GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
3 More
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)

Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version)

Details
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version)
oil on canvas
15 1/2 x 19 3/4 in. (39.3 x 50 cm.)
Painted in 1888
Provenance
Jules F. Christophe, Paris (by 1892, then by descent).
B.A. Edynski and Max Hochschiller, Paris (by 1908).
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris.
Alphonse Kann, Paris (by 1910, until at least 1917).
Marius de Zayas, New York (by 1921).
John Quinn, New York (by 1922).
Julia Quinn Anderson, New York (by descent from the above, 1924).
Mary Anderson Conroy, New York (by descent from the above).
Henry P. McIlhenny, Esq., Philadelphia (acquired from the above, 1936); sale, Christie's, London, 30 June 1970, lot 16 (world auction record for the artist at the time of sale).
Artemis, Luxembourg (acquired at the above sale).
Heinz Berggruen, Paris (acquired from the above, 1973).
Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.
Private collection (acquired from the above, 1997).
Acquired by the late owner, 3 December 1999.
Literature
L. Cousturier, Seurat, Paris, 1921 (illustrated, pl. 22; dated 1887-1888).
J.H. Langaard, "Georges Seurat" in Kunst og Kultur, 1921, vol. 9, p. 34 (illustrated; titled Toilet).
A. Lhote, Georges Seurat, Rome, 1922 (illustrated, pl. 9).
W. Pach, "Georges Seurat" in The Arts, March 1923, p. 163 (illustrated).
W. Pach, Georges Seurat, New York, 1923 (illustrated, pl. 4).
G. Coquiot, Seurat, Paris, 1924, p. 233 (illustrated).
John Quinn: Collection of Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, New York, 1926, no. 125 (illustrated).
L. Cousturier, Georges Seurat, Paris, 1926 (illustrated, pl. 27; dated 1887-1888).
O. Sitwell, "Les Poseuses" in Apollo, June 1926, vol. 3, p. 345.
R. Rey, La renaissance du sentiment classique dans la peinture française à la fin du XIXe siècle, Paris, 1931, p. 142.
C. Roger-Marx, Seurat, Paris, 1931 (illustrated, pl. 14; dated 1887-1888).
Edouard-Joseph, Dictionnaire biographique des artistes contemporains 1910-1930, Paris, 1934, vol. III, p. 293 (illustrated).
M. Renard, "In the Day of the 'Poseuses'" in Verve, January-March 1939, no. 4, p. 72 (illustrated in color).
R. Fry, Last Lectures, London, 1939. p. 16-2 (illustrated, pl. 5).
R.J. Goldwater, "Some Aspects of the Development of Seurat's Style" in The Art Bulletin, June 1941, vol. XXIII, no. 2, p. 119.
J. Rewald, Georges Seurat, New York, 1946, p. 106 (illustrated, pl. 83).
R. Huyghe, "Trois Poseuses de Seurat" in Bulletin des musées de France, August 1947, no. 7, p. 12 (detail illustrated, fig. 10).
J. Rewald, Georges Seurat, Paris, 1948 (illustrated, pl. 89).
R. Cogniat, Seurat, Paris, 1951 (illustrated, pl. 40).
J. Rewald, Post Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, New York, 1956, p. 107 (illustrated in color).
R. Bernier, "Le musée privé d'un conservateur" in L'Oeil, March 1957, no. 27, p. 22 (illustrated; with incorrect dimensions).
R.L. Herbert, "Seurat in Chicago & New York" in The Burlington Magazine, May 1958, p. 152.
C.D. Gaitskell, Art Education in the Elementary School, New York, 1958, p. 15 (illustrated).
C. McCurdy, ed., Modern Art: A Pictorial Anthology, New York, 1958, p. 57 (illustrated, fig. A39; dated 1887-1888).
M. Schapiro, "New Light on Seurat" in Art News, April 1958, vol. 57, no. 2, p. 23 (detail illustrated, fig. 2).
J. Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art, New York, 1959, p. 336 (illustrated, fig. 410).
H. Dorra and J. Rewald, Seurat: L'oeuvre peint, biographie et catalogue critique, Paris, 1959, pp. 220-221, no. 179 (illustrated, p. 221).
C.M. de Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, Paris, 1961, vol. I, p. 144, no. 184 (illustrated, p. 145).
