Neo-Impressionism is a pictorial movement that developed as part of the “reaction” to the fleeting nature of the Impressionist fragment, between 1884 and 1890. The name is due to the critic F. Fénéon who, in reviewing for the Belgian magazine “L’Art Moderne” the Grande Jatte by G. Seurat, presented at the Second Salon des Indépendants in September 1886, and even more so in the subsequent pamphlet Les Impressionnistes en 1866 published in “Le Vogue” in October of the same year, defined both the technical procedures and the aesthetic assumptions: underlining precisely the continuity, but also the explicit divergence, with the phenomenon of Impressionism. As another protagonist of the group, P. Signac, would later say, it was intended to “pay tribute to the efforts of the precursors and highlight, albeit through different procedures, the common goal: light and color.
It is in this sense that the word neo-impressionism should be understood, because the technique employed by these painters has nothing impressionistic about it; just as that of their predecessors is made up of instinct and instantaneousness, so theirs is the product of reflection and duration”. Taken up by Arsène Anselme in “L’Evénement” on December 10, 1886, the new term – to which the artists would have preferred the more exact “chromo-luminarism” – was definitively consecrated by another essay by Fénéon that appeared in “L’Art Moderne” on May 1, 1887, which firmly placed the movement among the most significant in Europe.
The recognized leader, for the clarity of his assumptions as well as for the clarity of his results, was G. Seurat, a young painter trained at the Ecole des beaux arts in the cult of Ingres and the ancients, but at the same time influenced by the solemn and hieratic essentiality of Puvis de Chavannes and the primitives. The “classical”, rational need for a rigorous compositional structure, to which Seurat remained faithful all his life, was however combined with a keen interest in modern theories of perception and color that the artist, in line with the dominant spirit of positivist scientism, was investigating – just nineteen – with the enthusiasm of early and extensive readings. In particular, the law of “simultaneous contrasts” that subjected the use of colors to “sure rules”, exposed by M. E. Chevreul in 1839 and taken up by C. Blanc in his Grammaire des arts du dessin (1867), integrated with the analogous studies of Helmollz, Maxwell, Sutter and Dove, persuaded him of the necessity of anchoring to the precision of a scientific method those effects and solutions that he had found experimented only intuitively by masters such as Delacroix, Corot and the Impressionists themselves, without for this reason forcing or suffocating the autonomy of invention.
Written in this regard D. Sutter wrote in Les phénomènes de la vision, which Seurat read in “L’Art” in 1880: “Science frees us from all uncertainties, it allows us to move with complete freedom and in a very broad field… Since all the rules are inherent in the very laws of nature, nothing is simpler than identifying the principles, and nothing is more indispensable. In art, everything must be willed.” In Une Baignade à Asnières, exhibited in May 1884 at the I Salon of the newly founded Société des Artistes Indépendante, Seurat concentrated on the “methodical separation of the elements – light, shade, local color, reciprocal action of colors – and their adequate proportion” (Rewald), which was to form the permanent basis of his procedure.
The work, whose result was still uncertain due to the persistence of mixed and earthy colors next to the pure ones, however, greatly impressed another young painter, known at the Constituent Society: P. Signac. Already on the road to Impressionism, it was Signac who urged his friend to definitively get rid of impastos, contributing to clarify his stylistic orientation.
But it is in the canvas of Une dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, which Seurat began to paint in May of 1984, significantly alternating outdoor studies with long sessions in the studio in order to exclude any element of improvisation, that the neo-impressionist research finds its first, complete exposure. Founded on the theory of the “mélange optique”, already adopted by Delacroix and developed by Chevreul, Blanc and Dove, which placed the mixing of colors in the perceptive attitude of the eye and no longer in the pigment, the Divisionist method attempted to reproduce the effect of retinal dissociation through the technique of pointillisme (with which movement is too often confused), which divides the brushstroke into small, clearly juxtaposed points; In order to obtain the maximum of correspondence to an exact situation of light and at the same time – through the direct combination of the complementaries and the eighteen tones of the iris (systematically brought together in the chromatic circle constructed by Seurat since 1981, in the wake of Chevreul and above all O. Rood) – the maximum of harmony. Rood) – the maximum of luminous intensity.
