Seurat studied art briefly at Ecole de Beaux-Arts. When he moved to Paris in 1880 he decided that before he complicated things with color, he would master the art of black and white drawing. You can find these black and white sketches scattered around the world. Seurat did many black and white studies for his large paintings, as well. Shown below is a study for La Grade Jatte. Notice this woman fishing on the left hand side of the painting, shown above.
In the 1800s, a lot of research was done on color. This research was extremely scientific and only scientists could understand the studies. A group of writers were able to interpret the research and make it clear to others, including painters. The color wheel was designed around this time which shows how different colors blend. This new information was of great interest to Seurat who experimented with the idea of color blending not on the palette or canvas but in the eye.
Seurat’s style of painting was called pointillism because he used the point of his brush to dab small dots of unmixed color onto his canvas that, when viewed from a distance, blended into a picture. Seurat was not the first to experiment with this. It was an old concept which many artists had discarded before him, including Johannes Vermeer in the 1500s. Seurat was dedicated to it, though, and continued to work in the pointillist style until his death. He also shared the idea with other artists, like Paul Signac who painted the Red Buoy (shown below).
If you really want to be correct when talking about Seurat’s style, you should call it “chromoluminarism” or “divisionism” rather than the better known “pointillism.” It is true that Seurat formed images using many tiny dots of paint (pointillism) but really he was trying to achieve something even more difficult. To color a tree using dots of many different shades of brown is a far easier thing to do than choosing white, red, and yellow and arranging many dots in such a way that the colors blend in the viewer’s eye to create brown. La Grande Jatte is really an astonishing achievement.
Because I’ve probably already overloaded you with information and I’m only halfway through, I’ll continue this tomorrow. Don’t forget to check back!
EDITED TO ADD: Georges Seurat, Part 2