Presented to the public for the first time in Seurat's important monographic exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in January 1920, La Promenade is one of the finest and most mysterious drawings realized by the artist around 1882. His friend Signac surely had this drawing in mind when he wrote these lines in 1899 that served as introduction to the catalogue for that exhibition: "The result of Seurat's studies was his intelligent and fruitful theory of contrast, to which he thereafter submitted all of his oeuvres. Firstly he applied it to chiaroscuro: with simple resources, the white of a sheet of Ingres paper and the black of Conté crayon, carefully shaded or contrasted, he executed around four hundred drawings, the most beautiful 'painter's drawings' that have ever existed. Because of this perfect mastery of values, it could be said that these 'black and whites' are most luminous and more colorful than many paintings."
Although Seurat is known today as the inventor of Neo-Impressionism, his black and white works on paper played a crucial role in the development of his color theory. Between 1881 and 1883, the artist devoted himself almost exclusively to drawings. After a brief academic education in 1878-1879 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the studio of Henri Lehmann, Seurat embraced Naturalism and focused on developing his methode. During this period, he represented people in the street and scenes of daily life through both sketches and independent drawings that would quickly achieve a certain maturity. If little information is known of Seurat's life, the artist did reveal the scientific essays and theories that influenced him in a letter to critic Félix Fénéon from 20 June, 1890. Before the color theories of Michel-Eugène Chevreul or Odgen Rood, Charles Blanc published his Grammaire des Arts du dessin in 1860 and taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, spurring Seurat's own experimentation with chiaroscuro techniques: "The words 'chiaroscuro unity' mean that there will be a main clear mass and a dominant brown mass, because all rivalry produces a combat force that would disconcert the eyes and outstanding desired sensation."
The uniqueness of Seurat's drawings, especially La Promenade, lies in his use of Conté crayon and Michallet paper, with the watermark appearing here vertically on the bottom left of the page. This kind of Ingres paper was thick and textured; the grooves of the mould in which it was hand-made remained visible on the surface. Seurat was the first to so perfectly master the combination of these two elements to create a color-chart of grays, from intense black to the most vibrant light. While the mystery and elegance of the drawing's subject is fascinating, Seurat was certainly as focused on his technique and light effects. Rubbing varying degrees of dense black crayon into the paper grain, the artist leaves white dots from which light seems to emerge. In La Promenade, executed at the same time as the amazing drawing Le Noeud noir, circa 1882 (Hauke, no. 511; fig. 1) now at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Seurat focuses his attention on the bow of his subject's dress. The deep black even creates the sensation of velvety fabric. This intensity has long been attributed solely to the properties of the Conté crayon, but recent scientific analyses conducted by conservators on the portrait of his friend Aman-Jean, 1882-1883 (Hauke, no. 588; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) have revealed that Seurat actually applied fixatives between layers of crayon to create a shiny effect. The makeup of Conté crayon remains unchanged since the brand was patented at the end of the 18th century: carbon black, clay, and graphite, but no wax, even in the greasiest of crayons.
Through his drawings of elegant women, Seurat experimented with the possibilities of achieving aesthetic harmony through a division of tones, using black crayon. Interested in optical science, he applied the principles of Chevreul's De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs in 1839, which stated that each color has a complementary effect on the tone of an adjacent color--to black and white drawings. By placing darker zones--here the black bow--immediately beside lighter areas, such as the background, Seurat created a diffuse luminosity that he called "irradiation." While the woman in the drawing Le Noeud noir stands immobile, the light literally emanates from her back. The source of light is quite different in La Promenade. The singular treatment of the empty background gives the impression that the woman is walking toward the light, coming from her right-hand side. The strong vertical strokes on the left of the page, combined with the scumble of lines on the right, place the figure amidst an abstract composition that makes the work resolutely modern.
Although the subject of these works may have been secondary to Seurat's optical research, women appear often enough between 1882 and 1884 to suggest a continued interest, equal to his interest in depicting peasants and workers. The artist drew more than twenty women situated out of doors, with the same general characteristics: generally alone, they are depicted from the back or in profile. As is typical of Seurat, the figures are a total mystery--we do not know who they are. He was probably inspired by an urban "type"--nurses, elegant ladies with muffs and umbrellas the artist may have passed on the street, in a park, or at the market. Viewers cannot see their faces or hands. Seurat's anonymous figures serve his technique, but he has added specific details indicative of social status--most of these women belong to the middle-class bourgeoisie. In Le Manteau blanc, circa 1883 (Hauke, no. 570) for instance, the woman is hidden by an umbrella, but we can see the fur of her muff and on the pocket's edge of her coat, while La Dame en noir, circa 1882 (Hauke, no. 508) with her adjusted waist and her raised collar, has an imposing bearing that speaks for itself.
La Promenade, perhaps the most chic woman ever represented by the artist, is clearly a Parisienne from the end of the 19th century, comparable to Renoir's La Parisienne from 1874 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). While their iconographies are similar, Renoir also indicates that his woman represents a type rather than a particular individual by giving his painting such a title. Seurat may have seen the painting when it was presented at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and he was interested in Renoir according to the critic Gustave Kahn, writing in Mercure de France (1 April 1924): "Like all true finders, Seurat willingly revealed the sources of his theories and their application, not only some science books that he read and assimilated, but also the paintings of Masters. He felt close to Renoir."
According to art historian Richard Thomson, fashion engravings published in series late 19th century could have also influenced Seurat, who was fascinated by popular imagery when he was young (although these elegant women appear mostly in Seurat's late works). La Promenade precedes the chic women that stroll in Seurat's masterpiece Un Dimanche d'été à l'Ile de La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886 (The Art Institute of Chicago), which also established him as a draftsman of latest fashion, clothing his women with the famous "faux-cul," or fake-bottom from the 1880s that ballooned out beneath a tiny waist. The artist stylized the feminine silhouettes as seen in the main character with the umbrella that we can find in the oil study for La Grande-Jatte, La Femme au singe, 1884 (fig. 2). The two critics Paul Adam and Jean Ajalbert, close to Seurat's circle, after having looked and discussed La Grande Jatte, thought that "the dress had a meaning; it denoted modernity, the latest fashion and at the same time the superficiality of what was only chic" (R. Thomson, Seurat, Oxford, 1990, p. 120).
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Le Noeud noir, circa 1882. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Barcode 30452619COMP
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, La Grande-Jatte, La Femme au singe, 1884. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts.