The drawings of the French Neo-Impressionist, Georges Seurat (1859-91) have long been known to exude a mysterious quality that sets them apart. Misty, cryptic, uniquely identifiable, they are described by artist Paul Signac, Seurat's contemporary, as "the most beautiful painter's drawings in existence."
What makes them so?
It could be the monumental forms that subtly emerge from shadow, the stippled texture that allows shapes to seem to meld into one another, or the poignant hint of faces rather than their clear articulation. These are some of the qualities that give Seurat's drawings their compelling atmosphere that makes one want to know more.
As the founder of "pointillism," Seurat is most frequently associated with paintings composed of dots of color. His huge canvas "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" (1884-86), composed in the new style, is one of the most famous pictures in modern art. But before he was a master of color, Seurat – like many artists – first had to find himself in black and white. "It is drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path," said his friend, artist Edmond Aman-Jean.
A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York deepens our understanding of Seurat's drawings both as independent works and as they relate to the painted masterpieces the artist subsequently produced. "Georges Seurat: The Drawings" consists of more than 135 works, including early sketches from the artist's academic training through preliminary studies for his major color canvases.
In fact, Seurat's first publicly exhibited picture was a drawing of his friend ("Aman-Jean" c. 1882-83). It shows Seurat's already masterly modeling of form, his skillful use of chiaroscuro (contrast of black and white), and his signature halo effect ("irradiation," Seurat called it) of light around the subject – effects that would become characteristic of his radically new style.
But in this more traditional drawing, the subject's face is crisply defined, and there is still a dependence on drawing's most conventional component: the line. In later Seurat drawings, line becomes mostly beside the point. Instead, figures are defined merely as shape or contour composed of light and shadow.
In "Embroidery (The Artist's Mother)" (1882-83), pictured here, form, texture, and mood have taken over from line and realistic detail. We are in a new aesthetic world. "Seurat's forms seem to emerge from the paper much as a statue emerges from the original block of stone, giving the impression that the forms were always there and only had to be uncovered," explains Robert L. Herbert in his classic book, "Seurat's Drawings."
Much research has gone into understanding how Seurat achieved the effects in his drawings. At the core of his technique are the art materials he chose, (a "rich collaboration" as described by Dr. Herbert) without which the drawings could never have existed in their current form.
It was the combination of Michallet paper (a 19th- century handmade paper with a pronounced "grid" or texture), the black conté crayon (a kind of pencil), and the particular, idiosyncratic way in which Seurat applied the conté that resulted in the intriguingly molecular texture of so many of his drawings.
Seurat's choice of subjects for his drawings was also frequently revolutionary. Rather than traditional historical or mythological subjects, he chose to depict ordinary people from what was called "the zone," the area just north of Paris that was being subjected to bleak industrialization. Ragpickers, street workers, mothers, and children were some of his subjects.
But a number of drawings in this exhibition are studies for the elaborate compositions of his paintings, including the "Grande Jatte" and "Parade de Cirque" (1887-88).
The exhibit reveals that the texture of the drawings foreshadows the dot effect Seurat would develop in color as pointillism in his great paintings. As art writer Meyer Schapiro said in an essay quoted in the show's catalog: "The dots in Seurat's paintings have something of the quality of the black grains in his incomparable drawings...."
A number of critics have observed that an air of quiet or silence is apparent in many of the artist's drawings and paintings.
Born in Paris, Seurat was a quiet, private person to such an extent that much less is known about him than almost any other important 19th-century artist.
One of Seurat's few written statements on his ideas about art comes from a letter he wrote but never sent to a friend. It succinctly begins: "Art is harmony."
Although he has been assigned to the Neo-Impressionist school, many of his drawings have a disconcerting quality characteristic of modernism. "The Lamp" (1882-83) is a drawing in which the subject looms into comprehension only after the viewer studies the shadows in the picture for quite a while. In "Rain" (1882-83), a small, solitary figure holds an umbrella that is connected to the darkness of a storm by a tangle of interlaced scribbles.
For most, Seurat will continue to be associated with his grand paintings, but his drawings represent an opportunity to become more acquainted with this reclusive artist. Though ostensibly set in the bleak northern suburbs of Paris, the world of Seurat's drawings is a zone of enigmatic harmony.
• "Georges Seurat: The Drawings" is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until Jan. 7, 2008.