R.L. Herbert, Seurat's Drawings, London, 1962 (illustrated, pl. VII).
M.W. Brown, The Story of The Armory Show, New York, 1963, p. 289 (illustrated).
W.I. Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting, Cambridge, 1964, pp. 167-175 (illustrated, fig. 48).
J. Russell, Seurat, New York, 1965, p. 282 (illustrated in color, pp. 208-209, pl. 186).
B.L. Reid, The Man from New York: John Quinn and his Friends, New York, 1968, p. 560 (illustrated).
P. Courthion, Georges Seurat, New York, 1969, p. 136 (illustrated in color, p. 137).
J. Herbert, ed., Christie's: Review of the Year 1969/1970, London, 1970, pp. 117-118 (illustrated in color, p. 116; illustrated in color again on the cover).
A. Chastel and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Seurat, Paris, 1973, pp. 105-106 (illustrated, p. 105; illustrated again in color, pl. XLIII).
L. Hautecoeur, Les Impressionnistes: Seurat, Milan, 1974, p. 43 (illustrated in color).
H. Haacke, Seurat's Les Poseuses (Small Version), New York, 1975.
N. Broude, ed., Seurat in Perspective, Englewoods Cliffs, 1978, pp. 46-47.
J. Zilczer, “The Noble Buyer”: John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde, exh. cat., Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1978, pp. 52 and 186.
J. House and M.A. Stevens, Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1979, pp. 16-17 (illustrated, p. 17, fig. 6).
P. Georgel and A.-M. Lecoq, La peinture dans la peinture, exh. cat., Musée des beaux-arts, Dijon, 1982, p. 150 (illustrated, fig. 171).
S. Greenspan, "Berggruen's Picassos" in Art & Auction, April 1985, vol. VII, no. 9, p. 109 (illustrated in color).
J. Rewald, Seurat: A Biography, London, 1990, p. 155 (illustrated in color).
S. Moore, Framing Modern Masters: A Conversation with Heinz Berggruen, London, 1991, pp. 4 and 7 (illustrated in color; illustrated in color again on the cover).
M.F. Zimmermann, Les mondes de Seurat: Son oeuvre et le débat artistique de son temps, Paris, 1991, p. 333, no. 458 (illustrated in color).
S. de Vries-Evans, The Lost Impressionists: Masterpieces from Private Collections, Niwot, 1992, p. 129 (illustrated in color).
P. Smith, Seurat and the Avant Garde, New Haven, 1997, p. 116 (illustrated in color, fig. 127; detail illustrated in color, p. 117, fig. 128).
L. Nochlin, Representing Women, London, 1999, p. 218 (illustrated, fig. 148).
S. Lemoine, ed., From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso: Toward Modern Art, Milan, 2002, p. 25, no. 4 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
Paris, Pavillon de Ia Ville de Paris, Cours Ia Reine, Société des artistes indépendants, 8me exposition, March-April 1892, p. 66, no. 1083.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune & Cie., Exposition Georges Seurat, December 1908-January 1909, p. 13, no. 70.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune & Cie., Nus, May 1910, no. 105.
New York, Armory of the Sixty-Ninth Infantry; The Art Institute of Chicago and Boston, Copley Hall, International Exhibition of Modern Art, February-May 1913, nos. 455, 371 and 198, respectively.
Copenhagen, Royal Museum, Fransk Malerkunst fra det 19nde Aarhundrede, May-June 1914, p. 43, no. 192.
New York, Galleries of Joseph Brummer, Paintings and Drawings by Georges Seurat, December 1924, no. 17.
The Brooklyn Art Museum, 1926.
Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University and Philadelphia Museum of Art, French Artists of the 18th and 19th Centuries, 1936-1937, no. 190.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Inaugural Opening of the French Gallery, 1937.
Paris, Exposition Universelle, Palais national des arts, Chefs-d'oeuvre de I’art français à l'Exposition Internationale de 1937, 1937, pp. 199-200, no. 414 (dated 1887-1888).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Art in Our Time, May-September 1939, no. 75 (illustrated).
Baltimore Museum of Art, Exhibition of Modern Painting "Isms" and How They Grew, January-February 1940.
Detroit Institute of Arts, The Age of Impressionism & Objective Realism, 1940, no. 38.
