In 1876 Seurat began to pursue his interest in painting and drawing by attending classes at the École Municipale de Sculpture and Dessin near his parents' home in Paris. There he met Amand-Edmond Jean (later known as Aman-Jean), who was a year older; the two students became close friends. In March 1878 Seurat was admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the studio of Henri Lehmann. Aman-Jean joined him later that year.
Lehmann had been a pupil of Ingres, and the two young men worked their way through the traditional classical regimen of the Grammaire des Arts. Seurat was a luckluster student, and Aman-Jean usually placed higher in class competitions. Both students found the classes to be tedious and uninspiring, and Seurat acquired a reputation for being rebellious - other students called him a Communard, a radical sympathiser of the ill-fated 1871 Paris Commune. In the autumn of 1879 Seurat was called up to perform a year of military service, and in November he reported to his regiment in Brest. When he completed his service twelve months later, he returned to Paris, but decided he would no longer take classes. Aman-Jean had already left the École des Beaux-Arts, and in early 1881 the two artists rented a studio together, which they shared until Seurat moved to his own working quarters the following year.
Aman-Jean later reminisced about this time with his friend Seurat: 'It's drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path' (quoted in R.L. Herbert & al, op. cit., Appendix B, p. 377). Indeed, during this early phase in his career Seurat drew incessantly, quickly filling pocket-sized sketchbooks that he carried everywhere he went, drawing figures in the casual, naturalistic poses in which he encountered them. His progress was remarkable, and he was already developing in his larger drawings the mature manner for which he is best-known, in which he rendered forms by means of densely hatched contrasts of light and shade.
Most of these small carnets were broken up and their contents dispersed, including the so-called "Brest Sketchbook" which Seurat used during his military service. Many of these early sketches are documented in the second volume of C.M. de Hauke's 1961 catalogue Seurat et son oeuvre. Only four of the early carnets have remained intact; these were given to Aman-Jean after Seurat's death, and have been designated as Sketchbooks I-IV. Sketchbook I, an anonymous loan to the Yale University Art Gallery, appears to have been used prior to Seurat's stay in Brest. Erich Franz has dated the contents of Sketchbook IV, also at Yale, to the latter half of 1880, around the conclusion of the artist's military service. When When Franz was writing in 1893, Sketchbooks II and III (the present work), having been in private hands, had 'only recently come to light... They show Seurat turning increasingly to life in the streets, in parks, and in cafes, and sketching people apparently without attracting their attention... In the third sketchbook [the present work], he supplemented these studies of inactive figures with drawings of people working in the fields' (op. cit., p. 55).
The contents and inscriptions in Sketchbook III permit accurate dating. The inside cover lists an itinerary for a trip by train leaving the Gare de Lyon in Paris for Pontaubert, a town near Avalon in the Yonne region. It is known that Seurat spent two months there in the company of Aman-Jean during the summer and early autumn of 1881. The artist has also noted the addresses of several artist friends, including Alphonse Osbert and Ernest Laurent, with whom he probably intended to correspond while he was away. Seurat may have first drawn in the sketchbook while he was still in Paris and during the train trip. The first sketches show ladies seated in the station. These are followed by several classically posed nudes perhaps done from sculptures that were part of the station decor, and two portrait studies of his travelling companion Aman-Jean.
The majority of the sketches in the carnet appear to have been done while Seurat was staying in Pontaubert. They depict farm people at work and rest, and farm animals such as horses, mules, cows, goats and dogs, interspersed with landscape studies. Two drawings are closely related to the oil painting Le petit paysan en bleu (fig. 1), which was done in Pontaubert, although Seurat probably reworked it after returning to Paris and into the following year. In the latter part of the carnet there are sketches of local townspeople which Seurat likely executed while walking on the streets of Pontaubert. Evidence of the artist's growing interest in the application of scientific theory in painting is a notation, probably done from memory, of Ogden Rood's colour circle, with which he first became acquainted earlier that year. The back inside cover contains a shopping list for paints.
Seurat's trip to Pontaubert was significant in his development as an artist, for during this time he completely cast off his academic training, and immersed himself in the naturalism of rural subject matter, as Millet and Pissarro had done before him. While sketching in the fields around Pontaubert Seurat set for himself a pictorial agenda that would guide his work for the next several years, and prepared the way for his first masterwork Une baignade à Asnières, 1883-84 (H92; Tate Modern, London). The quickly sketched drawings that fill this carnet, done on the fly and with all the freshness of a young man discovering for himself the simple beauties of country life, were the starting point for the small, delicately rendered and chromatically subtle rural scenes (fig. 2) that 'since the turn of the century... have been universally admired, even by those who are cool to his major paintings' (R.L. Herbert & al, op. cit., p. 105).