Developed in the mid-1880s and popularized by French artists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, pointillism is a pivotal technique in art history. Though critical reception to pointillism was initially mixed, this painting style went on to be an important element in several artistic movements. Paintings created in the pointillist style, composed of tiny dots which form to create a larger image, can be found in Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Fauvist works. From Pissarro and Van Gogh to Damien Hirst’s contemporary interpretation, here is a selection of incredible pointillist artworks.
The Origins of Pointillism: How Was the Technique Created?
Pointillism is a painting technique in which an artist creates a larger image from small, colorful dots. This style was primarily created by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In the mid-1880s Seurat and Signac began to adopt a more systematic and scientific approach to their art, methodically adding small, separate dots of unmixed paint to their canvases to create a larger image. Sometimes this was done on a very large canvas for maximum effect, such as with Seurat’s 1884 pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a striking piece with incredible attention to detail and a fascinating border composed of blue, orange, and red dots.
Before the term pointillism was coined, Seurat and Signac referred to their newfound technique as divisionism. Divisionism has since evolved into an umbrella term referring to work incorporating divided sections of color, like a mosaic. In the beginning, many critics found this system of creating art with tiny dots silly and created the term pointillism to mock the artists who used it. As pointillism became more popular and solidified itself as an element of many artistic movements, its name was adopted as the official term.
1. Georges Seurat: A Major Pointillist Artist
One of the most famous pointillist artists, Georges Seurat (1859-1891), played an important role in the creation and development of the technique. Seurat was a French post-impressionist artist known for his creation of divisionism (also known as chromoluminarism) and pointillism. Seurat was only twenty-four years old when he created some of his most famous pointillist paintings: the aforementioned A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) and the remarkable Bathers at Asnières (1884). Bathers at Asnières, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, was rejected by the Parisian salon in the 1880s when Seurat submitted it for the show but stands out today as a cornerstone of pointillism and post-impressionism.
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2. Paul Signac: Same Technique, Different Goals
Paul Signac (1863-1935) was a prominent French painter in the Neo-Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art scenes. In real life, Paul Signac and Georges Seurat were great friends. In the late 1880s, he was influenced by Seurat’s scientific new painting technique and helped develop the theory behind pointillism. Seurat also influenced and was influenced by many of his contemporaries other than Seurat, including Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.
Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez (1892) is an arresting example of Signac’s pointillist work. Created shortly after his friend Seurat’s death in 1891, Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez depicts the port at Saint Tropez, a place that fascinated Signac through the peak of his career. Though he and Seurat created the technique of pointillism together, Signac had a much more Neo-Impressionist interpretation of the painting style.
Signac’s La Baie (Saint-Tropez) (1907) is an outstanding reflection of his standing as a pioneer of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism was a small offshoot of the Impressionist movement that harnessed the pointillist technique to create a more rational or scientific version of Impressionism. After his friend Georges Seurat passed away, he became the main spokesman for pointillism and divisionism, allowing this different way of interpreting color to define the Neo-impressionists among their contemporaries.
3. Camille Pissarro: Paintings Inspired by Seurat and Signac
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a French Impressionist painter who also created many significant pointillist works. Pissarro experimented with many movements under the Impressionist umbrella throughout his life, including Post-Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, so it is not surprising that someone so involved in these scenes would create artwork using the pointillist technique. He was acquainted with Seurat and Signac in real life and found their scientific approach to color and light fascinating, though he grew tired of pointillism after about four years and stopped creating works in such a rigid style. Picking Peas (1887) is an example of Pissarro’s artwork during this time and the unique gift he had for capturing light and shadow using an array of tiny dots.
4. Maximilien Luce: Another Impressionist Turned Pointillist
Maximilien Luce (1858-1941) was another artist who began as an impressionist before dedicating a large period of his career to pointillism. His 1890 painting Morning, Interior is a stunning example of early pointillism and divisionism, depicting his friend and fellow artist Gustave Perrot getting ready in the morning. This painting is composed of many individually colored dots, mostly in orange, red, yellow, and blue, which create an image that has incredible detail. Some consider Luce to be a Neo-Impressionist rather than an Impressionist, as he was politically in line with the movement throughout his life and was sympathetic to the proletariat, even advocating for anarchy at times. Toward the end of his life, Luce stopped discussing these topics as much and returned to painting in his original impressionist style.
5. Henri-Edmond Cross: A Neo-Impressionist Master
Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910) was a French painter and the cornerstone of the Neo-Impressionist movement. He was acquainted with Georges Seurat in the 1880s and finally tried painting with the pointillist technique in 1891 to great success. His painting La Fuite des nymphes (1906) shows a remarkable grasp of the technique and reflects the intersection of pointillism and Neo-impressionism in a way that resembles the work of Paul Signac. Cross’ use of pointillism was a major turning point in the history of the technique, as he was a massively influential figure in the art world and defined the second phase of the Neo-impressionist movement. Henri-Edmond Cross’ work and legacy would inspire other great artists like Henri Matisse and pave the way for the emergence of Fauvism.
6. Henri Matisse: Pointillism in the French Fauvist’s Art
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French visual artist known for his fauvist paintings and his fluid treatment of light and color in his work. In many ways, Fauvism was an extension of both pointillism and neo-impressionism, as the movement was defined by vivid colors and rough, short brush strokes. Inspired by his predecessor Henri-Edmond Cross, Matisse created many works that could be considered pointillist, including the 1904 painting Luxe, calme, et volupté. This iconic painting is considered a seminal piece that marked the birth of Fauvism, utilizing earlier techniques to communicate a philosophy based on leisure and fantasy.
7. Undergrowth (1887): A Rare Pointillist Piece by Van Gogh
Pointillism had a widespread influence among artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Van Gogh was no exception. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who has since become recognized as one of the most influential people in the history of Western art. Most of his works were completed in the last couple of years of his life, which is also when he became familiar with Seurat and Signac’s creation and popularization of pointillism.
Van Gogh’s 1887 painting Undergrowth is a shining example of his utilization of the pointillist technique. Though Van Gogh struggled with consistency in both his life and art and abandoned such a highly technical method as pointillism fairly quickly, one can see the influence of the style in some of his most famous works such as his iconic self-portraits and his 1889 masterpiece Starry Night.
8. Pointillism and Beyond: Damien Hirst’s Modern Interpretation
Over the years, there has been much debate over what qualifies as pointillism. Though Seurat and Signac created the named technique and theory behind it in the late 1880s, dotted art has been created for as long as there have been people. There are even records of Aboriginal art that used a dotted or stippled technique on cave walls.
British contemporary artist Damien Hirst (born 1965) referenced pointillism and the long-standing tradition of dotted art with a modern twist. Hirst’s series of spot paintings, including the first piece created in 1986 titled Spot Painting, call back to pointillism and the idea of dots being an essential building block of imagery within art. Rather than making a clear image in his work like Seurat and Signac originally did, Hirst turns the series of dots into a striking abstraction.