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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Georges Seurat was a highly prolific draughtsman, leaving behind over five hundred drawings from a career which only lasted around eleven years. Most of the art public have only ever known about his famous paintings, but his work in this alternative medium provides an important additional string to his bow.

The artist would make use of a number of different materials for his drawings, but most common was the combination of Conté crayon and graphite. He focused on demonstrating the relationship between light and shadow in many of these artworks and continued to hold a high regard for drawing through his career. It has only been in recent years that a greater understanding and respect for his work in this discipline has started to appear, thanks in the main to a number of exhibitions within the US which have drawn a specific focus upon them. We do know that they would become influential on a number of artists, but it is only now that a correct record of them has been kept, as well as a more detailed investigation into their artistic qualities having been completed. This section aims to summarise the many hundreds of drawings into the key genres in which he worked as well as discussing the particular technical approaches that he used. The drawing pictured here, Seated Boy With Straw Hat, gives a good idea of the style found in most of his more detailed sketches.

Seurat was initially as an artist who worked in fairly academic ways, in line with the training that he had received in his early years. He would sketch sculptures in major art galleries and musems as a means to understanding and developing his technical prowess. It was only once he completed his initial military service between 1879-1880 that he would start to branch out from this and break away from the shackles of academic teaching. A key element to this were the sketchbooks that he carried around upon his person and used to concentrate on new objects for the first time, as well as starting to amend his actual style as a draughtsman. Seurat would now concentrate on shading rather than individual lines as he looked more into the relationships between form, light and space. He would make use of charcoal plus Conté crayon on Michallet paper and was now set on a course from which he would not diverge. Whilst most of these drawings can now be tracked down thanks to an impressive effort to collate them into one resource, they are rarely displayed to the public because of the fragile nature of these types of artworks.

Whilst Seurat's painting approach was to incorporate whole myriads of carefully chosen dots in order to produce form from a distance, his drawings would involve shading across the entire page, just varying the levels of darkness in order to leave behind a composition. The secret to his success was the infinite varieties in darkness that he was able to achieve, creating great detail across the scene. Essentially, there would be almost no fully black strokes, nor entirely blank parts of the paper, with everything in varying shades of grey. It is only when you see some of these drawings up close that you truly understand the ingenius finishes that can be found in his work within this discipline. If one is to compare it to the great masters of past centuries, perhaps the best comparison can be made with the many Rembrandt etchings that took that art form to levels never seen before and equally provided a clever use of grayscale palettes. Another point to note is how he would produce drawings that were intended to be seen as completed artworks, and presented as such. Others would often only use this art form as a means to improving the finished look of their paintings.

Traditionally, most have referred Seurat's drawings as a side point to his paintings, particularly where they were produced as experimental ideas for later artworks in oil. It has also been difficult to attract visitors to large exhbitions of just drawings for various reasons. Often we might find the oil sketches that he produced for classic paintings such as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Bathers at Asnières sitting close to the later works as a means to explain his preparatory techniques, but without affording too much importance to them in comparison to the more famous versions. In other cases, his intensive drawings would be too much to place on their own, and so would be presented alongside other mediums in a more general summary of his career. Whilst there remains a great interest in these challenging disciplines within the art world, they do not always translate into a large footfall as an exhibition. MoMA were somehow able to overcome this with a notable selection of his work fairly recently, and there was previously a show in Germany which addressed the same topic, but that was over a quarter of a century ago. As talented a draughtsman as he was, it seems likely that Seurat will always be remembered within mainstream circles as the Pointilist painter who produced the two iconic paintings as mentioned previously.

There is an eery quality to most of Seurat's drawings, something akin to the Expressionist work of Edvard Munch, who famously tackled the many different emotions of the human mind within his work. It seemed that whatever the content, the atmosphere would be the same, with Seurat contributing a good number of portraits and landscapes. He also liked to put the two together, capturing single or groups of figures wandering around his local environment. You will also see matching drawings and paintings, where most likely the artist worked outdoors with his sketchpad and drew out the main features of the scene before returning to the comfort of his studio in order to create a more complex version in oils. He would also make studies of other artist's work, though not as frequently as you might find in the work of other artists of this period. For example, Cezanne would draw many times whilst sat in the Louvre, but Seurat chose not to do this once his own style had started to take shape. He did take influence from others, though, and would focus on the lives of the working poor in a way which reminds many of the career of Gustave Courbet - see his Stone Breakers drawing, for example.

Many are unaware of the interest that artists take in the type of paper that they use for their drawings. Each medium has its own intricate variations and it is necessary to try a good variety before one finds their favourite product. Seurat himself settled upon Michallet paper for most of his career and would make use of some of its characteristics to achieve particular effects. He would cover it with combinations of conte crayon, charcoal, black chalk and graphite. Many artists of that era besides just Seurat would deliver drawings in varying levels of grey, covering almost the entire page with colour and delivered an intensive and time-consuming artwork that would stay long in the memory. It is believed that Seurat's choice of paper and the particular nature of Michallet would have made it harder for him to take a different course to this in any case. The likes of Paul Signac and Charles Angrand are known to have discussed this openly. There was talk of a grid being formed from the natural structure of the paper itself and Seurat would use that as a means to guiding his own layouts. Various research has uncovered the process by which he would work, and normally it would involve layering the content, just as one might do with oil painting.

Seurat would begin with lighter touches before adding greater darkness as he went through each stage, eventually ending up with a mixture of tone though with only subtle variations from one to another. The artist would also vary his strokes in length across the different stages as another means to adding and reducing significance across each artwork. He would also make use of Gillet and Canson paper at different points and one can start to see some links between his drawings and also the age-old methods involved with etching. When you examine the processes used by Seurat it is surprising that he would do all of this so early on in his lifetime, as most of these advanced ideas were something that appeared much later in the development process. Etching, for example, would take the masters several decades to master, even when relying on the technical expertise of assistants who might have specialised in this art form. Seurat had clearly already reached a high level in expertise by the time of his early passing, which makes it all the sadder when we consider what might have been achieved in the latter decades which he missed out on. Ultimately, when we consider the lives of artists like Schiele or Seurat, it is always better to appreciate what they did achieve rather than focusing on the negatives of what was potentially lost.

Drawing was a key element to those involved within the Impressionist movement as well as those who worked in related styles, such as Seurat. Many would use this technique to capture all manner of different content whenever the opportunity came about, and a simple sketchbook would always be far easier to carry around than say the full equipment needed for oil painting. We have discovered a number of sketchbooks from the careers of artists like Cezanne, where studying different objects would become an almost daily obsession. He himself worked on portraits and landscapes alternately, with no real consistency within the sketchbooks themselves, other than his use of graphite in almost all cases. Pastels were also popular with other artists of around this period, including Degas, who would sketch ballerinas many times, adding colours that were not found in his alternative work with charcoal. In terms of landscape studies, you may also be interested in Pissarro drawings, plus those of Bazille, with these two being about as devoted to that genre as pretty much any other member of the Impressionist movement.