Worcester Art Museum, The Art of the Third Republic, February-March 1941, no. 17 (illustrated).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Masterpieces of Philadelphia Private Collections, May 1947, p. 73, no. 27.
New York, Wildenstein & Co. Inc., A Loan Exhibition of Six Masters of Post-Impressionism, Benefit of Girl Scout Council of Greater New York, April-May 1948, p. 57, no. 51 (illustrated on the frontispiece).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Home for the Destitute Blind, April-May 1949, no. 19 (illustrated).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection, 1949.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Diamond Jubilee Exhibition: Masterpieces of Painting, November 1950-February 1951, no. 81 (illustrated).
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, De David à Toulouse-Lautrec: Chefs-d'oeuvre des collections américaines, 1955, no. 52 (illustrated, pl. 90).
The Art Institute of Chicago and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, January-May 1958, pp. 16 and 33, no. 136 (illustrated in color).
San Francisco, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection, June-July 1962, no. 38 (illustrated in color).
Utica, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute and New York, Armory of the Sixty-Ninth Regiment, 1913 Armory Show: 50th Anniversary Exhibition, February-April 1963, p. 211, no. 455 (illustrated in color, p. 24).
London, David Carritt Ltd., Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, November-December 1978, p. 63, no. 23 (illustrated).
Kunsthalle Bielefeld; Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle and Kunthaus Zürich, Georges Seurat: Zeichnungen, October 1983-May 1984 (illustrated in color, pl. 11; dated 1887-1888).
Geneva, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Berggruen Collection, June-October 1988, p. 72, no. 25 (illustrated in color, p. 73; illustrated in color again on the cover).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Georges Seurat, April 1991-January 1992, pp. 292-294, no. 191 (illustrated in color, p. 293; illustrated in color again on the cover).
London, The National Gallery, Seurat and "The Bathers", July-September 1997, pp. 146-147, no. 60 (illustrated in color, p. 147, pl. 172).
Seattle, Experience Music Project, DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein, April 2006-January 2007, pp. 18-19 (illustrated in color).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seurat's Circus Sideshow, February-May 2017, p. 130 (illustrated in color, p. 55, fig. 49; dated 1887-1888).
London, The National Gallery (on extended loan).
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. Where Christie's has provided a Minimum Price Guarantee it is at risk of making a loss, which can be significant, if the lot fails to sell. Christie's therefore sometimes chooses to share that risk with a third party. In such cases the third party agrees prior to the auction to place an irrevocable written bid on the lot. The third party is therefore committed to bidding on the lot and, even if there are no other bids, buying the lot at the level of the written bid unless there are any higher bids. In doing so, the third party takes on all or part of the risk of the lot not being sold. If the lot is not sold, the third party may incur a loss. The third party will be remunerated in exchange for accepting this risk based on a fixed fee if the third party is the successful bidder or on the final hammer price in the event that the third party is not the successful bidder. The third party may also bid for the lot above the written bid. Third party guarantors are required by us to disclose to anyone they are advising their financial interest in any lots they are guaranteeing. However, for the avoidance of any doubt, if you are advised by or bidding through an agent on a lot identified as being subject to a third party guarantee you should always ask your agent to confirm whether or not he or she has a financial interest in relation to the lot.

Brought to you by

Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

When Georges Seurat’s grand, tour-de-force Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte (De Hauke, no. 162; The Art Institute of Chicago) made its debut at the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in May 1886, it caused a sensation, launching the artist to the very forefront of the avant-garde and establishing his reputation as one of the most exciting voices of his generation. A monumental work that stood over six feet tall and ten feet long, the painting drew widespread attention in both the press and amongst the general public, who were astonished by its large cast of characters, conjured through a myriad of carefully placed, precise, colorful dots. While it was clear to contemporary viewers that the startling effect of Seurat’s innovative pointillist technique hailed the work as a bold new masterpiece of modern art, some commentators questioned whether the methodical, carefully planned application of paint would prove suitable for capturing a diverse range of subjects and scenes, particularly the subtle tones and soft contours of the human figure. In typical Seurat fashion, the artist did not respond to such criticism with a written statement of intent or defense in the papers. Instead, he retreated to his studio and began work on another large-scale canvas which would meet the challenge head-on and showcase the full expressive potential of pointillism. The resulting composition, Les Poseuses (De Hauke, no. 185; The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia), was to become one of the artist’s most celebrated and iconic works, a bold riposte that not only answered his critics directly but which also captured a sense of Seurat’s pioneering spirit and revolutionary vision, as he examined one of the most familiar and traditional motifs from the history of art through a thoroughly modern lens.
Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) is an extremely rare work associated with this project—unlike other large-scale canvases from Seurat’s oeuvre such as La Grande Jatte or Une baignade à Asnières (De Hauke, no. 92; National Gallery, London), the artist created only a handful of drawings and oil studies in preparation for the final composition of Les Poseuses, the majority of which are now in the collections of esteemed museums around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Painted in 1888, the present composition is believed to have been created during the final stages of the painting’s completion, perhaps even after the canvas was finished, and is the most complete and refined version of the scene among the associated works. For much of the twentieth century, this small canvas has been the primary means for scholars and the public to study Seurat’s intricate play of color and light, and the complex compositional arrangement of Les Poseuses, as the larger canvas remained sequestered away in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. As such, Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) has played a pivotal role in the development of Seurat’s reception through the past century, its extensive exhibition and publication history a testament to its influence across the decades.
Seurat most likely began ruminating on the idea for Les Poseuses in the summer of 1886, while the eighth Impressionist exhibition was still open to the public. The critic Arsène Alexandre recalled meeting the artist during these months, and described the intense focus with which Seurat embarked on his latest painting, “working away with unbelievable concentration, cloistered in a little studio on the boulevard de Clichy, denying himself everything, spending all his slender means on expensive work. This time he meant to prove that this theory, so well suited to plein-air subjects, was applicable to large-scale figures and interiors” (quoted in R. L. Herbert, ed., Georges Seurat: 1859-1891, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 273). The space mentioned by Alexandre was the artist’s new studio at 128bis, boulevard de Clichy. Here, as Gustave Kahn so evocatively recalled, Seurat had “a tiny cell containing a low, narrow bed opposite some old canvases turned to the wall, the Baignade and some marines. The white-walled studio was hung with souvenirs from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a small picture from Guillaumin, a Constantin Guys, some pictures by Forain, canvases and drawings to which he had grown accustomed and that had become colored patches on the wall, a red divan, a few chairs, a small table with some favorite journals, books by young writers, brushes and paints, and a wad of tobacco. Leaning on and completely concealing the panel, La Grande Jatte…” (quoted in ibid., p. 404). This light-filled space, intended purely for art making, became the setting for Les Poseuses, its simple furnishings and cluster of pictures on the wall providing the backdrop to the trio of models, who appear to be waiting for the day’s activities to begin.
The initial studies for Les Poseuses appear to have sprung directly from the figure, as Seurat began to test his technique in the depiction of the nude, perhaps prompted by discussions with Félix Fénéon during this period. The central character seems to have been the first element to emerge from the artist’s imagination, appearing in both a loosely worked oil study (De Hauke, no. 179; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and a drawing (De Hauke, no. 664; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 1886. As the year progressed, the artist created several more painted studies, from a small sketch of the overall compositional plan (De Hauke, no. 180; Private collection), to a trio of refined paintings examining each of the individual women in isolation (De Hauke, nos. 181-183; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Though the precise ordering of their creation cannot be definitively established, together these studies reveal the gradual evolution of Seurat’s ideas, as he clarified each of the various elements in his pictorial puzzle and began to settle on the details of their final forms. For example, between the first study of the central figure and the Musée d’Orsay panel of the same character, the woman’s pose shifts, as she adopts a contrapposto stance that allows for a more natural, and relaxed impression. She also appears more mature and confident than the delicate adolescent suggested in the initial drawing and oil sketch, her direct gaze and forthright stance suggesting she was an established model, with plenty of experience.
