Pointillism, sometimes referred to as Divisionism, was a painting technique developed during the Post-Impressionism that later turns into a movement on its own. Modern painting begins along with the birth of French Impressionism, giving artists the freedom to work independently from the Classic standards that the academies impose. With this new way of seeing and portraying art, painters start to experiment with what they saw, studying the anatomy of the eye and how our mind receives color and light. The artists were more interested in the optical side of painting than the imitation of nature.
With an urge to approach color scientifically, George Seurat creates the Pointillism technique and interprets it as an improvement to the Post-Impressionist style. The first painting done with this technique was Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in 1886. Considered a masterpiece and the most famous painting in this style, Seurat portrays a scene from daily life – a modern subject. The technique consists of painting small dots of complementary colors side-by-side to achieve a sense of luminosity and, seen from a certain distance, our eyes automatically blend in the colors – as opposed to physically mixing the paint. As a result, he achieved static and sculpture-like figures. Seurat did more than fifty sketches and studies before finishing the final painting.
The second work Seurat completes with this technique is the also of great scale and is called The Models. In this casual scene, the Post-impressionist uses Pointillism to portray his studio while his models are getting ready to pose. Behind them, we can see the enormous Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, covering up almost half of the background. The models in this painting are a bit less static than the many figures he depicts in his previous work. The way he positions them in front of the masterpiece makes you believe he is aware of the technique’s limitations and is showing the viewer he is pushing to beat them.
Seurat met the painter Paul Signac in 1884, and they immediately clicked, creating a strong friendship. Signac becomes his most notable pupil, embracing Pointillism entirely – and after his master's death, he becomes the leading spokesman for the movement. The painting Women at the Well is one of his earlier Pointillism paintings. The painter was able to isolate the statue-like figures from the background with his extraordinary use of color, synthesizing the figures of the landscape. Signac also paints many other landscapes in this technique, like The Papal Palace Avignon where he uses all of his knowledge of color and contrast to create a breathtaking painting. He plays with the use of complementary colors – combination of colors opposite to one another on the color wheel - to create a dream-like scene.
Originally from Belgium, the painter Theo Van Rysselberghe becomes very passionate about Pointillism and creates incredible large-scale works with this technique. In Maria Sethe at the Harmonium, the artist was able to create an almost realistic image with gorgeous contrast using dots of paint on canvas. Like Signac does in Women at the Well, Rysselberghe also highlights the central figure from the background, giving Maria Sethe much more detail and praise than the rest of the scene.
Henri Edmond Cross, like the Impressionists of the time, was fascinated in portraying nature and was able to graciously join this with Pointillism to create his unique aesthetic in the movement. In the painting Afternoon at Pardigon, not only does he successfully join complementary colors – like the tonalities of blues and reds of the shadows and the oranges and greens of the light – but he also contrasts the light and shadow of the scene, bringing the shade to the first plan. In another Pointillist painting of Cross entitled The Iles d’Or (The Iles d’Hyeres), he was able to portray depth with only dots positioned in horizontal lines. The artwork shows as if the viewer were standing on a sandy beach looking into the horizon, although the only notable figures are the far-away mountains, he was able to portray this illusion of dimension with just the use of colored dots.
The Pointillism marked modern art, for it was a representation of this new era of the world. The artists were concerned with science and how they could use this knowledge in their art. Pointillism is the product of this mix of the rational side, with the artistic freedom of their contemporary world. It had an enormous influence all through the XX century in many art movements and still does to this day.