreement about the luminosity of Seurat's pictures. Many claim that they are not luminous at all, but gray and dull. And others, as we have mentioned, felt that they were more brilliant than those of the Impressionists. While it is true that some of Seurat's pigments have deteriorated over a period of years, many pictures, such as Port-en-Bessin, are in excellent condition. The key to this question may be found in Signac's later repudiation of the "dot" because it was too small and did not present the viewer a large enough patch of color to ensure the integral brilliance of each stroke. He said of Seurat's Poseuses: "The plain parts, like the background, for instance, covered with these small touches, are unpleasant and this [type of] work appears useless and harmful, since it gives to the whole a gray tonality."23 Signac was correct in postulating the grayness of the picture, but he did not say when it became gray, in terms of the viewer's increasing distance from it; it is obvious, of course, that the dots gain brightness as the observer moves closer to the picture. So, the question becomes: how far away should one stand when he looks at these canvases?The answer is supplied by an unsigned article in L'Art Moderne, a contemporary Belgian periodical that was very sympathetic to the Neo-Impressionists. The writer, whose accurate appraisal shows that he was undoubtedly in touch with the painters, stated:"If the. . . points of color are situated at a great distance from the observer, the mixture is evidently perfect and offers nothing remarkable in its appearance; but before reaching this distance, one passes by a point where the colors mix in a somewhat imperfect manner so that the surface seems to vacillate. This effect no doubt stems from the fact that from time to time one undergoes the impression of the distinct colored elements. This communicates to the surface a distinctive soft brilliance and gives it a certain sense of transparency as if our vision could penetrate it.This imperfect fusion of color. . . by the eye results in giving the surface an air of limpidity and in the elimination from it of any idea of harshness and chalkiness."24Therefore, a very special viewpoint is postulated for the comprehension of this art. Those who claimed its grayness simply stood too far away, while the sympathetic viewer was not afraid to let the sparkle of the individual dots operate on his eye. In an essay on "Seurat and 'La Grande Jatte'" Meyer Schapiro shed considerable light on this issue by comparing Seurat's method with that used in the Eiffel Tower.25 In both cases the structure is visible and unconcealed; and each whole is composed of small, almost molecular parts. We might carry this analogy one step farther by pointing out that Seurat, like Eiffel, was, in the broadest sense of the term, an engineer. Both men brought applied science to bear on their problems and were not ashamed to show the naked structure of their work. In a peculiar way, however, Eiffel's construction and Seurat's technique become, respectively, part of the total content of their work. Had Eiffel's Tower been sheathed in false masonry, its greatness would have vanished; and is Seurat had blended his colors for easy consumption, as Léger wished, the mastery of his synthetic system would be invisible. Just as modern engineers marvel at Eiffel's superb achievement of 1888-89, so may we stand in awe of Seurat's color-mechanics, which document one artist's philosophical convictions about how the physical world is put together.Seurat's advanced in the realm of rationalized luminosity might be regarded as parallel to Cézanne's interest in geometry. Both men, as we mentioned earlier, carried painting beyond the frontiers of pure visibility into the realm of mental order-an order that was codified on the basis of the sense-experience of a particular subject. Cézanne's art has been esteemed universally as "abstract" because of its simplification of solid and spaces down to a common geometric denominator. It must be said, then, in view of the foregoing discussion, that Seurat played a similar role in his systematization of light: that is, he passed from the recording of sensations to the conceptual and controlled creation of a luminous image. However, Seurat had no single follower, including Signac, who really understood his achievement. Also, it was the inclination of the early twentieth century to produce an art of planar geometry, and for this tendency Cézanne was the acknowledged progenitor. At first glance, the design of Port-en-Bessin seems to be dictated entirely by what lay before the eye of the painter. From the standpoint of composition, its is certainly not in the same class as La Grande Jatte (1884-86) and Parade (1887-88), which were