Dots, Stipplings And Daubs

The greatest period in French painting consists, oddly enough, of sequels to its most original style, impressionism. Van Gogh extended its atmospheric paint strokes into the whorls of a violent struggle with his soul. Gauguin ran off to the South Seas to give impressionism's semiliberated color (and his own earthiness) free reign. Cdzanne stayed home, but he put bones back into landscape painting and pointed the way to the next great revolution, cubism. And then there was Georges Seurat, whom Degas called "the notary" because of his conservative dress and demeanor.

Seurat's entire career of nine years was even shorter than van Gogh's brief mature period, and all it accomplished in terms of modern art's requisite frontier-expanding was to draw back the borders of impressionism and fortify them with science. Where Monet painted flick-flick-flick with at least a little fuzzy recklessness, Seurat went dot-dot-dot in apparently dutiful compliance with the color theories of scientists like Michel-Eugene Chevreul and Ogden Rood.

True, he painted one outsize masterpiece ("Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte," 1886) that ranks well below the Mona Lisa and just about even with Grant Woods's "American Gothic" as a fine-art icon lodged in our popular consciousness. But Seurat's process-a scene's color devolved into spectral bytes and applied to the canvas with a watchmaker's patience-has always conveyed more obsession than genius, like one of those exact models of the Eiffel Tower constructed with wooden matchsticks. And pointillism (the name of the style Seurat shared with Maurice Signac and Camille Pissarro) has always seemed like a mechanical, if charming, dead end. A new retrospective exhibition titled simply "Seurat 1859-91" (it premiered in Paris and is at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 12) will probably change that point of view.

The Seurat who emerges from this show is not quite the cool visual engineer he's long been billed. Rather, he's an alchemist able to conjure the most delicate moods-of both light and people-from daubs of paint and stipplings of Conte crayon. There is, the exhibition confirms, more than enough fine madness in his exacting method to make him a true peer of van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne.

Seurat was born the youngest child of a secure middle-class Parisian family (the father was a real-estate entrepreneur). His brother Emile was, according to Robert Herbert's painstaking catalog, a "middling playwright" who lived partly off his parents' largesse, and his sister Marie-Berthe married nicely (ah, the realities of prefeminist Europe!). So there wasn't much objection to allowing young Georges to enroll in art school. After an obligatory one year of military duty, the 23-year-old Seurat set up as a painter with a studio on the rue de Chabrol in one of the city's artists' neighborhoods. Less than a decade later, never having married but with a son by his working-class mistress, he died of diphtheria. (Two weeks later, the baby Pierre Georges followed him.) In that relative moment as a professional artist, the industrious Seurat completed more than 230 paintings and a like number of drawings. Commercially, he didn't do badly for a revolutionary artist whose every work was a noble attempt to express a truth about light and shade much deeper than mere appearances.

In "Models" (1888), for example, Seurat applies his technique simultaneously to three traditional genres: the figure, still-life and landscape (the last wittily indirect, via a quote from his own "Grande Jatte"). Flecks of pure color hover and buzz themselves into a gay meditation on the nature of painting. Seurat emphasizes this, as he did in many pictures, with a pointillist buffer zone--a kind of abstract color inventory-around the painting's perimeter. The overall effect is more felicitous here than in the grandly scaled version of the same picture at the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania. In fact, if Seurat has a fault it's a tendency to get a little programmatic, especially in his six extra-big canvases. Fortunately for the rhythm of this show, four of them are no shows (a couple, like "Grande Jatte" at the Art Institute of Chicago, can't travel for physical reasons; the others aren't going because of administrative ones). This leaves the archly composed "Circus," finished the year Seurat died, to lend a sour note to the exhibition.

Nothing, however, can subtract from the revelation of Seurat's drawings. Seurat was a true prodigy, and the academic nudes he did as a teenager display a daunting confidence. By his mid-20s, he was a master, and the drawings from the 1880s are like nobody else's. Characteristically rendered in Conte crayon on gently textured paper, their soft scribbles carefully condense to black patches, the patches to a few simple shapes, and the shapes to figures or landscapes. If that were all, Seurat would merely be a pretty good graphic designer. But with these minimal means Seurat gets across with astonishing certitude the body's subtle twists, the face's contemplation and the landscape's fading light. And if that were all, he would merely be a great draftsman instead of an artist whose created universe seems rock solid one moment and a magic cloud the next.

Some connoisseurs have been a little puzzled by the drawings, which are after all the intensely monochrome works of a painter ostensibly consumed by color. Although many of them, like "Seated Boy, Nude" (1883) were part of Seurat's preparations for particular paintings, practically all are aesthetically self-sufficient. Instead of being dependent on, or ancillary to the paintings, Seurat's drawings illuminate both media so that the humanity of each comes through. This show makes it wonderfully evident that postimpressionism (such a dead label for such lively art!) was led by four profound artists with hardly any qualitative distance among them. Will any country's painting ever again finish a century like France's finished the last?