Le Chemin creux is among the most expansive and spatially complex of Seurat's early landscape paintings. The peripheral shadows of a shaded glen frame the scene. Gazing into a brightly sunlit field, the viewer's eye follows a country lane as it recedes downhill into a valley. The vertical axis of the road bisects the composition, and a horizontal line, set on a pronounced slant, demarcates the middle ground, establishing a composition made up of four asymmetrically balanced quadrants. The artist has indicated the focal point of this strongly perspectival design with a small triangular wedge of a pinkish tint, part of the roof of a house hidden among the trees. Here all the directional aspects of the scene converge: the road, the divided sections of the field, the hedgerow on the right side, the diagonal slope of the arboreal foliage above it and the slanting trunks of the tall trees on the left. Beyond the house the landscape rises to the horizon line, where bluish hills mark the far rim of the valley.
Seurat's first landscape paintings date from 1881-1882. He had studied for less than two years at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris, during which time he had shown skill in drawing the figure, although he failed to place in the Ecole competition. When he returned to the capital in November 1880 following his year of obligatory military service, he was keen to begin painting in oils and using color. He wanted to work outdoors, plein air, just as the more progressive artists of his time had been doing--the Impressionists, and before them, the Barbizon painters. A fervent admirer of Delacroix, Seurat took a strong interest in color theory, and purchased a copy of Ogden Rood's Théorie scientifique des couleurs, the French translation of the Columbia University professor's text Modern Chromatics, which had been recently published as a title in an everyman's line of science books.
Seurat spent the summer and fall of 1881 painting with his friend Aman-Jean in Pontaubert, in the Yonne region. During the summer of 1882 Seurat again worked sur le motif, while on outings in the Fontainebleau forest, in the vicinity of Barbizon, the community which gave its name to the colony of pioneering plein-air landscape painters of an earlier generation, including Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny, Harpignies and Díaz. In addition to pure landscapes, devoid of any human presence, Seurat painted studies of peasants working in the fields and breaking stones (Hauke, no. 33; fig. 1). The wheat in the field on the left-hand side of Le Chemin creux is tall and uncut, whereas on the other side of the road it has been mown; the harvest is in progress, indicating that the painting was probably done in the late summer or early fall.
Commentators have generally traced Seurat's early progress in landscape painting as a gradual progression from Barbizon influences to Impressionism. John Leighton and Richard Thomson have written, "Thus a tendency to sombre naturalism was superseded by a more vigorous touch and a more sophisticated handling of colour as he began to study the chromatic adventures of Monet and his contemporaries." They go on to point out, however, that "This might be useful as a general description of the pattern of Seurat's development in the early 1880s, but only a few of his panels can be dated with any certainty and their experimental quality tends to foil any attempt to place them in a logical chronological sequence. Seurat could be flexible in his approach, trying out different methods of brushwork and colour and adopting the style that best suited his subject" (Seurat and the Bathers, exh. cat., The National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 36).
Le Chemin creux displays characteristics that Seurat derived from both landscape schools. Dissolving landscape forms into shimmering masses of light and dark, the hazy sunlight in this painting is the high noon counterpart to Corot's veiled and silvery early morning light, and indeed Seurat appears to have shared some measure of the Barbizon master's misty mood, a gentle mingling of the triste and serene. One may also detect here the typically Impressionist interest in locating landscape views that would yield distinctively novel compositions, in which the details of the scene were subsumed within an overall pictorial design. Monet or Sisley would have appreciated the layout and dovetailing of landscape forms in Le Chemin creux, and in this respect Seurat's painting at this stage already appears to consciously reflect elements of landscape organization as seen in classic Impressionist paintings of the mid-1870s. To this aspect Seurat has contributed his own subjective element of spatial ambiguity, as he consciously plays off the flatness of the picture plane against the illusion of space. Forms viewed from a distance give the coherent illusion of existing in a natural spatial context. Seen close up, however, they blend and fuse into a flat, interwoven fabric, a tapestry comprising countless threads of color.