In a letter to Paul Signac dated June 1887, Camille Pissarro mentioned that Seurat was making headway with Les Poseuses, informing their mutual friend that he “has already finished some of the background” (quoted in ibid., p. 277). In keeping with Seurat’s working practice on his previous large-scale canvases, the artist created a series of finely worked drawings in conté crayon at this time, as he refined his vision of certain elements within the composition. Unlike La Grande Jatte, where the majority of these sketches focused on individual characters within the crowd, the drawings associated with Les Poseuses center on the objects and accoutrements of the studio, from the costumes and accessories scattered around the space alongside the models, to the furniture that frames them. In Coin de l’atelier; Le fourneau (De Hauke, no. 661; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Seurat presents an unusually cropped view of the small stove at the corner of the studio, examining the fall of the shadows in the space between it and the nearby stool, covered in softly draped fabrics.
According to Fénéon, the present Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) was a replica of the finished composition, rather than a carefully constructed study produced as the artist refined the scene over the course of its completion, as indicated in the exhibition catalogue for the 1892 Paris Indépendents, where the work made its public debut. If Fénéon’s assertion is correct, this would make it the only instance in which Seurat created a reduced version of one of his large-scale toiles de lute ("canvases of combat"), a term he used to describe his most ambitious compositions. However, rather than a small replica which stood as a souvenir, or a loosely finished aide-de-memoir of the completed work intended for future reference, the present oil appears to have been a more complex venture, as Seurat attempted to solve several painterly issues that he had encountered while creating the larger painting. For example, in Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) Seurat uses larger, more visible dots of pigment in his study of the interplay of complementary colors through the scene, generating a livelier, more vibrant surface that appears to vibrate before the eye.
From the earliest stages of its development, Seurat had intended Les Poseuses to stand as a dynamic, monumental showcase for the pointillist technique. The artist believed such a painstaking, carefully applied method could combat the prevailing spontaneous, “disordered” style of Impressionism, offering instead an art of permanence, of order and logic. Seurat’s method was largely influenced by the theories of French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), which he learned of while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In his essay?De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, published in 1839, Chevreul showed that one color affects an adjacent color through a complementary nuance in tone. Applied to painting, this meant that color pigments were no longer mixed either on the palette or directly on canvas, but instead placed as small dabs side by side; the color or lighting effect taking place, from a suitable distance, in the observer's eye. In an 1890 letter from Seurat to Fénéon, the artist explained that he also knew the book?Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry, published by American physicist Odgen Rood in 1879, and translated into French two years later. Rood made the distinction between color as light and color as pigment; in his view, mixing pigments reduced their luminous effect. Around 1884, Seurat progressively assimilated these theories into his own vision of optical effects, beginning with his numerous oil panels, and culminating in La Grande Jatte.
By rooting his technique in the most recent scientific theories, Seurat proclaimed his faith in the ability to construct order out of sensory data, to subject even the most ephemeral aspects of color and light to close observation and translate it into a repeatable, artistic pattern. In Les Poseuses, and its associated studies, Seurat pushes the method to new experimental ends, eschewing the bright sunlight and vibrant tones of the fashionable attire seen in La Grande Jatte, and instead adapting it to explore a more complex, nuanced palette. This is seen most clearly in the luminous, milky complexions of the three models, which seem to glow against the pale lilac expanse of the studio walls, a highly sophisticated effect achieved through an intricate network of dots, that convey not only the delicate play of light as it falls from an unseen window, but also the subtle shifts in skin tone across their bodies. However, a number of contemporary commentators felt that the highly refined, almost polished surface of the final Les Poseuses was overly harsh on the eye, losing some of the sensual allure of the nude female forms. As Signac remarked in 1897, the miniscule points of pigment on such a large scale “gave a mechanical finish to this fine painting… The plain portions, such as the wall, covered with these tiny strokes, as unpleasant, and the labor seems futile and harmful, giving a grey tonality to the whole” (quoted in ibid., p. 292).
Instead, it was in works such as Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) that Seurat’s pointillism was at its most dynamic, conveying the scene through a complex, homogenous skein of colored dots. Indeed, struck by the almost abstract qualities of the studies for Les Poseuses, Linda Nochlin has evocatively conveyed the richness of the artist’s technique in these works, describing them as “a miracle of diaphanous impalpability, of floating atomic particles of color, perceptual atoms that at once deconstruct the solid mass of the body yet merge to suggest form and volume, veiling and constructing the body at the same time” (“Body Politics: Seurat’s Poseuses,” in Representing Women, London, 1999, p. 232). In the present canvas, Seurat’s pointillism is fresher, the hues more vibrant, the dots more prominent and harmonious in shape and size, resulting in softer contours and a tightly woven tapestry of complementary tones that reveals the sheer complexity of Seurat’s technique. Instead of the overall silvery tone of the final, larger painting, in Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) the palette is warmer, its tones richer, while the more dynamic pattern of dots captivates the eye and keeps it moving from one form to the other, causing objects to slowly dissolve and reform from one moment to the next.
