With its mysterious, twilit atmosphere, La voile blanche exemplifies the dramatic tenebrism that characterised Georges Seurat’s mature drawing style. Dated to 1890, the year before the artist’s untimely death at the age of 31, this exquisite drawing is among the last independent works on paper Seurat created, and demonstrates the pioneering nature of his work as a draughtsman. For almost a decade, the artist had been ‘the young man mad about drawing,’ as his friend Gustave Kahn described him, drawing incessantly, quickly filling the pocket-sized carnets he carried with him everywhere he went, sketching figures in the casual, naturalistic situations in which he encountered them (Seurat Drawings, Paris, 1928; New York, repr. 1971, p. v). In his studio, he engaged with the medium intensely, creating magnificent compositions on large sheets of paper, richer in their materiality and more focused on the dramatic relationship between darkness and light. It was through these exquisite drawings that Seurat first explored with confidence and authority the revolutionary ideas on light, colour, and optics which would underpin his development of pointillism. Indeed, Kahn went so far as to proclaim: ‘On the day Seurat devoted himself to drawing, Neo-Impressionism began’ (ibid., p. ix).
While drawing had been an integral aspect of the artist’s creative practice since his youth, by mid-1881 Seurat had completely rejected the conventional technique of contour line drawing he had been taught at the École des Beaux-Arts. Instead, he typically rendered the forms of his subject by means of densely hatched, contrasting masses of light and shade, running the hard tip of a jet black Conté crayon across the finely textured surface of high-grade, hand-made Michallet paper. This kind of Ingres paper was thick and textured; the grooves of the mould in which it was made remained visible on the surface, lending the sheets a distinctive patterning. Tailoring his application of the Conté crayon to amplify and exploit this textured finish, Seurat developed an acutely sensitive touch which allowed him to control the layering of trace-marks on the sheet, generating tonal gradations ranging from the blackest darkness to pale but glowing surfaces of light. As recent technical studies have demonstrated, the artist added a thin coat of fixative in certain areas to protect the initial layers of pigment, as he built the colour and intensity in these darker sections. Most magically, in passages between these extremes he could evoke the appearance of light, not falling on the figure or object, but translucently emanating from within it.
The brilliance of La voile blanche lies in the breath-taking skill with which Seurat employs the Conté crayon, using varying pressure to create luminous middle tones counterpoised with solid blacks. By combining various densities of crayon – darker for the figures in the foreground, medium weight for the tangled vegetation along the riverbank, and light, interlacing strokes for the sky – Seurat explored a concept he called ‘irradiation.’ Building on the principles outlined in Chevreul's De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs of 1839, this theory was rooted in the concept that light and dark tones mutually enhance one other as they come together, generating incomparable chiaroscuro effects. It was this dramatic approach to light which led Seurat’s contemporary and close friend, Paul Signac to proclaim these works to be ‘the most beautiful painter’s drawings that ever existed … Thanks to Seurat’s perfected mastery of values, one can say that his “black-and-whites” are more luminous, and even more full of colour than many a painting in oils’ (quoted in J. Russell, Seurat, London, 1965, pp. 65-66).
Exactly where La voile blanche was executed remains uncertain. Since 1885, Seurat had spent each summer on the Channel Coast, seeking ‘to wash the studio light from his eyes and transcribe most exactly the vivid outdoor clarity in all its nuances,’ as he told Emile Verhaeren (quoted in J. Rewald, Seurat, New York, 1990, p. 189). In 1890, he travelled to Gravelines, a flourishing port near the Belgian border, where he produced four major paintings, six oil sketches, and at least eight drawings, all depicting the canalized estuary that linked the town with the sea (de Hauke, nos. 201-210, 696-703). Although it is tempting to place the present drawing in this final seaside campaign, it is probably inaccurate to do so. Firstly, the eight drawings that can be securely linked to the Gravelines sojourn of 1890 all appear to be preparatory sketches for oil paintings, while the distinctive geography of Gravelines, situated on a broad coastal plain marked only by low dunes, seems at odds with the tight river-bank scene depicted in the present drawing.
Rather, the composition appears linked with another of the artist’s works on paper from 1890, Régates à la Grenouillère (de Hauke, no. 705), which depicts a regatta at the celebrated bathing spot of La Grenouillère, just a few miles downstream from the site of Seurat's first two major exhibition pictures, Un Baignade, Asnières (de Hauke, no. 92) and Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte (de Hauke, no. 162). Boating had become one of the most popular pastimes in France during the early nineteenth century, with Parisian suburbs along the banks of the Seine, most notably Asnières and Argenteuil, quickly developing as centres for rowing and sailing. Drawing both weekend amateurs and committed enthusiasts alike, this modern pastime provided a wealth of pictorial inspiration for Impressionist artists, drawing such luminaries as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte and Berthe Morisot to the banks of the Seine in search of intriguing new motifs.
In contrast to the bustling activity seen in Régates à la Grenouillère, La voile blanche focuses on a much quieter stretch of the Seine, presenting a scene that harks back to classic Impressionist views of the riverway. Two well-dressed women stroll along the edge of the riverbank, their attention caught by the sight of a small yacht passing by, its slight form gliding through the calm waters. In the distance, the sturdy geometric form of a modest dwelling is visible against a screen of trees on the opposite bank, lending the landscape a depth and sense of perspective relatively unusual in Seurat’s drawings. From their stylish outfits, the two figures appear to be a pair of typical Parisiennes at their leisure, wandering through the idyllic landscape as they enjoy a brief sojourn from hustle and bustle of the capital. There is a calm, pensive atmosphere to the scene, further emphasised by the contrasting play of light and shadows, which lends the composition a decidedly Romantic, Friedrich-esque air.
As John Russell has written, ‘What turned out to be Seurat's last group of independent drawings had to do with that favourite motif of his: the white sail in the middle distance’ (op. cit., 1965, p. 259). In both the present work and Régates à la Grenouillère, the sails are indeed rendered in white, not black, as in the drawings from Gravelines. It is this titular white sail which provides the focal point for the entire composition in La voile blanche, drawing our eyes through the trees that line the riverbank, and onto the water itself. By contrasting the deep, velvety dark shadow of the foreground against lighter passages in the water, Seurat intensifies the luminosity of the overall composition, most notably leaving the sail of the small boat completely devoid of colour, while the loose, meandering lines of the water and sky dance around it.