Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2016
Michelle Foa Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 248 pp.; 60 color ills.; 81 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300208351)

In 1922, André Lhote claimed that Georges Seurat was “one of the lighthouses” then guiding a postwar generation of artists. Such an assertion might be understood simply as an assessment of Seurat’s enduring significance; but in her important new account of the artist, Michelle Foa steers a different approach to Lhote’s metaphor. Lighthouses are, in fact, thematically persistent for Seurat, and Foa bookends her analysis with two examples: the 1886 Hospice and Lighthouse of Honfleur and the 1889 Eiffel Tower (the latter to be understood, rightly, as a kind of urban lighthouse). Pointing to the key fact that lighthouses such as these function at the “limits of visibility,” Foa argues over the course of her beautifully illustrated and deeply illuminating book that Seurat was consistently, if not obsessively, concerned with what she calls the “limits of vision” (60).

Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision treats the entirety of the artist’s short career and offers accounts of every phase, from his early drawings to the last paintings. Importantly, however, the book does not proceed chronologically. Rather, Foa thematically divides her analysis of Seurat’s works into four chapters: on the seascapes, the early figure paintings, the later figure paintings, and the drawings. This structure probably will confuse readers unfamiliar with the work and historiography of the artist. Yet as one proceeds through the book, the purpose of Foa’s unconventional trajectory becomes clearer and clearer.

Chapter 1, “Seeing in Series,” gives the only sustained account I have ever encountered of Seurat’s seascapes. It also provides the foundation for the rest of the book. Foa argues that the paintings the artist produced on the Northern coast of France in the late 1880s exemplify an approach to human perception that mixed vision and cognition. In a close analysis of the paintings and the geography they depict in ports like Honfleur, Port-en-Bessin, and Gravelines, she convincingly demonstrates that Seurat sought to combine different views of sites into a series, thereby overcoming the limits of any single view or representation. In the painter’s time, the notion that perception involves the combination of memory and the senses was most closely associated with the pioneering psychology of Hermann von Helmholtz. Although the evidence Foa presents for Seurat having read Helmholtz is ultimately mixed, the logic of his seascapes becomes more explicit in light of the scientist’s theories. I found it troubling, however, that Foa blurred the distinction between a period-specific understanding of human perception (which Seurat and Helmholtz very well might have shared) and the nature of human vision broadly conceived—that is, “how we make sense of the world” (20). In other words, a cultural history of perception is lacking from her account. Consequently, the artist’s drive to pursue this project, to say nothing of its legibility to a historical viewer, remain largely in the dark.

As it happens, Foa’s fundamental claim need not be reduced to a Seurat-Helmholtz connection. Indeed, the artist’s larger ambition, as exemplified in the seascapes, can be stated in other terms. “Seurat’s depiction of different views of a site within a single series is,” Foa writes, “aimed at both illustrating and partially, if only metaphorically, overcoming the fundamental discrepancy between our perception of the external world and its representation in a single, static, two-dimensional painting” (25). Thus conceived, Seurat’s specific task was consistent with what he considered to be the universal goal of his art—he apparently asserted that painting was “the art of hollowing out a surface” (25). Foa’s emphasis on Seurat’s new representation of space is highly original and largely convincing. It also allows her to escape the art-historical tunnel-vision that flips between the science of Neo-Impressionism’s style and the political valence of its iconography. Hers is an admittedly selective focus, bracketing some significant aspects of Seurat’s art and its reception—the book’s index does not include the word “anarchism,” for example. On the other hand, this narrow purview allows Foa to elaborate the painter’s most basic intentions and the pattern of their development over his career.

The second chapter, “Figuring Out Vision,” focuses on Seurat’s most famous painting, A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884 (1884–86), and related works such as Models (1886–88). For Foa, the Grande Jatte is an “exploratory work,” one that establishes concerns that emerge more fully in the seascapes and other figure paintings (65). Although the artist’s new pointillist technique has dominated all previous accounts of the painting, in her interpretation the “point” simply indicates a wider and evolving “commitment to a physiological model of vision” (87). Centrally, Seurat was seeking to explore, critique, and ultimately overcome the established post-Renaissance conventions of spatial illusionism. Foa takes more seriously than anyone to date the curious fact that the Grande Jatte has a rigorous, if strange, perspective system. At the same time, she acknowledges that the painting offers a relief-like procession: the smaller scale of the figures on the left side relative to those on the right indicate that the former are further away from the viewer, thus suggesting a spatial recession from right to left. Foa consequently finds a broad double structure of viewing in this axial recession: “the Grande Jatte embodies two spatial structures, two notions of the relationship between vision and the body of the observer, and two models of painting” (74). The newer of the two is distinctly Helmholtzian, involving “a mobile viewer taking in different parts of the picture from successive vantage points” (74). Here the cognitive reconstruction of space elaborated in chapter 1 returns, and Foa details the site of the Grande Jatte in relation to other paintings such as the 1884 Bathers at Asnières and the less well-known Seine at Courbevoie of 1885. Models, in turn, follows logically from the Grande Jatte’s exploration of spatial regimes. The later painting diagrams more systematically and legibly the difference between objects seen over time from different angles—the single model seen three times—and the stationary, monocular view offered by a perspectival construction.