essentially studio paintings that exploited the arbitrary adjustment and simplification of forms. While he was able to add or subtract parts from these pictures at will, he rarely tampered with the presented forms of nature in his landscapes. But for some reason, Seurat's marines invariably share the austere rhythms and clear planning of the larger works. This interesting coincidence may be explained by two observations, both of which may aid our understanding of Port-en-Bessin. First, Seurat's choice of subject ran along very selective lines, as we have seen. For his summer work he wished to paint not only in isolation from urban society but in a clean, nautical environment. The shapes of the houses, quays, and piers of his towns are by necessity rectilinear—one is almost tempted to say "cubistic"—and the spaces that separate them are always completely legible. The special character of Seurat's choice of sites along the channel can be made even more striking by a comparison to Monet's selection within the same geographical limits. The latter sought out the irregularities of nature, as at Etretat, where light could play dramatically on the craggy surfaces of the cliffs. For Monet, the spectacle of nature involved the play of unharnessed forces, and it is unusual to find him dwelling at length on man-made objects. Seurat, on the other hand, found solace in ports that presented him not only with spatial clarity but with an array of functionally designed marine accessories that were stripped to their essentials-the very artifacts which, like the Eiffel Tower, bore a formal resemblance to his unromantic, technically efficient paintings.Another reason for the general air of simplicity in this and other landscapes may be found in Seurat's growing concern with the innate characteristics of linear directions. In an often-quoted letter to Maurice Beaubourg he stated his belief that lines projecting above a horizontal gave a spirit of cheerfulness, that lines projecting below it produced a feeling of sadness, and that, alone, horizontals engendered a sense of calmness.26 Similar ideas had been exploited by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in its codification of the expressions, but during Seurat's lifetime, these principles came to be studies as a branch of experimental aesthetics by scientists such as Charles Henry, who was a friend of the painter. He and Seurat agreed that lines and colors had inherent expressive possibilities, and in much of Seurat's work after about 1887 we can find his artistic adaptation of these scientific experiments. In the views of the coast painted after Port-en-Bessin (at Le Crotoy, 1889, and at Gravelines, 1890), the composition of the pictures of their respective color systems become almost self-conscious documents of these theories. In his review of the fifth Salon des Artistic-Indépendants (1889) at which our picture was first shown, Fénéon reported on the growing interest in these new ideas:"Mr. Seurat is quite aware that line, independent of its role in defining the topography, has an abstract value that can be predicted. In each of his landscapes, the forms are governed by one or two directions matched to the dominant colors and with which the accessory lines are compelled to contrast . . . By nature loyal [to such ideas], the art of Mr. Seurat would hardly dream of concealing these researches, and the plausibility of his scenes suffers thereby."27In terms of composition, Port-en-Bessin belongs to a transitional period through which Seurat moved in his increasing desire for flat, schematic pattern. The work for a few years before, as exemplified by La Grande Jatte (1884-86), showed an interest in deep space modified somewhat by a web of repeating shapes, often tangent to each other, which affirmed the two-dimensional surface of the picture. A year or two later, his Parade (1887-88) indicates that Seurat was able to confine the action to shallow levels of depth while strengthening the proportional relationship between the lines, in this case, by means of the golden section. But his Port-en-Bessin, dating also from 1888, returns briefly to a full spatial continuum, which now contains implicitly within it the purely linear network that emerged in La Grande Jatte and asserted itself even more precisely in his Parade. Seen as a two dimensional diagram, the dominant lines of our painting are either horizontals or mild diagonals, the angle of which approximates the horizontal closely. There are no violent curves or sweeping cross-axes. The secondary lines are the verticals of the receding quay, the lamp-post, and the edges of the houses. Then this rectilinear framework is relieved by the rising diagonal accents of the rooftops, which are repeated in the undulating