Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
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Georges Seurat (1859-1891)

Casseur de pierres

Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Casseur de pierres
stamped with signature 'Seurat' (Lugt 2282a; lower right)
oil on cradled panel
6 ½ x 10 1/8 in. (16.7 x 25.4 cm.)
Painted circa 1882
Estate of the artist.
Jos Hessel, Paris.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 27 March 1929).
T. Edward Hanley, Bradford, Pennsylvania (acquired from the above, 3 March 1944 and until at least 1968).
Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York and The New Gallery (E.V. Thaw), New York.
Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll, New York (acquired from the above, 1971).
Private collection, Rhode Island.
Private collection, The Netherlands (1998); sale, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 12.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
H. Dorra and J. Rewald, Seurat: L'oeuvre peint, biographie et catalogue critique, Paris, 1959, p. 19, no. 20 (illustrated).
C.M. de Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, Paris, 1961, vol. I, p. 18, no. 33 (illustrated, p. 19).
A. Chastel, L'opera completa di Seurat, Milan, 1972, pp. 93-94, no. 36 (illustrated; titled Spaccapietre a torso nudo).
A. Distel, Seurat, Paris, 1991, p. 150, no. 5 (illustrated; titled Casseur de pierres, torse nu and dated 1882-1883).
M.F. Zimmermann, Seurat and the Art Theory of His Time, Antwerp, 1991, pp. 90-91 (illustrated, p. 90, fig. 129; dated circa 1881-1882).
G. Lowry, intro., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Supplement, New York, 2015, vol. V, pp. 32-34 (illustrated in color, p. 32).
Utica, New York, Munson Williams-Proctor Institute, Impressionism: French and American, 1943, no. 11.
Minnesota, The St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, French Art, 1900-1938, November 1943, no. 3 (dated circa 1884).
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. 10 (dated circa 1884).
The Art Institute of Chicago and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, January-May 1958, no. 19 (titled Man Breaking Stones and dated 1881-1882).
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc. and Cambridge, The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Paintings and Drawings from the Hanley Collection for the Benefit of People-to-People Sports Committee, Inc., November 1961-April 1962, no. 32 (dated 1881-1882).
New York, Gallery of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, Selections from the Collection of Dr. and Mrs. T. Edward Hanley, January-May 1967, p. 53 (illustrated in color).
Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, Works from the Hanley Collection, November-December 1968, no. 105.
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Lot Essay

From the moment that Seurat left the École des Beaux-Arts and set out on his own to learn the techniques, skills, and theories of painting, he took a systematic approach to discovery that would characterize his aims and methods for the rest of his career. The subtle qualities of observation and analysis that Seurat reveals in the many small landscapes and rural figure paintings that he executed en plein air in 1882-1883 already announce that this talented and perceptive young artist was embarking on a brilliant enterprise, which, as fate would have it, would last less than a decade. “The array of small canvases and panels that Seurat produced in the early 1880s,” John Leighton and Richard Thomson have written, “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., The National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 41).
Seurat’s focus on agrarian motifs during the early 1880s enabled him to work through the legacy of the Realists and Barbizon painters, most notably Millet, as well as the example of his older contemporary Pissarro, recapitulating their path to modernism in his own work. The present panel shows a farmer breaking up stone with a long, heavy hammer to clear the fields for ploughing, a subject that Courbet had famously explored in Les casseurs de pierres, 1849-1850 (destroyed during World War II). This form of rural labor is the most primal and strenuous of those that Seurat depicted, preceding the hoeing and seeding of the land. Seurat expunged all sentimentality from his treatment of the theme, however, focusing on the elegant geometry of the bare-chested figure as he bends forward in his work.
The wooden panels on which Seurat liked to paint outdoors were durable and convenient; a small supply fit easily in a hand-held box, called a boîte à pouce. Seurat usually executed his panel pictures au premier coup (wet-on-wet), often in a single sitting before the motif, applying pigment directly to the dark wood without using white gesso primer first. The present Casseur de pierres exhibits a lively, finely nuanced surface consisting of small, squarish brushstrokes angled one over the other to create an irregular crisscross weave. This distinctive hatched pattern, which Seurat called balayé or “broom-swept,” lends the image an all-over quality of vibration, with touches of different colors optically mixing into a dominant tone. This innovative conception, based in Seurat’s readings in chromatic theory as well as his own acutely sensitive response to color and light, would result over the next several years in his fully fledged divisionist technique.
Already in evidence as well in the present painting is Seurat’s preference for a pictorial architecture consisting of parallel horizontal elements—here, three broad bands differentiated by color and the touch of his brush—and contrasting vertical forms. The actively painted foreground, representing a bank of earth beyond which the worker stands, lies below a lighter, more freely handled zone, itself divided horizontally into strips; the foliage in the background is rendered with a more densely woven pattern of dark green-blue strokes. The worker with his pick-axe is the sole vertical accent in the composition, his blue hat and red belt forming enlivening contrasts with the separate and much larger areas of ocher and green.
“The geometry of the banding, the modularity of the brushstrokes, and the reticence of volumetric modeling,” John Elderfield has written, “all contribute a distinctively fabricated, object-like quality to a work that could be held in the hand, yet without diminishing one bit its function as an empirical record of the external world” (G. Lowry Intro, op. cit., 2015, pp. 33-34).

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