As Signac later wrote in his D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme (1898), it was a matter of “securing all the advantages of luminosity, color and harmony : through the optical mixture of uniquely pure pigments (all the hues of the prism and all their tones); through the separation of the various elements (local color, illumination color, their reactions); through the balance of these elements and their proportions (according to the laws of contrast, digradation and irradiation); through the choice of a touch proportionate to the size of the painting.” Certainly, as R. Herbert has shown, the theory of the “mélange optique” was illusory, and in fact constantly replaced by a modulation of local color; but the method of Neo-Impressionism was even more practical than theoretical.
According to testimonies, for example, Seurat proceeded by first of all fixing the compositional arrangement; then he spread a first layer of paint in broad strokes, as a background bond, and only later – after having chosen a definite tonality on the basis of the whole – did he gradually work “in pointillisme” on small portions of the painting. Nor did his anxiety and experimental attitude stop, of course, at the painted surface: great attention was devoted to the preparation of the supports (liquid chalk, sometimes encaustic) and of the compounds (for example, glass was preferred to traditional varnish, which tended to yellow); and the effort to achieve stylistic unity went as far as the frame, which from 1889 Seurat decorated with complementary colors and accompanied with a painted border, to better filter the gradual contact with the external environment.
While Seurat was continuing his experiments on the Grande Jatte in 1855, Signac, who had spread the ideas of the group from the beginning, persuaded Camille Pissarro of the accuracy of his friend’s method. The doyen of Impressionism, as receptive as ever and open to all innovations, enthusiastically adhered to it – soon followed by his son Lucien, by Cavallo-Peduzzi, Dubois-Pillet and Gausson and only later by Hayet, Angrand and Luce – to the point of imposing the presence of his new companions at the VIIIth and last exhibition of the Impressionist Society, at the Maison Dorée. In a separate room, next to the landscapes of the two Pissarro and the seascapes of Signac – who had in turn turned to pointillism without adopting Seurat’s uniform base (and the effect obtained was one of “frenetic intensity of light”) – the Grande Jatte made its first appearance here, followed shortly by the second Salon of the Indépendants; arousing the skeptical and derisive reaction of the public and a large part of the critics, disconcerted by the stylistic uniformity of the individual artists, who went so far as to accuse them of “over-hasty execution”.
However, there was no lack of favorable opinions from the young Symbolist writers, fascinated by the “pure idea” of this scientific modernism: Gustave Kahn, Arsène Alexandre, Paul Alexis and especially Fénéon, an admirer of Seurat since the Raignade, who became the apostle of the movement, contributing essays, notes and conferences to the spread of its principles. The Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, who was also struck by the “primitive simplicity and honesty” of Seurat’s work, acted as an intermediary with the Société des Vents, which from Brussels, under the leadership of Octave Maus, was committed to supporting new artistic directions. The regular presence of Seurat, Pissarro and their companions at the exhibitions of the Twenty, starting with the IV Salon of 1887, created a profound impression in the minds of artists such as Willy Finch, Theo van Rysselberghe, Henri van de Velde and – after 1889 – Lemmen, determining the early development of a Belgian current of Neo-Impressionism that by 1890 appeared as the main avant-garde pictorial movement; without neglecting the Netherlands, which saw in Jan Toorop and his students Brenner, Aarts and Vijlbrief the major exponents of Dutch pointillisme.
The decisive encounter, however, was with C. Henry, a young scientist friend of Fénéon and linked to the Symbolist circle, who in numerous essays on optics and perception, especially the Théorie des directions, the Traité sur l’esthétique scientifique (1886) and the Esthétique musicale had enunciated a sort of unified doctrine “of human sensitivity and activity” (Valéry). In particular, Seurat found in Henry’s theories on the rhythm and psychological expression of the line, already found in the youthful readings of Blanc and H. De Superville and widely echoed in the aesthetics of “emotional signs” of the Symbolist environment, an answer to the need to adapt to a logical and harmonious system, along with the colors, even the linear elements, which predisposed him to the never-renounced classical training and his own temperament.
Already in the Parade (1887-88), set up on a grid of the utmost simplicity and rigor that is nevertheless based on the complexity of the “golden section”, the uniformity of the warm and bright colors marks the evolution towards more focused interests. But it is from the summer of 1888 that Seurat, perhaps influenced by Art Nouveau, seduced by the fluid and synthetic line of the illustrator Chéret, but above all influenced by the reflections on the “dynamogenic” power (Le cercle chromatique… avec une introduction sur la théorie générale de la dynamogénie, 1888) and on the affective relations of lines and colors that Henry had elaborated in collaboration with Signac in L’Education du sens des formes and L’Education du sens des couleurs (also 1888), he introduced in his compositions sinuosities that, developed in Chahut and in the unfinished Le Cirque, gave a glimpse of new developments for Neo-Impressionism. On the other hand, the artist, who had always been reluctant to divulge his principles, had by now reached a theoretical maturity such as to persuade him to expound it in a famous letter to M. Beaubourg dated August 28, 1890: “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of opposites, the analogy of the similar, of tone, of hue, of line, considered according to the dominant and the influence of an illumination to joyful, calm or sad compositions”.
