A motion serene and breathtaking
If there is one 19th century drawing I would like to own it's Georges Seurat's "Portrait of Aman-Jean." It's a triumph of black-and-white, a picture which makes the issue of color in art totally irrelevant. And yet it was drawn by one of the major color-theorists of his time, one who tried very hard to systematize Impressionism.
Seurat respected the Impressionists, but felt their approach to painting too undisciplined. His classical temperament rejected their method of creating coloristic approximations of visual effects, by daubing many small strokes of pure color directly onto canvas, as too intuitive and impulsive. He wanted a more precise and consistent method, one which would give him absolute control over a painting from its smallest detail to its most complex set of formal relationships -- and which would still retain the vitality and coloristic effectiveness of Impressionism.
The solution was Pointillism (also known as Divisionism because it was based on the division of light into its color components,) a tightly controlled system of painting in which thousands of tiny dots of primary colors were placed in close juxtaposition to one another, causing them to mix optically on the canvas and to create shimmering effects of colored light.
Through Pointillism Seurat atomized light into tiny splinters of pure color and thus systematized his control over it. This enabled him to create pictures to his precise specification and to build them as methodically as a bricklayer builds a wall.
Like Cezanne, he was interested in creating art worthy of the museums, in reconciling the dramatic visual and painterly discoveries of his period with the traditional verities of Western art. To that end he kept his eye, mind, and sensibility in perfect balance between what he saw of life and what he knew of art. To understand Seurat one must keep in mind that above all he was a maker and fashioner of paintings. That he created things.m As an artist, physical reality was of no more importance to him than the laws and rules of art. To him a tree was 50% reality and 50% vertical and fingered shape.
Only in his drawings and oil studies for his paintings is this not the case. In them life and liveliness predominate. We sense the humanity of his subjects, feel the sparkle of atmosphere, are aware that the objects he draws can actually move.
The images in Seurat's drawings are more retinal than tactile and resemble things seen through frosted edges, and imprecise details. Their sense of liveliness comes from the relative informality of their compositions and the shimmering haze of impressionistic light within which they are perceived and drawn.
This shimmeringness, which causes us to sense their reality rather than to see it clearly, may seem a bit odd to those accustomed to the notion that drawing is primarily line, and that its function is to precisely define the exact outer edge of objects in space. One thinks of Holbein and Ingres, Michelangelo and Durer as true draftsmen, as artists who could really draw.
Compared to their drawings, most of Seurat's roughly 400 drawings look fuzzy and incomplete, as though he had stopped working on them after blocking out their essential forms and establishing their basic tonal and spatial relationships.
They look that way because they are half-way between reality and Seurat's painterly vision. They no longer fully reflect the real world, but neither have they been totally transformed as yet into thousands of tiny dots of primary colors.
Along with studies for works-in-progress, Seurat did a number of drawings which stand as complete and final statements in their own right. Of these, "Portrait of Aman-Jean" is the most remarkable. It is Seurat's supreme moment of humanity, his own image in which human warmth and character match and even transcend the perfection of his style.
It is a breathtakingly simple but profound human document given life through a style of the highest order. In this drawing Seurat briefly touches the level of Vermeer and Leonardo, causing one to wonder what miracles he might have achieved had he lived beyond his 32 years.
Very few artists really know what to do with black. To a painter it can be even more dangerous than violet, and to a draftsman or graphic artist it can spell heaviness or gloom. But to the handful who appreciate its qualities and can use it to full effect, black can be the noblest "color" of them all.
Of this handful Seurat was outstanding. His "Portrait Of Aman-Jean" ranks as one of the most exquisite black-and-white statements ever made. Only his contemporary, Redon, could match him in rich, lustrous blacks stunningly played against a few greys and a touch or two of white. But even Redon could not match the grandeur of Seurat's style which is elegant and aristocratic in the best sense of those words. To match them we have to go back to the simple dignity of the great 17th century masters.