Definition, History of Neo-Impressionist Painting Method.

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Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6).
Art Institute Of Chicago.
By Georges Seurat.

Divisionism (c.1884-1904)


What is Divisionism?
Origins and History
Painting Method
Famous Divisionist Paintings

Bathers at Asnieres (1884).
National Gallery, London.
By Georges Seurat.

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What is Divisionism?

In fine art painting, the term Divisionism (also called Chromoluminarism) refers to the theory behind Neo-Impressionism - a style of modern art which involved the separation of colours into individual dots or patches which - once on the canvas - interacted optically in the viewer's eye. By advocating the application of small touches of pure colour onto the canvas (thus making the viewer's eye 'mix' the different colours optically), instead of physically mixing colour pigments on a palette and then applying them to the canvas, Divisionists believed they were able to attain the maximum possible luminosity. The first artist to systematically develop the theory of Divisionism was Georges Seurat (1859-91), the meticulous master of drawing, whose family wealth allowed him to experiment with chromoluminarism and other scientific theories of colour propounded by scientists like Michel Eugene Chevreul, Charles Blanc, David Sutter, Hermann von Helmholtz and Ogden Rood. An offshoot of Divisionism was the style known as Pointillism (after the French word 'point' for dot), which is characterized by the use of dots of paint. The two most famous examples of French Divisionism, both by Seurat, are the paintings A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago), and Bathers at Asnieres (1884, National Gallery, London).


Origins and History

The method of juxtaposing dots of pure colour on a canvas so that they seem to combine together producing greater luminosity than if they had been premixed on a palette, was pioneered first by Impressionist painters like Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). It was one of the instinctive painting techniques they used in order to capture the fleeting colours present in the reflection of sunlight. (To compare Monet's approach, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.) However, it wasn't until 1880 when Georges Seurat began to study technical treatises on colour theory in painting - such as chromoluminarism and optics - and deliberately set about the task of creating scientifically the sort of shimmering colour effects that Monet and others had arrived at by chance and inspiration, that systematic progress was made. Unlike the Impressionists, most of whom used the technique of plein air painting in order to capture the transitory effects of light, Seurat did most of his painting in the studio, where everything was planned down to the last detail.

As a result of Seurat's pioneering efforts, Pointillism - although he preferred the name Divisionism - became the hottest fashion in French painting during the 1880s and 90s. After his premature death in 1891, the style was actively promoted by Paul Signac (1863-1935), whose book From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, published in 1899 coined the name "Divisionism" and gave the movement a new lease of life.

Other followers of Seurat included Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), Theo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), and Jan Toorop (1858-1928). Divisionism also attracted the involvement of modern artists like Van Gogh (1853-90), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and others. Indeed, almost every major painter active during the era of Post-Impressionism experimented with Divisionism. For a modern example, see the Canadian Magic Realist painter Alex Colville (b.1920).

Divisionist Painting Method

An early influence on Seurat's chromoluminarism was the treatise Grammaire des Arts du Dessin by Charles Blanc. Drawing also from the ideas of the French chemist Chevreul and the great French painter Eugene Delacroix, Blanc explained that optical mixing (by the spectator's eye) produced more vibrant and purer colour effects than the traditional process of pre-mixing pigments before applying them to the canvas. Chevreul himself, in his treatise The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast (1839), stated that the theory of colour-mixing [all other colours can be created by mixing the main primary colours] applied equally to the behaviour of light colours (beams of light) added together (additive mixing), and coloured pigments added together (subtractive mixing). We now know that this proposition is largely false.

As it was, Seurat's dots of pure colour did not actually fuse in the spectator's eye - the eye continues to see the dots as separate colours - but the dots did tend to produce a shimmering effect and a slight intensification of colour: an effect documented in Modern Chromatics (1879) by Ogden Rood. Interestingly, if the collections in Paris and London are anything to go by, Divisionist paintings hold up extremely well, in terms of colour and composition.


Along with Impressionism, the non-natural colours and patterns of Seurat's chromoluminarism led directly to the Italian Divisionism movement initiated by Vittore Grubicy (1851–1920) and thence to Futurism; it was imitated during Dutch Post-Impressionism, it also led to the Intimism of Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and the Fauvism of Matisse (c.1905-8), while Seurat's championship of formal structure as well as "the idea" rather than the simple imitation of nature, paved the way - along with the works of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) - for Cubism and other abstract art movements, including the Optical Art of Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley.

NOTE: To see how Neo-Impressionist painting opened the door for 20th century abstraction, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

Famous Divisionist Paintings

Notable divisionist pictures by Post-Impressionist painters include:

Georges Seurat (1859-91)
View of the Seine (1883) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–6) Chicago.
Bathers at Asnieres (1884) National Gallery, London.
Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-7) Courtauld Institute Galleries, London.
The Lighthouse at Honfleur (1886) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Port-en-Bessin (1888) Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Young Woman Powdering Herself (c.1888) Courtauld Institute, London.
The Eiffel Tower (1889) Fine Art Museum of San Francisco.
The Circus (1890-91) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Paul Signac (1863–1935)
Portrait of Felix Feneon (1890) Museum of Modern Art, New York.
[Felix Feneon was the art critic who invented the term Neo-Impressionism.]
The Papal Palace, Avignon (1900) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)
Self-Portrait (1887) Art Institute of Chicago.
Self-Portrait with Felt Hat (1888) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Sower with Setting Sun (1888) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo.

Henri-Edmond Cross (1856–1910)
Nocturne (1896) Petit Palace, Geneva.
Cypress Trees in Cagnes (1900) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Antibes (1908) Musee des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble.

Maximilien Luce (1858–1941)
The Foundry (1899) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo.

Theo Van Rysselberghe (1862–1926)
Madame Maus (1890) Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

Matisse (1869-1954)
Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904) Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

Andre Derain (1880-1954)
The Harbour of Collioure (1905) Royal Academy, London.

Divisionist-style paintings can be seen in some of the best art museums throughout the world, notably the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

• For the chronology of modern French painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about Neo-Impressionism, see: Homepage.

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