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Making a Point with Pointillism

Pointillism is a style of painting developed by French painter Georges Seurat in the late 19th century and is generally considered to be a form of Neo-Impressionism. In Pointillism, the artist generates non-primary colors by placing primary colors (red, blue and yellow) next to each other. The primary color paint is applied to the canvas in small dots or “points.” When viewed at a distance, the points of primary color blend to form a variety of non-primary colors. In effect, the colors in the painting are mixed in the viewer’s mind and not physically on the canvas.

Many admirers of Seurat’s work are surprised to learn that the artist was greatly influenced by scientific principles of the times. During the 19th century, several scientists published works on color theory and perception and these ideas were presented to the public in a way that was understandable to non-scientists and were particularly aimed at artists and art connoisseurs.

Seurat was particularly influenced by the book Grammaire des arts du dessin, written by Charles Blanc, in which he discussed the theories of the French scientist Chevreul, whose most well-known contribution to the arts was the creation of the color wheel of primary, secondary and intermediary hues. Chevreul noted the importance of surrounding colors on the perception of individual colors and described the “halo effect” wherein an opposing color is seen after staring at a color for a length of time. Seurat seems to have taken Chevreul’s advice to artists to understand the role of colors and to consciously plan how to best imitate the harmony that is experienced in reality.

Also of great significance to Seurat was the work of Ogden Rood who also noted, like Chevreul, that if two colors are placed close to each other, the human mind would perceive the combination as a separate third color. Rood noted the difference between subtractive colors -- those that are mixed on the palette, and additive colors -- those that are mixed in the mind. Rood believed that additive colors were brighter and more “pure” as well as more pleasing to the eye.

Seurat adopted some of the concepts described in an article entitled The Phenomena of Vision, written by theorist David Sutter. Sutter maintained that light was composed of three main elements: vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, and proposed emotional equivalents for certain colors and forms. Sutter’s analysis of light and line fed into the work of the mathematician Charles Henry. Henry attempted to define a method for artists to create harmony by coordinating line and color according to specific geometric and algebra formulas.

Using the aforementioned scientific theories, Seurat not only developed the painting technique of Pointillism but used line and color to create harmony in his paintings. For example, Seurat attempted to create gaiety through the use of warm and luminous colors and by the dominance of lines above the horizontal. As the leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement, Seurat challenged the intuition and spontaneity of Impressionism and instead attempted to express emotion and harmony through the scientific use of line and color. Other artists who adopted this style of painting were Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross and Vlaho Bukovac.

The Pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat required careful planning and extreme patience. Seurat's painting A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte is his most well-known work in the Pointillist style and perhaps the painting which best expresses his theories. The painting took Seurat nearly two years to complete and was composed of over three million dots!

To see A Sunday in the Park by Seurat, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at