However, it was not only in the application of paint that Seurat forged a radical new idiom. Having challenged the Impressionists on their own turf in both La Grande Jatte and Une baignade à Asnières, in Les Poseuses Seurat seemed to be issuing his own challenge to the great masters of the past, from Raphael to Ingres, deliberately invoking classical precedents in his depiction of the female nude. As Françoise Cachin has noted, the artist’s choice of subject in Les Poseuses announced “that Seurat’s ambition lay in applying a then-new and controversial method (pointillism) to a grand genre theme: the nude trio of women, so often seen in mythological works such as those depicting the Judgement of Paris, the Three Graces, or the Hesperides” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1991, p. 273). Having studied at the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a youth, Seurat was steeped in tradition, and remained acutely aware of the art of the Old Masters throughout his career. Unusually, very few drawings of the female nude survive from Seurat’s time at the school, the majority of his academic studies from life focusing on the male model. Instead, Seurat’s visions of the female nude were shaped by the work of other artists, most notably Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix, as well as the great masterpieces of classical sculpture that he discovered at the Louvre.
According to Signac, when Edgar Degas encountered La Grande Jatte for the first time, he said dryly to Seurat, “You have been in Florence, you have. You have seen the Giottos” (quoted ibid., p. 174). While no other commentators specifically referenced Giotto, many highlighted the similarities between Seurat’s figures and early Renaissance art. In Les Poseuses, the allusions to the art of the past are more clearly indicated. The central figure recalls several of the artist’s drawings from his student years, where studying and sketching antique sculpture was a common practice, both at the Louvre and from the collection of plaster casts in the school. Not only does her contrapposto stance invoke the techniques and traditions of antique sculpture, but also the manner in which she subtly shields her pubic area from view by clasping her hands in front of her body contains echoes of the famous Venus Pudica pose, a common motif in which the bathing goddess, surprised by the arrival of an onlooker, covers herself to protect her modesty. However, rather than the dramatic contorted pose typically used to convey the sudden shock of such a situation, Seurat’s model stands tall and proud—looking directly forwards, she meets the artist’s gaze with a distinct confidence.
Similarly, Robert Herbert has suggested that the celebrated Spinario may have been a source for the pose of the young woman seated to the right, removing or putting on her stockings. In the individual oil study dedicated to this character, Seurat shows the woman with no stockings, further emphasizing the connection to the classical sculpture of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
The final model, seated on the red divan with her back to the viewer, has a more contemporary reference point, her sensual curves and relaxed pose recalling Ingres’s La Grande Baigneuse, which had entered the collections of the Louvre to much fanfare in 1879. Seurat greatly admired Ingres throughout his career, keeping several reproductions of his work as reference material in his studio, and copying a number of the artist’s masterworks in both drawing and painting. The overall simplicity of the La Grande Baigneuse must have appealed to Seurat, its ability to convey the soft, voluptuous form of the female nude, as well as an impression of her demeanor through subtle cues in body language and pose, offers a captivating reimagining of the classical nude. By also referencing the recent achievements of the great master, Seurat may have been positioning himself as Ingres’s heir apparent among the avant-garde, an artist who could marry tradition with a dynamic, modern sensibility completely his own.
A number of other avant-garde artists were working along similar lines at this time, testing the limits of the Impressionist style by returning to the example of the Old Masters, from Paul Cezanne’s Trois baigneuses of 1879-1882, to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les grandes baigneuses of 1884-1887, which Seurat likely saw at Georges Petit’s international show in the summer of 1887. However, Seurat forged his own path within this milieu, eschewing the idealizing vision of the nude female in nature, and instead definitively rooting his scene within his own era, drawing the viewer into the world of the painter. While the subject of the model in the artist’s studio was a long established tradition, one which was equally popular in Academic painting of the period, Seurat examined the motif through his own contemporary experience. Rather than suggesting a timeless, almost allegorical vision of artistic creativity, in Les Poseuses Seurat boldly emphasizes the modernity of his subject—these are contemporary working women, whose attitudes, stance and accessories place them firmly within the society and culture of the late nineteenth century.
