Following the Impressionist period, a new movement came onto the scene – Pointillism! Also called Neo-Impressionism or Divisionism, this movement appeared in the 19th century thanks to the impetus of Georges Seurat and his contemporary, Paul Signac. But what does this somewhat simplistic name really encompass? Read on to discover the peculiarities of this movement and the great artists who embodied it.

The Birth of Pointillism

It wasn’t until 1886 that the word “pointillism” first appeared in a review by art critic, Arsène Alexandre. With all due respect to those who were involved in the formation of this movement, it wasn’t a very glorifying denomination at the time. It was with disdain and condescension that critics ridiculed the art that was exploring new pictorial research. So, what is Pointillism really about? Its name makes it easy to understand. It is a matter of the artist applying small, individual dots of colour to form an image.

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Georges Seurat, The River Seine at La Grande Jatte (oil on canvas, 1888)

There were two principle artists who saw to the Pointillist tradition being carried on: Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac. But with them, others such as Camille and Lucien Pissaro, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Henri Edmond-Cross, Théo Van Rysselberghe, Henri Matisse and even Van Gogh drew from the inspiration that Pointillist art brought to the world of art.

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Camille Pissaro, Picking Peas (1887)

An Impressionist-inspired technique

Also known as Divisionism, Pointillism is a sophisticated pictorial technique. It compels our eye and mind to merge and assimilate colour on a wide chromatic range. This is a relatively original approach as the spotted touches of the paint brush oblige the viewer to take a few steps back in order to see the emergence of the work as a whole. Like Impressionist artists, Pointillists depict landscapes, portraits and seascapes; their aim being to paint soothing scenes in open air.

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Henri Edmond-Cross, The Lake in the Bois de Boulogne (oil on canvas, 1899)

Rather than mixing colours on a palette, Pointillists apply raw colour directly onto the canvas. Using round or square touches of the paintbrush, their blending of tones and pigments takes place on the surface of the canvas as they work, not on a palette beforehand. This technique was a complete break with the traditional practices of the 19th century.

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Albert Dubois-Pillet, The Banks on the Marne at Dawn (1886)

The Pointillist theory holds that dots can only be distinguished from one another when viewing the work from a certain distance. The further away you are, the more “whole” it looks. Thanks to this technique that spaces out the applied colours, some areas of the canvas remain untouched and can still be seen. This gives the work an even brighter effect. Raw pigments retain their natural brilliance by virtue of not being mixed together…this is what makes Pointillism so innovative.

Pointillism is a patient affair

Imagine yourself in front of an easel. Brushes in hand, paint tubes nearby, all you need to do is paint. Except for as a Pointillist artist, you have one giant constraint…you will have to get by without mixing your paints on the palette or on the canvas. Yes, it seems daunting. One may wonder why the artists went to so much trouble. But their reasons are simple, they wanted to revolutionise art and offer up a new definition of what it means to be a an artist.

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Paul Signac, Woman Taking up her Hair. Opus 227 (collection Musée d’Orsay)

To do this, they relied on scientific theories about time and optical phenomena. Charles Henry, a French librarian and editor who was interested in the subject, wrote a book called the Chromatic Circle in which he demonstrated how positioning colours on a circle can help create new colour combinations. From this, complementary colours were born. This method is widely used today since the search for harmony involves the use of complementary shades, such as blue with orange, red with green or yellow with purple.

The scope of the technical oppositions standing in the way of Pointillist creation is and was massive. But it’s worth it in the end. Chromatic connections provoke strong contrasts and even seem to accentuate the intensity of the hues that appear by themselves. The colours vibrate together and bounce off one another in places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to. For example, the specks of red in Paul Signac’s sky, or shades of purple in the ocean. Though it doesn’t sound logical, the colour application is methodical and studied.

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Theo van Rysselberghe, Sunset at Ambletsuse (oil on canvas, 1899)

Pointillism is characterised by a general saturation of tones. This explosive use of colour quite clearly paved the way for Fauvism and Surrealism. The artists used different variations of the same shade without mixing the pigments. This makes canvases appear softer and less visually aggressive. The monochromatic aspect has been further developed which gives Pointillist works an additional dimension of complexity and richness.

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Georges Seurat, Port-en-Bessin at High Tide (oil on canvas, 1888)

Pointillist art on KAZoART • STAS

On KAZoART, the artist STAS uses the Pointillist code on his paintings of teh French Riviera. The successive dots of colour further immerse us in the heartbeat of this work that exhibits unparalleled light and depth.

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STAS, Port of Marseille
8 heures du matin à villefranche sur mer
STAS, 8:00 in the morning at Villefranche-sur-mer