Paysage avec cheval was painted around 1882-83 and is one of Georges Seurat's so-called croquetons, pictures created on wooden
panels that he could carry through the countryside, working directly from the motif. It was in these croquetons that Seurat developed the visual language that would lead to his celebrated masterpiece, Une baignade, Asnières, now in the National Gallery, London, in which he would move gradually towards a new concept of painting based on colour theories. The Neo-Impressionism that Seurat would come to spearhead would have a marked effect on colour theories for a number of artists, bringing about new understandings and confidence in the avant garde, resulting in the embrace of Pointillism and thence Divisionism, indirectly paving the way for Expressionism. Paysage avec cheval was one of the works still in Seurat's possession at the time of his untimely death, at the age of only 31; when his estate was divided, at his request, by Félix Fénéon, Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce, this picture was allocated to Seurat's aunt, Alexis-Antoine Chevallot. On its reverse are the marks made by Luce, his friend and fellow Neo-Impressionist, during the period spent inventorising and allocating his works.
For his croquetons, Seurat used small pieces of wood commonly described as cigar box lids. This appears to be an allusive reference rather than a literal one. Instead of the cedar-wood commonly used for cigar boxes, the croquetons are largely walnut or mahogany. Often, Seurat would not prime them, allowing the rich colour of the wood to add its own warm ground to the compositions.
Paysage avec cheval presents the viewer with a scene that was, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, commonplace. In Seurat's world, horses were often a reflection of labour and industry rather than recreation, and this may be the case here. Certainly, there is an
agricultural feel to the view. The expeditions on which Seurat created croquetons such as Paysage avec cheval largely took place in
the countryside, for instance near Barbizon, the village by the Forest of Fontainebleau previously immortalised by a generation of painters whom he admired greatly. Indeed, John Leighton and Richard Thomson pointed out that Barbizon, Mortefontaine and Ville d'Avray, where Seurat painted a great deal during this phase, were all areas associated with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (see J. Leighton & R. Thomson, Seurat and The Bathers, exh. cat., London, 1997, p. 29).
In his croquetons, Seurat was exploring the entire nature of the relationship between colour and form, using his studies of the
ever-advancing science of perception to help inform him. In Paysage avec cheval, those advances are clear in some of the unusual colours that he has used to evoke shade, especially in the body of the horse itself: the lower areas of the creature are flecked with blues and burgundies alike. Seurat's near-hatched brushwork becomes increasingly fine in the white of the horse's body, allowing those colours to seep upwards, evocatively capturing the play of light and shadow on the haunches and back. The tail has largely been rendered with a bold, playful stroke of cream paint, the corrugations of the bristle marks of the brush lending the sense of the horse's hair. Meanwhile, much of the surrounding countryside has been built up with larger, criss-crossing brushstrokes which allow the colours to intermingle, heightening both the vibrancy and the volume of the composition.
Seurat has managed to capture light, colour and form alike through brushstrokes that are almost hatched, darting this way and that. In
this way, he has succeeded both in lending a shimmering, almost Impressionistic air to the composition while also building up a complex sense of monumentality that belies the quotidian nature of the scene. In his drawings, in which he often modelled form through the deft use of charcoal, Seurat managed to invest everyday, often interior scenes of suburban life with grace and poise while also lending them a near-plastic sense of sculptural form. In the landscape croquetons such as Paysage avec cheval, that same transformation has been brought outdoors in a different guise. There is a vivid sense of the mass of the horse itself. At the same time, the composition of the painting as a whole appears almost formal in its use of horizontal bands of green and yellow, with the gleaming white horse thrust into relief by its contrast with that backdrop. This hints at the developments that would lead to Une baignade, Asnières and would subsequently result in the rigorous fusion of art and scientific theory of high Neo-Impressionism.
Paysage avec cheval is one of several studies in which Seurat explored different light effects, colour combinations and senses of
volume through motifs featuring animals, often beasts of burden. In some of these, for instance the picture of a black cow which is now in the collection of Yale University Art Gallery, the sketched nature of the work is apparent in the far broader brushstrokes, as Seurat raced to capture an impression, working with a freedom and spontaneity to record a fleeting effect, in that case, the bright sunlight on the ground contrasting with the rich, blue-flecked shadows. In a work from 1884 in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, a brown horse is shown pulling a carriage into the composition; there is more sky, allowing a contrast between the light of the backdrop and the darker animal. Animals are also present in some of the studies for Une baignade, Asnières itself, for instance the example in the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. In these works, there is a variety of touch: some of them appear to be working studies, others, such as Paysage avec cheval, with its denser brushwork, more finished.
Croquetons such as Paysage avec cheval were the cutting edge arenas of experimentation that would result in various sea-changes in the development of the avant garde. Looking at Seurat's all-too-short career, cut short by his death in his early thirties, it is astonishing to see the advances that he made in the brief period of his so-called maturity. Paysage avec cheval was painted only a couple of years after Seurat had been released from his military service. While he had already been an art student before being conscripted to join the armed forces, it was after his return home in November 1880, having had his way paid out of military service, that he approached art with a new-found passion, and with new-found confidence. Within a short time, only in his early twenties, he was drawing and painting works which were unique in their vision, bold and trailblazing stepping stones towards Neo-Impressionism.