angular movement of the hill in the background. Taken as a whole the picture harks back briefly to an earlier spatial conception in Seurat's work. Compositionally, it has the advantage of rigor in design without the somewhat cold dogmatism that one finds in his studio and outdoor paintings one or two years later. In Port-en-Bessin Seurat's mind bridged the gap between the physically real and scientifically ideal in a moment which, in the nineteenth century sense of the word, must be termed, classic.If the reader feels at this point the our lengthy discussion of color and design in Port-en-Bessin has forced the story-telling aspect of the picture into obscurity, he must realize that very little can be said about the anecdotal side of Seurat's landscapes. As we have seen their charm rests not on any literary connotations, but on the artist's ability to compose formal elements that will communicate his state of mind directly. In the majority of the coastal scenes we can imagine that there desolate calm would be shattered the intrusion of frivolous humanity. Here and there, however, one many discover men and women wandering along the quays, but we never know their or their thoughts. The distant figures—a customs officer, a small child, and a woman—act out a segment of their lives on the quay before us. The shadows of the late afternoon sun place the hour approximately: it is the time of home-coming after the day's labor. The two adult figures walk slowly from the direction of the sea toward the land. Between them, and closest to the spectator, a child who is unconcerned with the movements of the two older persons looks out from the picture.Speaking analytically, they are nothing more than three vertical accents that define the foreground of the paintings: but it is possible that a deeper meaning is involved here. They are not of one sex, but show Seurat's favorite duality between male and female, which was evident in La Grande Jatte and almost all of his later compositions. In addition to showing older people, he symbolized the state of youth by the small child. Thus, from the standpoint of gender and age, his beloved principle of contrast was a work again. Here its use was not limited to how a subject was represented but also helped to determine what was depicted, since the play of old against young and male against female would exemplify valid points of opposition.Turning to the figures themselves, one senses that the goal of simplicity in the over-all design was equally the motivation for Seurat's doll-like imagery of the human form. And, on the basis of Port-en-Bessin, it is easy to see how he could have been criticized severely for the rigid, mechanical quality of his characters. In a less charitable moment, Fénéon said of the picture:"One would like to see less stiffness in the persons who circulate on the quay of Port-en-Bessin: if the carriage of the wandering child is pleasing and genuine, the undefined customs officer and the woman carrying fagots or driftwood remain improbable; we have been acquainted with [the figure of] this customs man for two years; he was [similar to] the stage-manager in the Parade.28It was possible even for Fénéon to withhold approval when his friend went too far in turning the human form into abstract symbol. Why, then, did Seurat do it? We may find the answer in his increasing interest in the theory of linear directions, which could be applied not only to the landscape but to human expression as well. He had been absorbed by the teachings of Humbert de Superville, an early nineteenth-century painter, who stated that the sense of happiness in the face could be achieved by turning the direction of the eyes and mouth upward and that melancholy was conveyed by the downward descent of the same lines.29 Like Henry's theories, these ideas may have been applied broadly in crystallizing the sentiment in the figures of Port-en-Bessin. The man and woman both look downward, though the woman, particularly, sums up in a single bent-over silhouette the grim monotony of her daily task. The customs man, on the other hand seem to be deep in some serious meditation as he trudges home. Now, the small child who stands between them does not share the same resignation of spirit, but stands confidently erect. At this point, we could stop and allow the observer to fill in the remainder of the drama according to his own private feelings. However, the contemplation of Seurat's other work might suggest the following positive interpretation of the human situation.As represented by Seurat, the energies of the older generation are sapped, perhaps by their monotonous routine of life. This is evident in the dejected cast of the two middle-class working people in the foreground. Remove the child momentarily, and