Surrealist Seurat – The Drawings:

Interiority, Penumbra, Anachronism, Enigma 

Seurat est surréaliste dans le dessin[1]

In 1938, ten drawings by Georges Seurat were published in the Spring issue of the French surrealist publication, Minotaure, with an accompanying essay by Pierre Mabille. These moody images done in carbon black Conté crayon on white Michallet paper,[2] were credited to the important collector-dealers César de Hauke and Félix Fénéon.[3] Although untitled in the publication, they represent a survey of Seurat’s recognizable themes – stage performers in artificial light, women’s corseted and bustled silhouettes, lonely waterways and roads from an indeterminate zone in the Parisian suburbs,[4] and still figures immersed in gloom.

            Mabille’s essay is entitled Dessins inédits de Seurat, which may be a punning play on Fénéon’s 1922 commentary on a collection of Seurat’s musings, Notes inédits de Seurat sur Delacroix.[5] One could imagine this article could be re-titled Dessins inédits de Seurat presque surréaliste, since he was considered by then – in addition to Gauguin and Rousseau – a canonical proto-surrealist. While the work of Gauguin and Rousseau is ideally suited to a retrospective alignment with surrealist values,[6] Seurat’s work – at first glance – is not. Seurat’s technique seems too rigid to interest the surrealists and their early adherence to automatism, his subject matter too mundane. The former two artists, whose work is steeped in a dreamlike primitivism, would clearly appeal to surrealist aesthetics, as would Gauguin’s unconventional lifestyle and Rousseau’s auto-didactic naïveté. Seurat’s self-effacing, workmanlike persona – he was nicknamed ‘the notary’ by Degas[7]  – and his reputation as a methodical, ‘scientific’ artist[8] make him an unlikely hero of surrealism.

            Nonetheless, in What is Surrealism?, the 1934 restatement of the surrealist platform, André Breton referred to the artist during a roll-call of surrealistic precursors: “Seurat is a surrealist in design.”[9] Breton’s esteem for the artist is evident beginning in the prior decade, in his championing of the purchase by Jacques Doucet (the fashion designer and collector whom Breton advised in that decade) of Seurat’s study for Cirque from Fénéon in the 1920s.[10] Admiring mentions followed in Breton’s essays over the next 30 years,[11] culminating in a 1958 exhibition at the gallery Le Bateau-Lavoir called Dessins symbolistes, in which drawings by Seurat were exhibited, and which included a catalogue preface by Breton. [12]

            Although better known today for oil paintings that employ the technique he named chromoluminarism,[13] at the turn of the century, Seurat’s reputation as an artist’s artist rested mainly on the strength of his drawings.[14] Of the works enumerated in the catalogue raisonné by César de Hauke, 230 can be considered finished paintings in oil, while over 500 works on paper exist, including 270 finished drawings and studies from his mature period.[15] These were not merely preparatory drawings for larger oil works, although some exist in that category. Most were stand-alone efforts, which Seurat intended to have the same import as his work in oil.[16] He exhibited sets of the drawings  – alongside oil paintings, as well as on their own – throughout the period from 1880 through 1890.[17] Still, upon his death in 1891, Seurat “had no dealer and had only sold a few paintings.”[18]

            A close group of fellow painters and critics, including Fénéon and the symbolist writer Gustave Kahn nurtured his legacy in the ensuing decades. After Fénéon exhibited numerous Seurat drawings in 1926 at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, Kahn wrote the preface to the 1928 book based on the exhibition. Fénéon’s aesthetic influence on the surrealists should not be overlooked. They would have respected the taste of the man who edited Rimbaud and “produced the first public edition of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror.”[19] In fact, in the Dessins symbolistes exhibition, of the two Seurat drawings listed in the catalogue, one belonged to the estate of Fénéon and the other belonged to Breton, who in turn had bought it from Fénéon.[20]


[1]Pierre, André Breton et la peinture, p. 31: “Seurat is a surrealist within drawing.” Translation mine. See footnote #9 below: This sentence is often translated as “Seurat is a surrealist of design,” but dessin can mean both drawing and the idea of disegno, which is how it is usually construed in translations of this text.

[2] Buchberg, “Seurat: Materials and Techniques”, pp. 32 and 35.

[3] Mabille, “Dessins inédits de Seurat”, pp. 2-9 .

[4] Hauptman, “Medium and Miasma: Seurat’s Drawings on the Margins of Paris”, p. 110.

[5] Fénéon, “Notes inédits de Seurat sur Delacroix”, pp. 154-58.

[6] Breton, L’art magique, p.73 et passim.

[7] Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, p. v.

[8] Herbert, Seurat: Drawings and Paintings, p. 2.

[9] Breton, “What is Surrealism?”, p. 122. See my own translation of this phrase, and explanation of its use, in footnote #1 above.

[10] Cachin, “Seurat in France,” p. 423, and Dorra and Rewald, Seurat: l'œuvre peint, biographie et catalogue critique, p. 273.

[11]Breton, Surrealism and Painting, p. 24.

[12] Breton, Dessins symbolistes, np.

[13] Fénéon, “Définition du néo-impressionisme”, p. 91: “L’innovation de M. Seurat… a pour base la division scientifique du ton. Voici: au lieu de triturer sur la palette les pâtes dont la résultante fournira à peu près la teinte de la surface à représenter, -- le peintre posera sur la toile des touches figurant la couleur locale [sic]… Cette couleur qu’il n’a pas achromatisée sur sa palette, il achromatize indirectement sur la toile...” For a lengthy explanation, see Smith, Seurat and the Avante-Garde, pp. 23-48. For a book-length explanation, see Homer, Seurat and the Science of Painting.

[14] Shiff, “Seurat Distracted”, p. 18; Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, p. vi: “On the day when Seurat devoted himself to drawing for years to come, Neo-Impressionism began.”. Also, Aman-Jean in a letter to Gustave Coquiot, quoted in Hauptman, “Introduction”, p. 9: “It is drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path.”

[15] De Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, p. 2 et passim.

[16] Hauptman, “Introduction”, p. 10, and Herbert, Seurat’s Drawings, p. 3.

[17] Thomson, “The Imperatives of Style: Seurat’s Drawings, 1886-1891”, pp. 174-175.

[18] Cachin, “Seurat in France”, p. 423.

[19] Sante, “Introduction”, p. ix. For further evidence of the warm relationship between Fénéon and Breton, see also, Sante, “Introduction”, p. x-xi, in which Sante quotes from a letter written by Breton to Jean Paulhan: “…I got to know him, was amazed by him, admired and loved him…” etc.

[20] De Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, p. 38. See also, p. 34: Breton owned three Seurat drawings in total, which all came from Félix Fénéon.