Art Term Tuesday: Pointillism

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

 Another “ism”?? Yes! Pointillism, perhaps my least favorite “ism” after Mannerism, was developed in 1886 by Frenchman Georges Seurat and his student, Paul Signac. Deviating from Impressionism, it fostered the Neo-Impressionist artistic style that sought to incorporate art into the science of optics. Relying on the ability of the eye to blend the color spots into a full range of tones, Pointillism didn’t concern itself with color theory, per se, as much as the specific style of brushwork from which it gets its name. Coined by critics to be disparaging and belittling, Pointillism utilizes the technique of painting small, distinct dots, or points, of color in patterns to form an overall image. Probably the most well-known example (below) is founding artist Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Groups of people spend their leisure time on Sunday alongside the banks of a river. Boats glide along the river while diverse groupings of people sit and stand, wandering the banks and the grove of trees in the background.
George Seurat, French, 1859-1891. A Sunday on La Grand Jatte. Oil on canvas, 1884-1886. Public Domain, currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

Can you see the dots? Probably not! From a certain distance, supposedly three times the diagonal measurement of the canvas, your eyes see the full image and not the individual dots used to create it. But how? The smaller the dots, the clearer the painting and sharper the lines. Consider the screen resolution on a computer or television, the higher the resolution, the smaller the dots and the sharper the picture. Therefore, contrasting with the thick, full brushstrokes employed by Impressionism, Pointillism employed hundreds of small dots or dashes of pure color. In this way, Pointillism took Impressionism a step further while maintaining the technique of not mixing the colors on a palette. These tightly packed, individual dots of pure color were applied in patterns to compose the cohesive image. Favoring oil paints because of their thickness and tendency not to run or bleed, it allowed the artist to place distinct dots next to each other. Unlike with Impressionism, the subjects were not as important as the style, as Seurat attempted to provide more rigor to the practice of painting by fusing it with the science of optics.

How does our brain process what we see? In the 19th century, the science of optics was primitive, but it developed under the misconception that artists could use optical mixing, or placing two distinct colors next to each other to blend into one, to create the appearance of brighter and more vivid colors than what could be achieved by physically mixing the paint. Pointillism attempted to mimic the way light reflects, with the idea that when you mixed all the primary colors, instead of getting a muddy black, you would create a brilliant white like what occurs when you mix complementary colors on a light table. Painting is inherently subtractive, because of the way in which light is absorbed and distributed as it passes through successive layers of media. With color mixing, the light has more layers to go through, whereas with Pointillism the colors remain pure, and do seem brighter than the typical mixed, subtractive application of colors. This brightness may also come from the peeks of white canvas that emerge between the applied dots, however, and not as a direct result of optics. Like trompe l’oeil, or 2D works of art that appear to “pop-out” and be 3D, pointillist techniques trick the eye into partial optical mixing, as being unable to ascertain the distinct dots results in the visual arrangement of color.

Unlike with trompe l’oeil, however, Pointillism’s accuracy is dependent on various factors: the size of the dots, the distance the viewer is standing from the artwork, and the eye of the viewer. Everyone perceives colors differently, and this factor is out of control of the artist. (What about people who are color blind, who have trouble seeing the difference between colors, how bright colors are, and the different shades of color?). Therefore, not only was it a new way for an artist to capture an impression, but a new way for the viewer to recognize it. Is Pointillism truly capturing an “impression”?

Not in the sense that the Impressionists did. Seurat spent three years on his seminal work, while the Impressionists often started and finished a work in the hours they sat outside, painting en plein air, hurriedly capturing the movement and change of the light and everyday people they chose to portray. Placing hundreds of dots of colors side-by-side takes time, and so while Seurat and Signac often chose to maintain the Impressionist subjects of everyday people doing everyday things, their style did not permit the thick, textured brushstrokes. In fact, their practice is more similar to the four-color CMYK printing used by color printers and large presses that place dots of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black) to create a full image.

Does Pointillism exist today? Perhaps not in its original form, but it did influence Fauvism, a short-lived movement between 1905 and 1908 that emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the realism valued by Impressionism. An extreme development of van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism coupled with Seurat’s Pointillism and Paul Signac’s Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism was led, predominantly, by French artists like Henri Matisse.

Does Optical Art, or Op Art, count as Pointillism? Julian Stanczak, Polish-American, 1928-2017. Composite Series-A Red + Blue. Screenprint, 1981. Gift of the Stanczak Foundation, 2019.232. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Sometimes mistaken for Divisionism, which used larger, cube-like brushstrokes, the impact of Pointillism can also be found in Cubism, Pop Art, and Digital Art. Optical art, or Op Art, may have its roots in Pointillism, as artists like Julian Stanczak (above) used small dots of paint close to each other to create turbulent, visual effects. In fact, Stanczak often relied on mathematics and the science of color mixing to create his desired effects. Liz Whitney Quisgard’s “pseudo-Pointillism”, the use of small dots of paint to embellish her sculptures, akin to mosaics, and Chuck Closes’ use of a grid to scale up photographs by painting rings on a contrasting background, are also similar to Pointillism. A photomosaic is a photograph that is divided into tile sections with each section replaced by another photograph that matches the target photo, for example, 200 photos of different pandas make up one large photo of a panda. Where else have you seen the influence of Pointillism?

Check out FWMoA’s exhibition, A Year of Making Meaning, to see some newly collected works that express the influence of Pointillism. Open now through January 31, 2021.

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