While Seurat’s reflections and experiments were abruptly interrupted by his premature death in 1891, Signac, who had always been obsessed with the limit of imitating reality, had already reached and perhaps surpassed it on his way to a rhythmic and ornamental abstractionism, not without mystical suggestions. His portrait of Fénèon sur l’émail d’yn fond rythmiaque de mesures et d’angles, de tons et de teintes (1890), in the complex combination of linear arabesques and chromatic harmonies, seems almost a “manifesto” of Henry’s hypothesis on pleasure and inhibition, in which, as we have seen, the artist had taken an active part. It was instead H.-E. Cross, a painter of acute sensitivity who came to Neo-Impressionism in 1890 before establishing himself as a great colorist, developed in the sense of an evocative and visionary logic those abstract premises that Mondrian – who had also “passed through” Neo-Impressionism – would bring to its most radical consequences.
But the theoretical content of Neo-Impressionism was beginning to weigh on its supporters. At the very moment when Seurat was significantly modifying his own manner, the movement was all-powerful at the Salon des Indépendants and the doctrine was everywhere interpreted or plundered while there were many who complained about the arbitrariness of the method and the authoritarianism of its leader. Pissarro was the first to distance himself from it, dissatisfied with “a technique that makes me nervous and restrains the spontaneity of sensation”, followed openly by Hayet, Luce and van de Velde. If the most gifted temperaments pursued the path of greater fluency and freedom, the success and apparent simplicity of the neo-impressionist formula were determining its increasingly widespread diffusion in the most varied sectors and environments. Faced with the impetus of the now universally recognized Impressionists, with the unquestionable finesse of the Pointillist method and with the critical and moral support provided by literary symbolism, academic painters such as E. Laurent, Aman-Jean, H. Petitjean, H. Martin or Le Sidaner soon had to attempt to recover the innovative character of Neo-Impressionism to their own advantage, more than anything else as a convenient expedient to give their works a seal of pretended modernity.
A phenomenon that had already worried Seurat (obsessively jealous of his technical and theoretical supremacy to the point of breaking with Signac in 1888): “The more we are, the more we will lose our originality, and the day everyone adopts this technique, it will no longer have any value and we will look for something new, which is already happening”. The spread of the Divisionist doctrine, however, cannot be reduced to a banalization in the negative; on the contrary, the seduction of pointillism spared no movement and exerted a lasting influence on the future course of European painting.
Anquetin, van Gogh, Bernard, and even Gauguin were all tempted by it, before rejecting it decisively; and the subtlety of the process had interested, and influenced, former Nabis such as Vuillard, Vallotton and Bonnard. In particular, Signac’s new manner, conceived with amplitude in shining mosaics on a light background, came to fascinate Matisse, who in 1904 produced his famous Luxe, calme et volupté in Saint-Tropez, at the home of the old master, thus opening the way to future Fauves results.
Even Derain, guided by Matisse, adopted this technique in 1905, during a stay in Collioure, followed between 1906 and 1907 by Metzinger and Delaunay, by Severini and G. Balla; optical cubism and futurism thus drew, in turn, more than one suggestion from neo-impressionism, which allowed the cubists in particular to pursue, after 1914, a new dynamic definition of space. Even outside France, Seurat’s death had not in the least compromised the spread of the movement.
In Italy, Pellizza da Volpedo explicitly associated himself with the French research, while Segantini, Previati and Grubicy brought the idealistic and mystical instances of the academic tradition back into Divisionism, translating them into a technical and stylistic peculiarity with a moving, fluid cadence and highly evocative results. Through Belgium, and more precisely through the influence of van Rysselberghe and van de Velde, the Germans P. Baum, C. Hermann and C. Rohlfs were in turn to take on the task of creating a new style. Rohlfs were in their turn, at the end of the century, to adopt the pointillist modality; I. Hauptmann, in relations with Signac between 1908 and 1912, would keep the Neo-Impressionist language alive until 1920.