About Neo-Impressionism

Maximilien Luce (French, 1858–1941), Morning, Interior, 1890
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967
Image Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Image source: Art Resource, NY
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Georges Seurat admired the bright palette of the Impressionists, but he wanted to ground his approach in sound principles of structure and color behavior. Working in Paris in the mid-1880s, the young artist turned to scientific theories of optics and color perception as the basis for his art, which became known as Neo-Impressionism. His methods called for the use of dotted brushstrokes applied according to rules of color behavior. In 1886, he first exhibited Sunday at the Grande Jatte (not included in this exhibition), the monumental painting that has become the most representative work of the movement. After a controversial debut in Paris, the painting traveled to Brussels. While Seurat’s novel style confounded most viewers, it attracted an enthusiastic band of progressive artists in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Scholars have examined the paintings they produced from several perspectives: as the application of science to art, as social commentary, as a reflection of political philosophies, and as a precursor to many concepts of 20th-century aesthetics. Perhaps because Seurat’s great initiative was rooted in the desire to re-create natural light and the sensation of brilliant color, the primary vehicles for analyzing the technique have been landscapes, marines, and scenes of urban life. As a result, Neo-Impressionist portraits have received scant attention.

The first Neo-Impressionist portraits were painted in Paris in the 1880s, decades after the invention of photography had made realistic likenesses widely available. While physical resemblance remained a basic component of portraiture, artists of the era were also free to emphasize their individual techniques, their pursuit of psychological or spiritual identity, and their rapport with their subjects. The portraits featured in this exhibition blend varying degrees of the descriptive, the stylistic, and the expressive, revealing a unique chapter in the rich story of portraiture.

Henri-Edmond Cross (French, 1856–1910), Madame Hector France, 1891
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Photo: Hervé Lewandowski
© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

While Seurat was the founder of Neo-Impressionism, he was not the first artist to create portraits in the style. That distinction goes to Seurat’s colleague, a self-taught artist and professional soldier, Albert Dubois-Pillet. A pivotal member of the Neo-Impressionist movement represented in the exhibition is Paul Signac, Seurat’s loyal friend who was instrumental in the spread of the aesthetic. Vincent van Gogh, who had moved to Paris in 1886, was acquainted with both Seurat and Signac and applied the complementary colors and divided brushwork of their approach to several works of 1887, including one of his most powerful self-portraits. Several Belgian painters became some of the most adept of Seurat’s followers. Georges Lemmen applied Seurat’s methods painstakingly and also managed to endow his portraits with psychological intensity.

The heyday of Neo-Impressionism was confined to little more than a decade, from 1886 to the late 1890s. After 1900, Theo Van Rysselberghe was the sole artist painting Neo-Impressionist portraits, and the meticulous brushwork pioneered by Seurat had evolved to longer, broader strokes and colors less dependent on traditional Neo-Impressionist harmonies. The era of this unique contribution to the portrait tradition had come to a close.

Neo-Impressionist works at the IMA

Jan Toorop, Broek in Waterland
The Neo-Impressionist Gallery, Hulman 209
This dramatic twilight scene by the Netherland’s most devoted Neo-Impressionist, Jan Toorop, combines an unusual Neo-Impressionist color scheme with careful dotted brushwork and a firm sense of structure.

Camille Pissarro, The House of the Deaf Woman and the Belfry at Éragny
The Neo-Impressionist Gallery, H209
This very rare landscape is a prime example of the revered Impressionist Camille Pissarro’s adoption of Seurat’s theories.

Maximilien Luce, La Rue Mouffetard
The Neo-Impressionist Gallery, H209
This unusual view of Paris in 1890 demonstrates Luce’s allegiance to Neo-Impressionist methods and his interest in recording scenes of everyday life.