By the time Seurat painted Le Chemin creux, he was already the master of a distinctive style of drawing, which he developed soon after leaving the Ecole, having cast aside the classical contours, carefully delineated chiaroscuro and the conventional themes of his academic training. Seurat chose his subjects from everyday urban and rural life. He depicted them and their settings in juxtaposed masses of light and shade, abstracting and simplifying his forms, placing strongly characterized silhouettes against the light, or conversely, glowing forms against a dark ground. The motifs in his contemporaneous landscape drawings often exist in an eerie half light, taking on a mysterious and serene grandeur (Hauke, no. 652; fig. 2). Robert L. Herbert has written: "Throughout his short life Seurat placed black and white before color. He therefore exercised control over shapes and their positioning, so that color could be treated as a garment: a glorious garment, woven with miraculous sensitivity and book knowledge... Most of the writings on art and science that he studied before 1881, although devoted to color, claimed that the controlling phenomenon was light and dark. Both his drawings and paintings, dissimilar in some respects, posit a continuum of light and dark and are therefore subject to this principle. [Seurat] was a painter's draftsman. Signac later said of his drawings that 'they were so studied in contrast and gradation that one could paint after them without seeing the model'" (Seurat Drawings and Paintings, New Haven, 2001, p. 69).
Examining the black-and-white illustration of Le Chemin creux in the Hauke catalogue raisonné (op. cit.), one might easily imagine the reverse of Signac's statement to be true: one could execute from this painting a fully realized drawing that similarly contrasts the masses of sky and sunlit fields against the darker shapes of foliage. No such closely related drawing actually exists; it was Seurat's custom to execute his subjects, in both his early paintings and drawings, as independent and one-of-a-kind efforts. There is, however, a drawing that also depicts a country road traversing a field, with the landscape set on a slant, dating from around this time, which may have been executed at this same locale from another vantage point nearby (Hauke, no. 452; fig. 3).
Between 1881 and 1883 Seurat painted approximately 65 works on small wood panels measuring just under 6 by 10 inches (16 x 25 cm.), and about 15 canvases of varying dimensions which, like Le Chemin creux, are roughly double the size of the panels or larger. The panels were painted au premier coup, usually in a single sitting before the motif, while the larger canvases would have been begun on site and finished during later sessions in Seurat's Paris studio. Le Chemin creux is remarkable for the artist's efforts in creating a varied and finely worked painterly surface. Using flat brushes only lightly loaded with paint in mixed and tinted tones, Seurat has scumbled his colors on the canvas, working up the paint film thin layer upon layer, angling each stroke over the previous ones to create an irregular but discernible crisscross mesh. This gossamer surface reveals the artist's acutely sensitive response to color and light. It is already clear that Seurat would become a colorist who would eschew bold, brushy effects--such as those of Monet--in preference for a delicate, lustrous and finely nuanced surface, in which color interaction would take place in microscale. This conception would eventually result, over the course of the next several years, in Seurat's fully fledged pointillist technique.
Seurat probably began his initial preparatory work, in paintings on small wood panels and a series of drawings, for his first major canvas, La Baignade (Hauke, no. 92; The National Gallery, London) in the spring or summer of 1883, less than a year after he painted Le Chemin creux. Not yet twenty-five years of age, Seurat exhibited La Baignade in the first Salon des Artistes Indépendants in the spring of 1884. He completed his most famous painting, Un Dimanche d'Été à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte, two years later (Hauke, no. 162; The Art Institute of Chicago). Leighton and Thomson have written, "As a group, the array of small canvases and panels that Seurat produced in the early 1880s might offer few clues to the scale of ambition that would be revealed in the Bathers. Yet each of these little studies betrays the quiet potential of Seurat's methods, and close study reveals the careful decisions and calculations that underpin even those pictures that appear to be direct and spontaneous. Perhaps his greatest achievement in these years was his mastery of colour. Seurat inherited the academic view that colour was subordinate to form, but his paintings indicate that study of this element was one of his main preoccupations" (op. cit., p. 41).
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Casseur de pierres, circa 1882. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 12.
Barcode 28000563 FIG
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, Maison carrée, circa 1882-1884. Sold, Christie's New York, 5 November 2008, lot 1.
Barcode 28000556 FIG
(fig. 3) Georges Seurat, Paysage, circa 1881-1882. Sold, Christie's New York, 11 May 1995, lot 101.
Barcode 28000549 FIG