Le Peintre à la palette belongs to the first series of figure drawings realized by Georges Seurat around 1880-1881, today considered to be the early stages of his mature career with works on paper. His distinctive style was recorded as early as 1879 in his "Carnet de Brest," scenes of everyday life, executed during his military service. He would eventually move away from the academic methods taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, abandon the quest for harmony of perfect forms, and begin working with parallel lines to define his subjects. The art historian Robert Herbert considers this period to be the second of three stages of the artist's graphic development: "Pure line drawings, compositions based upon cross-hatching and closely packed parallel lines, and the fully mature drawings which may vary considerably, but have in common a subtle interplay of velvety shades to which any line still visible is entirely subordinate" (Seurat's Drawings, Shorewood, New York, 1962, p. 36).
Influenced by Naturalist literature in vogue at the end of the 19th century, Seurat drew a series of sixty works from life (Hauke, nos. 388-447) recording figures out of doors. They generally represent different character types from the middle-class, such as Boucher de dos, debout et accoudé (Hauke, no. 407; fig. 1), named for the profession rather than the man depicted. Le Peintre à la palette is distinguished by its more personal subject matter: a painter at work, holding a palette and paintbrush. Possibly a self-portrait or a portrait of his fellow artist Charles Angrand, who used to accompany Seurat on his study trips to the Grande-Jatte, the drawing has become a metaphor for Seurat's aesthetic research, with his subject matter serving his méthode. Indeed, the scene here is focused on the landscape around the painter, not the one he himself observes and paints.
Studying Le Peintre à la palette reveals the Post-Impressionist master's technique. Seurat's system of narrow parallel lines differentiates the levels of his composition, but also creates the subtle chiaroscuro that the artist would develop further the following year in his mature drawings. Le peintre à la palette is one of the earliest works in Conté crayon, which, more solid than charcoal, allows for a more pronounced stroke and a deeper black. Seurat uses hatching here both to depict forms and to create varied tone. Density of lines and the pressure of the crayon on the paper are both adjusted for the play of light and shadow. These elements offer a key to understanding the artist's later drawings, which became pictorially more technical.
Seurat's ingenious working methods had a strong impact on modern artists, particularly the cubist painters who "appreciated the flawless structure, the sense of space and interval" (D. Catton Rich, Seurat and the evolution of 'La Grande Jatte', Chicago, 1935, p. 3). Pablo Picasso was particularly proud of the seven Seurat drawings in his personal collection, almost exclusively from the same series as Le peintre à la palette, and was always pleased to show them to visitors (F. Gilot, Matisse et Picasso, Paris, 1991, p. 36).
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Boucher de dos, debout et accoudé, circa 1881. Private collection. Barcode 30452589 COMP