the picture tends to become an almost pessimistic comment on human activity. Its presence gives the scent of a hopeful aspect because of its alert glance and air of self-contained energy. This may have been the image that symbolized for Seurat, unconsciously, the new artistic and social generation to which he belonged. With other painters, composers, and writers, some of whom shared his scientific spirit, Seurat rebelled against the dead traditions of the past. Significantly, too, the child is alone; it does not demonstrate the conventional attachments of the adults but is posed expectantly as if hoping to establish contact with the spectator. We know that Seurat and his friends were consciously aware of the problems of communication in their creative efforts, and terms like "the new art" and "the new aesthetics" are used repeatedly in the writings of the group during the 1880s. It may be, then, that his subject matter, as well as his method of representing it, aspired to that era of material and intellectual perfection foreseen in the future.Seurat's optimistic faith in scientific progress and in a harmonious universe represented the convictions of only a few painters during a brief moment of historical time. Other currents of artistic thought were soon to challenge his treasured concepts, and already by the year of his death—1891—the Symbolists had railed against Seurat's upper-rational art. In reversing many of the latter's premises, they tried to show that Neo-Impressionism had reached a dead-end. But what the Symbolists could not foresee was Seurat's resurrection as a major predecessor of the modern abstract tradition. True, his work represented the logical culmination of one artistic current of the nineteenth century, but, with Cézanne, his fanatic concern with how to put a picture together endeared him to many later admirers. Port-en-Bessin owes much of its genuine appeal to the confident position it maintains at these crossroads of the old and new.William I. Homer
Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton UniversityEndnotes
  1. Oil on canvas. H. 25 1/2; W. 32 1/2 inches. Signed, lower right: Seurat. Ex. coll: Sir Chester Beatty; Paul Rosenberg & Co. Exhibited at the fifth Salon des Artistes-Indépendants, Paris (Sept. 3-Oct. 4, 1889).
  2. Seurat's other paintings done on or near this site are : A Sunday at Port-en-Bessin (Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo); Fishing Fleet at Port-en-Bessin (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Port-en-Bessin the Outer Harbor (City Art Museum of St. Louis); Les Grues et la Percée, Port-en-Bessin (Mrs. and Mrs. W. Averill Harriman Collection); Port-en-Bessin, l'avant-port, marée haute (Louvre, Paris).
  3. The writer wishes to acknowledge the help of the Mayor of Port-en-Bessin, who provided him with photographs of the town and information about its fate during World War II. The town suffered modest physical damage, but the fishing fleet that Seurat loved was entirely destroyed, as was the picturesque pavilion on the pier.
  4. A recent air-view of Port-en-Bessin shows where Seurat must have stood when painting the scene; as we see it, his position must have been on the quay at the mouth of the outer harbor, looking west (left) toward the large pier.
  5. These are: Une Baignade (1883-84); Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86); Les Poseuses (1887-88); La Parade (1887-88); Le Chahut (1889-90); Le Poudreuse (1889-90); Le Cirque (1890-91).
  6. The writer is particularly indebted to the writings and personal help of Mr. John Rewald, Prof. Meyer Schapiro, and Mr. Daniel D. Rich, three American scholars who have made major contributions to our understanding of Seurat's work. The standard references in English, which have been used here, are Mr. Rewald's Georges Seurat (New York, 1946) and his Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh to Gauguin (New York, 1956). Also, many valuable ideas on theory may be found in Robert Rey's La Renaissance du sentiment classique (Paris, 1931).
  7. Emile Verhaeren, Sensations, Paris, 1927, p. 199 (written in 1891).
  8. Léon Rosenthal, "Ernest Laurent," Arts et Décoration, 3, 1911, p. 66.
  9. Paul Jamot, "Ernest Laurent," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 4th per., vol. 5 (March 1911), p. 179.
  10. Rosenthal, loc. cit..
  11. Jamot, loc. cit., p. 182.
  12. John Rewald, Georges Seurat, Paris, 1948, p. 115.
  13. R. Rey discusses this phenomenon at length, with reference to Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Seurat, in his La Renaissance du sentiment classique.
  14. Felix Fénéon, "Le Néo-impressionnisme," L'Art Moderne, May 1, 1887, p. 139. (This English translation is from J. Rewald, Post-Impressionism, p. 99.)