In the third chapter, “Seductive Sights,” Foa treats Seurat’s final four figure paintings: Circus Sideshow (1887–88), The Can-Can (1889–90), Circus (1890–91), and Young Woman Powdering Herself (1889–90). She convincingly insists that these works should be grouped together and considered separately from the paintings she discusses in the previous chapter. The first three have always been understood as pursuing new subjects for Seurat, notably ones that represent spectacular forms of mass entertainment. By adding the fourth picture, Foa brings the later paintings together around the artist’s “continued interest in both the mechanisms with which we perceive depth in the outside world and the conventions for conveying this depth in pictorial form” (118–19). She argues, for example, that the shallow space in Circus Sideshow should be understood less as proto-modernist flatness (as it traditionally has been understood) and more like a period trompe l’oeil, in which paintings-within-paintings and faux-balusters are, in fact, realistically rendered. But whereas A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884 sought to adopt and undo post-Renaissance conventions of representation, “later figural paintings like Parade constitute an alternative definition not only of vision but also of representation, for these later figural pictures evoke the ability of images to disorient and transfix their viewers, much like the spectacles that they depict” (134). Foa points in turn to the “critical distance” these later paintings provide from the passive consumption they depict (140). Although she does discuss, if briefly, the intoxicating effects of mass-media modes, a more extended account might have synthesized her compelling visual analyses of Seurat’s forms of representation with the existing cultural histories of Neo-Impressionism’s critical engagement with modern visual culture. Nonetheless, Foa’s book complicates, and in fact gives greater strength to, certain arguments about Seurat’s political engagement with modernity.

The fourth chapter, “Sight and Touch in Black and White,” looks at first glance like an appendix. It deals with Seurat’s drawings, works that, although widely discussed, have never been satisfactorily integrated with an account of the paintings. Typically the drawings have been seen as preceding the more mature paintings, at least stylistically. By altogether avoiding such chronological prioritization, Foa is able to approach the drawings more productively in parallel with the paintings. Indeed, she points out that most of the drawings are undated, and that Seurat continued producing them throughout his career. More importantly for her account, the drawings pursue the same questions of representation and vision that she finds so consistently in the paintings. Key differences in the drawings include the foregrounding of the relation of sight and touch and a fascination with lighting effects; but in line with the paintings, “Seurat’s wide-ranging analysis of light was an important part of his investigation of visual experience in the late nineteenth century, with the diverse kinds of lights in his images serving as instruments of orientation or disorientation, conveying information or, conversely, producing a dazzling effect” (196). The drawings and paintings can thus be understood as two ways of tacking in toward the same point, two ways of delimiting vision.

A brief postscript returns Foa to painting and to the lighthouse theme with which she began. Painted in 1889, Seurat’s Eiffel Tower thematizes again the relation between two models of vision: an “all-encompassing view” from the top of the tower and the “corporeality” of the viewer (initially, the artist) on the ground below (200). The Eiffel Tower was consistently compared to a lighthouse, providing a beacon for the World’s Fair of 1889 and thereafter “the civilization of Paris” (203). But it was also meant to dazzle, thrill, and entertain within an emerging consumer culture. The canvas captures some of this, but it is the force of Foa’s sustained analysis of Seurat and the “limits of vision” that brings this dynamic fully to light.

Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision is almost certainly the most important book on Seurat in over a decade. Its treatment of vision, cognition, representation, and pictorial space opens an entirely new perspective on Seurat’s oeuvre. At the same time, the limits of the study are clear. The motivation for, and chronological unfolding of, the artist’s project remain foggy. Neo-Impressionism as a style and a movement are treated glancingly. Politics comes in through the back door, and the explicit commitments of Seurat’s generation are left outside. For all its exclusions and limits, however, Foa’s book will reorient future understandings of Seurat’s work; no serious account of late nineteenth-century art can afford to ignore it.

Marnin Young
Associate Professor of Art History, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University