Georges Seurat’s vibrant and harmonious images, comprising distinct daubs of complementary color, revolutionized painting. Born in Paris, Seurat entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1878. He rapidly elaborated a personal idiom fed by 19th-century scientific theories of chromatics, optics, and physiological perception espoused by such thinkers as Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and Charles Henry, respectively. In 1881, he began a series of rural studies to which the Guggenheim’s paintings appertain. He was largely inspired by the peasant imagery of Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet, and his crosshatched brushstrokes in these small works of agrarian life belie his incipient experiments with the division of color. A master draftsman, he created contemporaneous conté crayon drawings that capitalize on the textured surface of the paper to create zones of light and dark in eerily evocative images, as with the twilit Place de la Concorde, Winter (Place de la Concorde, l’hiver, ca. 1882–83). Seurat’s investigations led to a more developed exploitation of contrasting color in 1884 with his transitional Bathers at Asnières (Une Baignade, Asnières). He eventually called his technique chromoluminarism, because the juxtaposition of individual hues elicited greater light effects, while contemporary critics christened it Pointillism or Neo-Impressionism.
In 1886, at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, Seurat and a circle of like-minded painters jolted the art world with their radical works. The centerpiece was A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 (Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ille de la Grande Jatte—1884, 1884–86), Seurat’s epic painting of Parisians captured in a moment of leisure-time consumption along the banks of the Seine. The subjects Seurat portrayed in his other major images of metropolitan life—street musicians, circus performers, can-can dancers, and models—equally epitomize modernity. While rural and urban social themes are an attendant aspect of his work (although he never overtly voiced the leftist political ideals shared by most of the Neo-Impressionists), from the mid-1880s onward, Seurat also painted port scenes and seascapes along the northern coastline of France. These luminous works devoid of people, which combine mosaic-like surfaces with arabesque forms, are meant to induce emotive states in the viewer through particular deployments of color, chromatic intensity, and line, transcending the potentially formulaic confines of a method founded in scientific process. Such ideas were influential for his contemporaries, as well as the Symbolist painters of the 1890s. Yet, because Seurat was notoriously reticent and wrote little about his theories, when his life was cut short by diphtheria at age 31, these hermetic works became his singular legacy.