As Robert Herbert has observed: “By 1882, Seurat had created his unique style of drawing in which individual lines have disappeared in favor of large shadowy masses. He molded his velvety forms by delicately rubbing the rough textured paper with a greasy conté crayon, and by using the end of the crayon to form an even more dense scumble of lines which finally merged into greys and blacks” (exhibition catalogue: Seurat: Paintings and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago, 1958). Seurat’s method had been greatly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Charles Blanc and Humbert de Superville who had published studies explaining how the direction of lines, associated with colors, could elicit different emotions in the viewer. According to Blanc, linear directions are “unconditional signs” of emotion. Ascending lines are linked to feelings of joy and life, and, by association, expansion and voluptuousness. Using these theories as a foundation, Seurat developed a technique characterised by subtle tonal variations. Shapes are never defined, contours never drawn, figures are rendered through expressive shadowing of carefully modulated density, described thus by Gustave Kahn in 1929: “Seurat’s originality manifests itself through the simplified silhouettes of the figures and by the varying intensity of dark shadows which appear, as they move further away from the figures, to melt into white and black. One of the characteristics of Seurat’s drawings is that they are composed less for the sake of line than for atmosphere.” (Les Dessins de Georges Seurat 1859-1891, Paris, 1929, n.p.)
The contours of the young woman are thus delineated not by lines but by gently rubbing the conté crayon (composed of black carbon, clay and graphite) against the ridged surface of the Michallet paper, with darker zones produced by applying multiple layers, recognisable by the superimposed lines running in opposite directions. The painter Henri-Edmond Cross recalled a conversation with Seurat in which he emphasised that “his vision made him conceive of values before lines” and that it never occurred to him to “begin a canvas with a line” (“Inédits d’Henri-Edmond Cross - V”, Bulletin de la vie artistique, Paris,15th September 1922). By applying this method to drawing, the artist achieved outstanding contrasts of dark and light, which would lead critics to hail him as a worthy successor to Rembrandt, the clair-obscuriste par excellence (Charles Blanc, Grammaire des Arts du dessin, Paris, 1886, Chapter XII). The further the viewer moves back from the work, the clearer the image becomes, allowing previously indiscernible details (such as the bouquet of flowers) to emerge. This phenomenon recalls the optic principles of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Eugène Rood, which were at the root of Neo-Impressionism. Seurat strove to integrate these ideas not only into his paintings but also into his drawings, where he replaces colors with an infinite variety of shades of grey; the textured, granular effect of his drawings recalling the powdery haze of his Pointillist oils.
The present work was acquired by Paul Mellon for Rachel Lambert Mellon as a Christmas gift in 1956.
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