Seurat further emphasizes the painting’s place in time by including a clearly identifiable portion of the monumental La Grande Jatte along one side of his new composition, hanging the work in the corner of the studio where the models arrange themselves. It’s presence within the scene not only places the viewer squarely in the late 1880s, and the aftermath of the eighth Impressionist exhibition, it also allows for a series of intriguing visual counterpoints to arise, an interplay that encourages us to compare and contrast the two scenes side by side, highlighting the developments of Seurat’s style in the intervening years. Immediately, the differences are apparent—firstly, the artist moves his figures from a brightly-lit park to an interior setting, where they are bathed in a soft, even light; secondly, he removes the rigid formalities of display and social ritual that governed his characters in a public setting, allowing his trio of women to stand, unadorned and relatively relaxed, as they pose before the artist; and thirdly, he distills the scene down to just three figures, all of whom appear lost in their own thoughts, oblivious to the actions of those around them, unconcerned about being observed, despite their state of undress. Indeed, while La Grande Jatte examined the theme of modern spectacle and fashion amid the bright, sunlit expanse of a park, Les Poseuses presents the cloistered, highly personal act of artmaking, as well as the practical toil and labor that took place behind the scenes.
Seurat solidifies the connection between the studio scene and the painting on the wall through a series of visual cues, such as the addition of different accessories and pieces of clothing scattered through the room, which recall the costumes of the various characters in La Grande Jatte. For example, the red parasol and hat propped against the stool to the right appear to be those of the seated girl with a bouquet in the earlier painting, while the blue dress with red dots in the foreground echoes that of the woman walking through the park. Indeed, every item of clothing glimpsed in the studio finds an echo among those in the picture behind. Similarly, Seurat plays with the sense of space and three-dimensionality within the scene, allowing for a humorous effect in which the “painted” dog from La Grand Jatte appears to jump up at the ribbon on the handle of the “real” parasol in the studio in which the models are posing. Finally, Seurat employs accents of color scattered throughout the room to link the eye back to the large painting on the wall, as seen in the way the prominent green of the grass and trees of the latter is picked up by the notes of green in the stockings and bag hanging on the wall, uniting the left of the painting with the right. These connections are more clearly visible in the vibrant palette of Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) than in the large version of the painting, reinforcing the notion that Seurat may have initially conceived the smaller canvas in order to examine the compositional structure and color patterns anew, working through the various questions and issues that had arisen while he was in the midst of finishing the painting.
Through these carefully considered linkages and allusions, Seurat establishes different layers of reality within the canvas, allowing the eye to weave in and out of the “artificial” painting and the “real” world of the studio. At the same time, he blurs the lines between the two, drawing our attention to the carefully curated world of the artist’s space, and the artificiality underpinning such so-called “natural” scenes as La Grande Jatte, where each element is chosen and refined by the artist, most often painted not from life, but within the highly controlled environment of the studio. As Françoise Cachin has pointed out, the title for the work, “Poseuses,” is an intriguing choice, one which adds another layer of potential meaning and context to the composition. In French, the term modèle would usually have been the more appropriate title for Seurat’s figures, denoting their profession as artist models. In contrast, a poseur or a poseuse in contemporary parlance was used most frequently to describe a person whose attitudes, movements and pose were carefully studied and deliberately designed to garner attention, “one who, out of vanity, seeks to attract notice by an artificial or affected manner” (ibid., p. 273). As the women in Seurat’s studio appear the very opposite of this, their apparently unself-conscious postures suggesting a more natural, spontaneous situation, the title could be seen to be more relevant to the parade of fashionable Parisians glimpsed in the canvas behind. As such, Seurat appears to slyly question, who is really the poseuse? In doing so, he returned once again to the central, core concerns of his artistic vision, examining the interplay between the ideal and real, nature and artifice, which ran as a through-line in his largest and most successful figure paintings.
