SEURAT by Richard Thomson
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For an artist whose masterpiece is one of the pivotal paintings of the 19th century and whose life recently inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical, little is known about Georges Seurat. A proud, uncommunicative bourgeois, the French Nco-Impressionist left few personal documents (and almost as few memories) when he died, aged 31, in 1891. Because of this dearth of biographical data, previous studies have focused almost exclusively on the revolutionary technique with which Seurat hoped to introduce ""scientific"" principles into the art of the period--the juxtaposition of small dots of primary and secondary hues to create the impression of ""pure"" color in the viewer's eye--rather than on the details of his life and the possible meaning of his work. Thomson breaks with this tradition. The author has not been afraid to plunge into the crosscurrents of the social, political and aesthetic thought of mid- and late-19th-century France to come up with the influences that shaped Seurat's art (L'ecole des Beaux Arts, the color theories of Charles Henry); his possible political orientation (conservative at first, then gradually socialist and possibly anarchist); his symbolism (the poetry of Jules LaForgue, Paris argot and, startlingly, Rembrandt's etchings). Thomson, a lecturer in the History of Art at Manchester University, melds these disparate elements into a critical biography that's as suspenseful and ultimately satisfying as a well-plotted detective novel. In a chapter devoted to ""La Grande-Jatte"" itself, Thomson points out the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the complex work. In addition, he discusses the hidden meanings in the dress and postures of the approximately half-a-hundred figures that populate the scene. He even speculates on Seurat's work habits, noting that the cramped space in the artist's studio may account for the disproportions in the various strollers and loungers along the Seine's banks (Seurat may not have been able to step back far enough to get an overall view of his six-by-nine-foot work-in-progress). Seurat is illustrated with more than 200 plates, most in excellent color. Thomson's text is a model of thorough scholarship combined with a highly creative imagination. A carefully researched, sensitively intuited work that is most welcome.

Pub Date: Nov. 22nd, 1985
Publisher: Salem--dist. by Merrimack