The little Conté crayon drawing Femme s'éloignant holds a special place among Seurat's graphic works. Neither a sketch nor a completely independent drawing, it was made in late 1881, when the artist was developing his interest in depicting character types from French society. From a purely technical position, the work is situated transitionally between his first small drawings, created by juxtapositions of parallel lines, and mature works, in which subtle chiaroscuro results from black Conté crayon playing off of the grid of thick Michallet paper. Critics and art historians have historically had difficulty classifying the drawing: in 1928, Gustave Kahn, in the first major book with high quality illustrations devoted entirely to Seurat drawings, juxtaposed Femme s'éloignant with La Nourrice, circa 1880-1881 (Hauke, no. 391) a pure line drawing, and Buste, circa 1884 (Hauke, no. 615), an ink and pen study for the La Grande Jatte. In 1935 Daniel Catton Rich associated it with more finished works linked to the evolution of La Grande Jatte.
Regardless, the drawing signals the arrival of Seurat's turn towards independent works on paper, particularly the series of elegant women realized from 1882 to 1884, such as La Dame en noir (Hauke, no. 508)--Femme s'éloignant has the same hightly stylized posture, inspired by Greek sculptures. In a letter to Felix Fénéon from 20 June 1890, the artist explained that he read and embraced David Sutter's theories on art of ancient Greeks, the first to follow the laws of harmony. Looking more closely at this series, it is clear that the woman made in 1881 holds the exact same position as the left hand figure in Deux femmes allant de conserve, circa 1882 (Hauke, no. 506; fig. 1). The position of the arms, the curve of the back, the bottom of the dress and even the shawl collar, slightly rising above the shoulders, suggest Femme s'éloignant as a study for the later drawing. However, the general composition of the drawings is different, with the woman on the right of the later work being replaced by shadow in the earlier. Femme s'éloignant indeed shares much with Seurat's mysterious works such as Promenoir, circa 1882 (Hauke, no. 498) or Au Crépuscule, circa 1884 (Hauke, no. 605), in which the main figure is doubled by a second, shadowy form beside it, a kind of ghost. If Seurat's personal life was secret, on the paper, he employed this mystery to better serve his technique. He creates a tension between figures seen clearly in the foreground and subjects dissolving into darkness. The silhouettes, made with straight lines, denser when closer to the ground, accentuate spatial relations. Together, the complete absence of Conté on the edges of the sheet, the semi-visible passing shadow, and the white dots on the rich black of the women's back create a shimmering effect. By adding parallel crayon strokes on the upper right and a miasma of lines on the ground, Seurat makes light dance in space. Femme s'éloignant is an early example of the artist's use of shadow to create luminous tone, and foretells Seurat's statement: "Purity of spectral element being the keystone of my technique" (Letter to Felix Fénéon, 20 June 1890).
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Deux femmes allant de conserve, circa 1882. Private collection. BARCODE 30452602 COMP