  15. The chromatic circle illustrated here is from O. N. Rood's Text-Book of Color, p. 293. In Art News (April 1949, p. 25) and in his Post-Impressionism, p. 83, J. Rewald reproduced an identical color wheel by Seurat's own hand (Coll. Mme. Ginette Cachin-Signac), which indicated clearly the artist's source of inspiration in Rood's manual.
  16. The writings of Ogden N. Rood, an American physicist and amateur painter, had a great influence on the Neo-Impressionists. His book was valuable to scientifically inclined artists because of its lucid explanations of color phenomena. The French translation appeared in 1881 as Théorie scientifique des couleurs.
  17. Chevreul's manual was simpler and less technical than Rood's, but it documented methodically the essential principles of color mixture and contrast. It was published first in 1839 as De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l'assortiment des objects colorés.
  18. "Extraits du journal inédit de Paul Signac (I)," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6th per., vol. 36 (July-Sept 1949), p. 114 (English translation, p. 171).
  19. Gustave Coquiot, Georges Seurat (Paris, 1924), pp. 40-41 (English translation from D. C. Rich, Seurat and the Evolution of "Les Grande Jatte", Chicago, 1935, p. 21, f.n. 14).
  20. "Extraits du journal inédit de Paul Signac (I)," op. cit., p. 114 (English translation, p. 170).
  21. The color triangle illustrated here is from Rood's Text-Book of Color p. 221. Rood summarized Maxwell's ideas on mixing colored lights in the following words: "With the aid of this diagram [the color triangle]. . . we can mix together any number of colors, and ascertain the position and consequently the tint of the resultant hue. We select any two, join them by a line, and ascertain, as previously explained, the position of the mixture tint; we then join the third color by a straight line with a point just ascertained, and again construct the position of the second mixture, and so on." (Rood, op. cit., p. 221-22.)
  22. Knoedler & Co., Jan. 14 - Feb. 2, 1957.
  23. "Extraits du journal inédit de Paul Signac (II)," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6th per., vol. 39 (April 1952), pp. 270-71 (English translation, p. 300).
  24. "Néo-impressionnisme," L'Art Moderne, Nov. 11, 1888, p. 366.
  25. Columbia Review, XVII (1935), p. 15.
  26. The original letter (Aug. 28, 1890) is reproduced in R. Rey's La Renaissance du sentiment classique, foll. p. 132.
  27. F. Fénéon, "Exposition des Artistes-Indépendants à Paris," L'Art Moderne, Oct. 27, 1889.
  28. Ibid.
  29. The ideas present in Humbert de Superville's book, Essai sur les signes inconditionnels dans l'art (Leyden, 1827), were popularized by a number of academic writers later in the nineteenth century.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891. Port-en-Bessen, 1888. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches. William A. Dunwoody Fund, 1955.
  2. Port-en-Bessin (air view). Photograph taken after World War II.
  3. Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86. Oil on canvas, 81 x 120 3/8 inches. Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.
  4. Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891. A Sunday at Port-en-Bessin. Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
  5. Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926. La Manne-Porte, Etretat, d. 1885. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia.
  6. Paul Cézanne, French, 1839-1906. Landscape with Viaduct (Mt. Sainte-Victoire), c. 1885-87. Oil on canvass (V. 452), 25 3/4 x 32 1/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer.
  7. Chromatic circle (Seurat's palette diagram). From O. N. Rood's Text-Book of Color (New York, 1881).
  8. Color Triangle based on color theories of J. C. Maxwell from O. N. Rood's Text-Book of Color (New York, 1881).
  9. Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891. Eiffel Tower, 1890. Oil on canvas, 13 x 9 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Germain Seligmann of New York.
  10. Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891. Port-en-Bessin (details). Oil on canvas. William A. Dunwoody Fund, 1955.
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Source: William I. Homer, "Seurat's Port-en-Bessin," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 46, no. 2 (Summer, 1957): 17-41.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009