Two of the most important artists of the late 19th century are certainly Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh. Both leaders in the field of painting, they have produced numerous works of art that are still admired today and are considered among the greatest masterpieces of art history.
Georges Seurat was the leader of a group called Neo Impressionism that developed in France from 1886 to 1906 (Amory). Seurat was interested in an almost scientific way of depicting color, form and line which was based on the scientific methodologies of the study of optics (Amory). He developed a technique of painting with small dots related to each other, which is known as pointillism (Amory). Seurat worked with a specific set of rules that ordered his paintings and give to them a sense of strict regularity (Tansey and Kleiner, 995). If one looks at his most famous work, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, one will be able to see from the beginning the artist’s unique style. Numerous colored dots form the various aspects of the painting. Seurat used strict lines all of which contribute to the effect of the work: verticals for the trees and the human figures, horizontals for the shadows and diagonals for the shoreline (Tansey and Kleiner, 995). Interestingly there is also a consistent repetition of shapes and motifs, most notable of which are the cylindrical forms of the female figures, the parasol and the female profiles (Tansey and Kleiner 996). This gives the painting a sense of rhythm. Color is also extremely important as it demonstrates the feeling of the moment. The “gaiety of tone” is shown by the artist through a combination of warm and luminous colors like the bright yellow of a sunny day in the summer (Tansey and Kleiner, 995-996). The technique of pointillism developed by Seurat is also based on color theories and treatises written during the late 19th century (Amory). The painting is full of almost abstract forms. Describing his work and his intentions Seurat wrote: “They see poetry in what I have done. No, I apply my method, and that is all there is to it” (Tansey and Kleiner, 996). Seurat died young in 1891 at the age of only 32. He had managed however, to leave his mark in the art world of his day.
Unlike Seurat, Vincent van Gogh was not interesting in developing new –almost scientific- ways of order and color (Tansey and Kleiner, 998). Instead, he chose to distort forms and exploit colors to their full extend in an attempt to present his own feelings on painting (Tansey and Kleiner, 998). Even though his career lasted only ten years, from 1880 until his untimely death in 1890, Van Gogh left behind 900 painting and 1.100 drawings, along with extensive correspondence with his brother, Theo, in which he explained his work and the techniques he used in detail (Department of European Paintings). Van Gogh used thick visible brushes and vibrant colors –yellow being his favorite- to re-create the world around him (Tansey and Kleiner, 998). His subjects included nature, places he frequented, self-portraits, portraits of people he knew and even objects with no apparent artistic quality, like the still-life Shoes from 1888, where the artist took a pair of old shoes and immortalized them in a painting (Department of European Paintings).
For van Gogh, color was of utmost importance, but for different reasons than Seurat. As he said to a letter to his brother he used color “to suggest any emotion of an ardent temperament” (Tansey and Kleineir, 998).
One of the works that clearly show Van Gogh’s style (and one of his most famous ever) is the Starry Night. It was created one year before the artist took his own life and depicts a starry night in a unique way. It is a representation of the sky as the artist experienced it: vast, exploding and mysterious. Van Gogh manages to show these through thick, twisting brushstrokes of dark color that are clearly visible to the viewer and contrast sharply with circular yellow patches that represent the stars. A small town is barely visible in the background, while in the foreground a tree seems to rise mysteriously to the sky (Tansey and Kleiner, 999). The forms of all things depicted are distorted. They are however still recognizable and create a surprisingly unified picture.
Both Seurat and van Gogh worked after the Impressionists had paved the way a few decades earlier for a new way to represent the world. The Impressionists had introduced the life of the French middle classes as an appropriate subject for great paintings. They had also experimented with color and representation in ways no other artist had done in the past and broke with the Renaissance tradition that dominated the art world for centuries (Tansey and Kleiner, 980). In this respect both Seurat and van Gogh were freer to experiment and look for different ways of representation. At the same time, both artists influenced greatly the painters of the following generations which led to what we today call modern art and include movements like Fauvism and Cubism (Amory and Department of European Paintings).
It is clear that Seurat and van Gogh are central in the study of the art of the late 19th century. The differences in their respective styles may be great; they are however products of the same tradition and their work has inspired artists long after their death.
Amory, D. “Georges Seurat (1858-1891) and Neo-Impressionism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004. Web. 26 November 2013
Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.