Seurat’s bold assertion of the models’ identities, their professionalism and roles as modern working women, would have a lasting impact on a number of artists through the early twentieth century. For example, Henri Matisse adopts a similar approach in his masterful early work Carmelina (1903-1904), in which his voluptuous Italian model is seen posing in the studio. Like Seurat’s models, she is portrayed straight-on and in a naturalistic, unidealized manner, holding herself upright with a strength and poise that speaks to her skills as a model. She makes no attempt to hide her modesty with the white cloth draped over her thighs, instead meeting the artist’s gaze straight on, confronting his watchful, professional eye with a confidence and energy. Matisse enhances the connection between the artist and his subject by including his own reflection in the mirror behind her. Glimpsed in the act of observation, the painting emphasizes the professional connection between the two figures as they work together, each contributing to the act of creation, continuing the themes of Seurat’s monumental composition.
During this period, Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) was in the collection of the journalist, critic and close friend of the artist, Jules F. Christophe, who had written a number of articles on Seurat and his work prior to his death, including the significant profile on the painter included in the April 1890 issue of Hommes d’aujourd’hui. Announcing the artist’s untimely passing just over a year later, he wrote “A sudden stupid sickness carried him off in a few hours when he was about to triumph: I curse providence and death” (La Plume, 1 September 1891). The painting remained in Christophe’s collection until his death, before it was purchased by the renowned art collector Alphonse Kann. A close friend of Marcel Proust, Kann was believed to have been one of the principal models for the character Charles Swann in the author’s 1908 novel À la recherche du temps perdu. Revered for his keen eye and extraordinary taste, Kann had earned a reputation as an elegant connoisseur of classical sculpture and Renaissance painting in Paris during the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, before he began to diversify his collecting activities to concentrate increasingly on the acquisition of nineteenth-century and modern art. Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) was among Kann’s earlier purchases of Neo-Impressionism, acquired circa 1910, and he loaned the work to several important exhibitions, most notably the infamous 1913 Armory Show in New York.
One of the key organizers of that seminal exhibition, the financial lawyer John Quinn, would go on to acquire Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), purchasing the work in 1922. A first generation Irish-American, Quinn was one of the most important collectors of modern and avant-garde art of his generation. A well-known figure in New York’s progressive art circles through the early decades of the Twentieth Century, Quinn was a fervent supporter of modern art, directly supporting artists financially, providing funds to launch important exhibitions and spearheading initiatives to promote vanguard culture in America. Between 1911 and 1924, Quinn assembled an extraordinary collection of modern art, numbering approximately 2,500 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures by more than 150 European and American artists. Although he continued to purchase liberally through the 1920s, Quinn became more selective in his purchases as his tastes matured, and sought out specific works to add to his collection, including several examples from Seurat’s oeuvre. Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) was among the small number of works retained by the Quinn family after the great collector’s death, remaining with them until 1936, when it was acquired by Henry P. McIlhenny, a former Curator of Decorative Arts and later Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In 1975, the rich provenance of Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) provided direct inspiration for an artwork by the German-born conceptual artist Hans Haacke. A pioneering activist, most of his work after the late 1960s focused on institutional critique, examining the art world and the systems of exchange between museums, corporations and corporate leaders that existed behind the scenes. Alarmed by contemporary events, including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the war in Vietnam, Haacke felt compelled to examine the underpinnings of society at large, unveiling the systems that informed and shaped such events. Through the 1970s, he drew attention to the financial or ideological interests that shaped and determined the activities of cultural institutions, from exhibitions and curatorial decisions, to sponsorship and collecting, as he sought to challenge the idea that art could be a neutral space, existing in an isolated bubble.
In the piece titled Seurat's «Les Poseuses» (Small Version) 1888-1975, Haacke systematically researched the provenance of the present work, charting the history of the canvas from the point it left the artist's studio, through its many different owners, right up to 1975. Speaking about this work, Haacke explained the motivation behind his focus on Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version): “I was interested in the phenomenon of art investment. In the course of the research I discovered that this painting by Seurat had been acquired by a newly formed international art investment company with the beautiful name Artemis. I then followed its history... and I discovered a number of interesting things... It is an incredibly story. I have learned a lot about the underpinnings of high culture from it” (quoted in Y.-A. Bois, D. Crimp and R. Krauss, “A Conversation with Hans Haacke,” October, Vol. 30, Autumn, 1984, p. 37).

More from Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection Part I

View All
View All