GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
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GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)

Ouvriers enfonçant des pieux

GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
Ouvriers enfonçant des pieux

oil on panel
6 x 9 1⁄2 in. (15.2 x 24.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1881
Ernestine Seurat, Paris (mother of the artist).
Marie Puybonnieux, Paris (by descent from the above).
Jacques and Pierre Puybonnieux, Paris (by descent from the above, by 1933).
Wildenstein & Co. Inc., New York (by 1958).
Adele and Arthur Lehman, New York (by 1959).
Private collection, New York (by descent from the above, circa 1965); sale, Christie's, New York, 21 October 1980, lot 209.
Herbert Black, Montreal (acquired at the above sale).
Gallery Art Point, Tokyo (1987).
Private collection, Japan (circa 2003).
Anon. (acquired from the above, circa 2008); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 7 November 2013, lot 126.
Private collection, London (acquired at the above sale).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
J. de Laprade, George Seurat, Monaco, 1945, p. 2 (illustrated).
H. Dorra and J. Rewald, Seurat: L'oeuvre peint, biographie et catalogue critique, Paris, 1959, p. 37, no. 38 (illustrated).
C.M. de Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, Paris, 1961, vol. I, p. 6, no. 11 (illustrated, p. 7).
J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 509 (illustrated in color; titled Men Building a Fence).
C. Virch, The Adele and Arthur Lehman Collection, New York, 1965, pp. 75-76 (illustrated, p. 76; titled Men Building a Fence).
A. Chastel and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Seurat, Milan, 1971 (illustrated in color, pl. III A).
Paris, La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Seurat et ses amis: La suite de l'Impressionnisme, December 1933-January 1934, no. 165.
The Art Institute of Chicago and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, January-May 1958, p. 27, no. 32.

Lot Essay

Seurat’s oil painting, Ouvriers enfonçant des pieux, depicts a subject that preoccupied Seurat in the early 1880s: rural and urban labor. The majority of Seurat’s oil studies from this period represent individual figures: a worker cutting grass, a peasant breaking stones, or a fisherman with his pole. The present work, however, is a rare example of a group of four construction workers, who together drive tall wooden piles into the earth. This is a more complex composition than other contemporary figure studies. The row of wooden beams forms a linear grid, which juts diagonally across the composition, forming a triangular wedge between the pale dirt road, the richer yellow pile of dirt dotted with green shrubbery, and the light blue sky. Seurat thus rendered the landscape as brightly colored, flat geometric planes, animated by his variegated brushwork.
Seurat first began painting agrarian subjects in 1881, while visiting a friend in the Yonne region, southeast of Paris. The following year, Seurat traveled to the nearby village of Barbizon, near the Fontainebleau forest, to continue his study of rural landscapes and laborers alike. These oil studies never amounted to a major large-scale composition and Seurat eventually turned his focus back towards the leisure, rather than labor, in the modern urban spaces of Paris. However, his interest in marginalized, working-class figures later informed his two early masterpieces, Une baignade, Asnières (1884, National Gallery, London) and Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (1885, The Art Institute of Chicago). Seurat’s Neo-Impressionist colleagues, Paul Signac and Maximillien Luce—with whom Seurat would found the Salon des Indépendants in 1884—would also later monumentalize and heroicize construction work in major canvases of their own.
Seurat produced approximately seventy oil paintings on small wooden panels, which he called ‘croquetons’, in the early 1880s. Then in his early twenties, artist could easily travel with these lightweight supports; these enabled him to paint en plein air, and to executed his compositions in a single painting session. Far from impulsive sketches, however, the present work represents a well-organized composition. As Richard Thomson and John Leighton have written of this group of works: “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” (Seurat and the Bathers, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 41).
The present work also hints at Seurat’s growing preoccupation with theories of color perception, absorbed through scientific treatises. Seurat would soon begin to experiment with a pointillist painting technique—the juxtaposition of tiny dots and dashes of contrasting colors. In Ouvriers enfonçant des pieux, that polychromatic impulse was just taking shape. The wooden piles, for example, are comprised of reddish-brown with bright blue shadows; the pale, buttery-yellow of the road is enhanced with strokes of light-gray-blue.
Seurat’s burgeoning career was cut short when he died in 1891 at the age of thirty-one. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, this painting remained in the hands of the artist’s family, passing from Seurat’s mother to his cousins, Marie Puybonnieux and her sons, Jacques and Pierre. The Puybonnieux family likely lent this panel and several other Seurat paintings—including Le tas de pierres and Paysan travaillant, both now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—to the 1933 Paris exhibition, Seurat et ses amis. By 1959, the painting belonged to Adele Lehman, the widow of Arthur Lehman, a prominent New York banker and philanthropist. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Lehman expanded their esteemed collection of Old Master paintings and sculptures to include the work of modern European artists, such as Seurat.

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