‘The summa’ of pointillism: the painting that redefined a movement and the artist who pioneered it

Max Carter, Vice Chairman at Christie’s, and art historian Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen explore the evolution of Georges Seurat’s oeuvre

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Details from Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), 1888. 15½ x 19¾ in (39.3 x 50 cm). Sold for $149,240,000 in Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection Part I on 9 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Just a few years before his untimely death at the age of 31, Georges Seurat began work on an interior composition of three nudes. The result, Les Poseuses, was both a defence of his pointillist technique and a declaration of the artist’s revolutionary modernism. 

After the sensation of Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte, Seurat sought to respond to his critics who questioned the limits of pointillism. Now part of the collection of The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Les Poseuses is the artist’s iconic demonstration of the technique’s versatility. 

Along with preparatory studies and sketches, Seurat also created Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version). According to the French art critic Félix Fénéon, this version was not a detailed study, but rather a replica of the larger composition. In its delicate colour palette and modernized depictions of the traditional nude, Seurat further perfects his visionary technique. 

Together with art historian and acting director of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art at the Clark Art Institute, Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, Christie’s Vice Chairman Max Carter discusses the importance of Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), which will be offered on 9 November 2022 as part of Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection at Christie's in New York.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), 1888. 15½ x 19¾ in (39.3 x 50 cm). Sold for $149,240,000 in Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection Part I on 9 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Max Carter: Les Poseuses was painted in 1888: where is Seurat in his life and career and what exactly is he intending to achieve in this smaller, later, more exquisite variant of the larger canvas at the Barnes Foundation? 

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen: Signac referred to the Grande Jatte as Seurat’s ‘manifesto painting’. Poseuses is a double manifesto and the most self-reflexive painting of his career in the sense that it considers and unpacks the meaning of the Grande Jatte. The petite version is a replica of his most significant work and the Barnes Poseuses, as well as a working out and resolution of technical questions. It's perhaps even more thrilling and satisfying than the original. 

MC: You’re one of the lucky few who has seen both the Barnes and Paul Allen Poseuses up close. [The Barnes Poseuses is hung high above Cezanne’s Card Players.] How do they differ apart from scale? When you look at the Barnes Poseuses, at least from afar, it appears to have a uniform, silvery sheen. 

EB: One of the critiques of Poseuses was that it was grey. I would say the tone is more purple. The vibrancy and purity that chromoluminarism was meant to produce generally went off the rails in one way or another, whether through the degradation of pigments or the way that the little dots of paint made the picture appear mechanical. The colour is certainly brighter and more dynamic in the Paul Allen Poseuses.

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Georges Seurat's Les Poseuses on view at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo: © 2022 The Barnes Foundation

MC: We’ve all seen the image, but you have studied it as carefully as anyone. And you write wonderfully about pictures. What exactly are we looking at? What are his influences, preoccupations, symbols? 

EB: I had a dinner party last night and I woke up with dishes all over my house, which is probably not unlike Seurat’s studio in 1888. The Grande Jatte tour is over, and his manifesto painting is back in storage in the left corner of his room. He conceived Poseuses when he was receiving the various reviews of his manifesto and reading them very carefully. 

In front of the Grande Jatte there are three nude female models: one of them seated with her back turned toward us; one of them facing us in a in a pose that I think is quite important; and then another model turned in profile, pulling up her stockings, apparently about to leave. Many scholars from Linda Nochlin to François Cachin have described how this painting takes up the theme of the three graces. So, it works within that tradition.

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Left to right: Georges Seurat, Poseuse de dos, 1887. Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Georges Seurat, Poseuse de face, 1887. Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Georges Seurat, Poseuse de profil, 1887. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Yet, it’s unclear whether they are the same woman. Is it instead a time lapse of one woman entering the studio, taking off her clothes, posing and then getting dressed to leave to depart the scene of representation? However one reads it, the poses of the individual figures are important. 

One of the Grande Jatte’s chief controversies was the rigidity of its figures. Seurat takes those same figures and gives them highly recognizable classical poses. 

MC: There's no kitchen sink — though there is a stove in one corner — but this feels like a ‘kitchen sink’ painting, in many ways a summation of everything Seurat achieved and would achieve before his death. 

EB: I would call it a requiem and an exorcism in one work. It’s his farewell to the model as well as his farewell to classicism. Seurat was a relatively conservative student who was formed at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he was taught that painting from the model was the fundament of advanced artistic practice, and where he was taught that figure painting was the most significant painterly genre.

‘I would call it a requiem and an exorcism in one work. It’s his farewell to the model as well as his farewell to classicism’ — Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen

How many models were involved in the making of the Grande Jatte is an open question. Most likely only one, and the Conté crayon study being offered in the Paul Allen collection [lot 7] is possibly the only drawing where the model actually came to Seurat’s studio in order to pose for the Grande Jatte

In the figure paintings that follow, the scale changes radically and Seurat works in a much more mechanical style. The figures thereafter are more clearly divorced from the physical human reference that animates Poseuses

MC: If it’s the end of models and classicism, it is, too, the terminal conclusion of pointillism as a technique. Seurat dies tragically at age 31 [in 1891]. Where could — and where did — he possibly go from here? 

EB: It's hard because his last painting Le Cirque [Musée d’Orsay], is possibly unfinished. I also think in some ways you have answered your own question, Max. Maybe nowhere. Poseuses is the summa. This is his last horizontal painting and after that his figure paintings shift to what I would call a poster format. So, it’s a turning point in its technique, too. Seurat doesn’t get any more beautiful than he does in Les Poseuses.

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Left: Georges Seurat, Étude pour ‘Les poseuses’, 1886-1887. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. Right: Georges Seurat, Poseuse debout, de face, étude pour “Les poseuses”, 1886-1887. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

MC: Little is known of Seurat’s inner life. Stephen Sondheim [who collaborated with James Lapine to create the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Seurat-inspired musical, Sunday in the Park with George] suggested that he might not have been an ideal dining companion. Were he alive, what sort of company might we expect? 

EB: God, what I would give to have dinner with him. He was studious. He was quiet. He was a hard worker. And he was very preoccupied with his reputation. In one piece of correspondence between him and [his friend and foremost critical champion] Félix Fénéon, he weighed the relative number of articles in which he and Signac were called an ‘innovator’. 

He was paranoid, but he had an inner life that is not known to us. When he showed up at his mother's apartment shortly before his death he brought a secret family no one knew about. The mother of his child, who was pregnant at the time, was an artist’s model. So, Sondheim and Lapine’s inferences about Dot, their female protagonist, aren’t necessarily far-fetched. 

I remember a footnote from Jonathan Crary's study of Seurat, which said something like the psychobiography of Seurat is yet to be written. And I guess he didn't want it to be. But boy, would I love to read one.

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Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is acting director of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art at the Clark Art Institute and author of Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition, which contains the most comprehensive art-historical study to date of Seurat’s Poseuses.

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