About a year before presenting his first mural-scale painting, Baigneuses (1883-1884) at the Salon des Indépendants in 1884, Seurat completed more than twenty drawings and oil paintings depicting agrarian workers and peasants in the fields around Paris. These oil-on-wood panels and black crayon drawings paved the way for Seurat's Neo-Impressionist method of division of color. Faneur, or Casseur de pierres, belongs to this series of works, influenced both by the Barbizon school painters and its main representative Millet, and by the shared themes of Courbet's paintings and Naturalist literature, in vogue during the second half of the 19th century.
Seurat's drawings of farmers, "the most beautiful painter's drawings in existence" (P. Signac, D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, 1899), were not conceived as studies for paintings, but rather realized as finished works from their inception. Their singularity stems from their amazing range of contrasting shades, from light grey to the darkest black, realized through the combination of Conté crayon and thick paper, most frequently of the Michallet brand. The varied application of crayon on the laid paper reveals the inherent grid beneath, small white dots appearing on the deep surface of the paper. The outlines of the figures are never defined, their shapes simply marked by contrasting areas of light and dark. Cross, a contemporary, related Seurat's conversation with fellow artist Angrand, in which the Neo-Impressionist leader explained that his vision allowed him to perceive tone before line, and that he never thought about beginning a canvas with a stroke, insisting that the coloration of things changed their shape ("Inédits d'Henri-Edmond Cross, V," Bulletin de la vie artistique, 15 September 1922). In Faneur, the legs of the working man appear as black masses, his lighter shirt and arms formed by a miasma of lines. The same technique can be found in the drawing Au travail de la terre (Hauke, no. 562; fig. 1), where horizontal crayon lines in the immediate foreground evoke cut grass. The figure seems to float in space, his legs emerging from the haystacks. The background in both drawings is treated with more or less intensity through a tangle of lines, becoming lighter on the bottom to create a horizon.
The exact subject of this work is not easily identifiable. Somewhere between a scene of people working the land and a depiction of a stonebreaker, the drawing's iconography remains unclassified. Cesar M. De Hauke lists two different versions of the title in his catalogue raisonné: Faneur, meaning one who rakes hay to allow it to dry, and the subtitle Casseur de pierres, stone breaker. Robert Herbert, in his 1962 Seurat's Drawings catalogue, discusses the figure as a man hoeing, not raking hay, and compares him to the identically posed men in numerous small Seurat oils of that same period, such as Paysan la houe, circa 1884 (Hauke, no. 103; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection).
Regardless, it clearly relates to the naturalist paintings of farm workers thrashing wheat by Millet, which gained recognition in the 1880s from both official artistic circles as well as avant-garde artists like Pissarro and Gauguin. In 1881, Alfred Sensier wrote a major biography on Millet's life and work that was edited by the librarian of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which Seurat may have seen. Robert Herbert has also identified a reproduction of Millet's peasant girl facing right (a drawing for The Harvester, now with the Dutch Institute in Paris) within the "Seurat Folio," a large folio of drawings and printed popular images found in Seurat's studio by his family after his premature death in 1891. There are Seurat drawings directly inspired by Millet works; Plowing (Hauke, no. 525, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) clearly recalls Millet's Twilight, 1858-1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). If both scenes show peasants in fields, Seurat has complicated his arrangement by backlighting the two characters, having them face the luminous rays of the sunset, thereby reinforcing the contrast between light and dark. If Seurat tended towards the naturalistic painting that entered the Salon from 1860 on, he clearly preferred Millet's style of realism to expressions of the melancholia of farm workers, or veiled political statements about the poor conditions of peasants in the 19th century. Seurat transposed Millet's subjects to his own world and, using the same medium, magnified his techniques by creating deeper contrasts.
Fanuer also has great iconographic similarities with other Seurat drawings representing stone breakers or city workers. He depicted the subject in eight oil sketches and at least five drawings, including both Casseur de pierres (Hauke, no. 555 and 556) and Ouvrier au travail, circa 1882 (Hauke, no. 468; formerly collection of Paul Signac), which show men in the exact same position. Faneur presented here could also be compared to the worker in the foreground of the drawing Casseur de pierres et autres personnages, Le Raincy (Hauke, no. 463; fig. 2), one of the most detailed Conté crayon and graphite drawings made by Seurat, which depicts three figures in a landscape populated by factories or farms. Recent technical analysis has revealed that graphite lines and pinpricks served as guides for drawing these figures, as well as the outline of the entire drawing. An independent drawing, La Femme au panier, 1881-1882 (Hauke, no. 464) has been identified as an exact, enlarged version of the center figure, although it is unclear which drawing precedes the other. Faneur, on the other hand, was certainly executed later, and was perhaps inspired by this earlier stonebreaker.
This repeated theme is a mainstay of naturalist painting, and is now inseparably linked with Courbet's major composition Casseurs de pierres of 1849 (fig. 3; destroyed in 1945 while in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). Exhibited twice at the Salon, in 1849 and 1851, the painting was targeted for several decades by critics denouncing Courbet's social realism. According to Michael Zimmermann, Seurat's take on this same topic manages to express social preoccupation without sentimentality. While the scene in Courbet's painting is strongly focused on the men, who become monumental figures, Seurat was probably fascinated instead by the style of the composition and the figures' hieratism. In his own paintings and especially in his drawings, he isolates the characters. The brute force needed to smash stones is set aside in favor of the frozen gesture, the elegant pose, the balance between light and dark. We cannot see the face or hands of Faneur, and the artist avoids all detail. Instead, he gives us a sense of geometry; the diagonal rake separates the composition into two parts, cutting the figure at his waistline.
Seurat often focused his attention on farmers and gardeners working in nearby Parisian suburbs, a transitional zone between the city and the country that was a main area for industrial development and new construction. Stonebreakers were intimately linked with urban development, known at the time as "Haussmannization," as their work was fundamental to the construction of roads that serviced the growing city. In his landscapes, Seurat often addressed Paris's expansion and the collision of country and city, issues encapsulated here in a single figure. Like many of his fellow artists, including Signac, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, Seurat turned his back on Paris's Grands Boulevards in favor of both the leisure and industry found in these locales. In addition to personal connections to these places--Seurat's father owned property in Le Raincy, northeast of the city--the interests and activities of these artists correlate with population trends, transportation, industrial, and real estate developments, and a general shift in popular weekend activities. Despite his reputation for order, Seurat was attracted to Paris's formless margins. His most famous foray into the subject of the suburbs was surely his masterpiece La Grande Jatte, a representation of suburban weekend leisure. As explained by Jodi Hauptman in her essay "Seurat's drawings on the margins of Paris" (Georges Seurat: The Drawings, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, p. 112), Seurat's works on paper not only depict specific subjects, but also visualize the flux, change, growth, and brutality, the shifting and constantly metamorphosing quality of this terrain. In these works, Seurat does not specify, anecdotalize, or define--his technique seems to consciously defy such specificity. By scraping his black Conté crayon against the textured surface of his Michallet paper, Seurat created a sense of indeterminancy that perfectly captured the flux of these metropolitan edges.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Au travail de la terre, 1904. Musée d'Orsay, Cabinet des arts graphiques du Musée du Louvre, gift of Camille Pissarro, 1904. Barcode 30452633 COMP
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, Casseur de pierres, Le Raincy, 1879-1881. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Barcode 30452596 COMP
(fig. 3) Gustave Courbet, Casseurs de pierres, 1849. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, destroyed in 1945. Barcode 30452558 COMP