Il possede la clef de l’univers en l’équation de la lumière[33]


These media, crayon acting on paper, also allowed for a seemingly infinite variation in lighting that can only be described as uncanny. Penumbras and deep voids of charcoal often engulf the entire page, as in the drawing of the woman with Le noeud noir. [Fig. 5] Often, light is only the absence of darkness – white paper unclouded by charcoal, or charcoal figures defined by the encroaching borders of unmarked page. Gustave Kahn described this effect as “the deformation of the image by light.”[34] Seurat’s experimentation with the simulation of varying light effects prefigured some of the most iconic imagery of surrealist photography. In drawings like Promenoir, he captured the sensations of artificial lights at night or indoors,[35] of streetlamps seen through evening mist causing “a regularized and growing perturbation of shadow on the street,”[36] and “the mysteries of dawn and dusk.”[37] [Fig. 6] In retrospect, however, the results of many of his exercises - merely and miraculously, in one of those coincidences that Breton so highly valued – resemble Man Ray’s rayographs.

            From the vaporous scrim that envelops Seurat’s still lifes, objects emerge as if developing on the surface of the drawing. They match in effect, if not in intent, Man Ray’s camera-less rayographs, in which items of varying degrees of translucence set upon developing paper cast their shadows in negative – creating phantasmic images of the mundane – such as a woman’s face in profile, drinking from a glass. [Fig. 7] John Fuller, in “Atget and Man Ray in the Context of Surrealism,” quotes Sarane Alexandrian’s description of Man Ray’s rayographs in terms that could equally be applied to Seurat’s still lifes:

He is the scrupulous interpreter of the secret life of objects, the confidante of their inmost thoughts, the observer of their naive ambitions, the arbitrator of their conflicts, the witness of their platonic love affairs with the beholder.[38]


In Roses dans une vase and Chapeau, souliers, ligne, Seurat achieves a similarly inscrutable frisson of thingliness, evanescence and presence. [Figs. 8 and 9] Although there is no indication of a direct correspondence between Seurat’s 19th century drawings and Man Ray’s 20th century photography techniques, the resonances between them are not merely formal affinities, but philosophical. In both cases, these artists imbued objects with mystery through experimentation with shadow and light.


[33] Mabille, “Dessins inédits de Seurat”, p. 4. “He possesses the key to the universe in the equation of light.” Translation mine.

[34] Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, p. vii.

[35] Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, pp. vi-vii: Kahn relates a conversation with Seurat regarding Whistler and “his cult of ‘nocturnes’… the painter is primarily able to practice his art at the hour when artificial lights are turned on… Seurat said to me: that is a remark only a great painter would make. Whistler is right.”

[36] Kahn, The Drawings of Georges Seurat, pp. xi.

[37] Mabille, “Dessins inédits de Seurat”, p. 4: “les mystères de l’aube et de crepuscule.” Translation mine.

[38] Fuller, “Atget and Man Ray in the Context of Surrealism”, p. 133.