From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914


What is pointillism?

Pointillism is the name of a style most associated with the work of Georges Seurat (1859–1891), who was interested in color theory and experimented with complimentary colors. Seurat studied classical color theory and the theories of nineteenth-century chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul. In The Laws of Contrast Color (1824) Chevreul explained that two adjacent colors would reflect each other’s complimentary color (the color on the opposite side of the color wheel). In his visual experiments, Seurat placed dots of pure color side by side in his paintings with the idea that the viewer’s eye would blend the colors together, according to the theory. Seurat called this technique “divisionism,” but art critics used the term “pointillism,” which is now more common. Seurat’s most famous pointillist painting is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886). This very large painting (over ten feet long), is made up of thousands of distinct, painted dots and depicts a relaxing leisure scene. Bourgeois Parisians relax along a riverbank. Well-dressed men, women, and children mill about on the grass, some holding umbrellas, while others recline in the shade. The monumental scene has a rather formal style due to the pointillist technique, and the individual dots are quite clear when closely inspected. A number of artists, including Vincent van Gogh, experimented with pointillism and other pointillist works include Maximilien Luce’s Morning, Interior (1890) and Family in the Orchard (1890) by Theo van Rysselberghe, who went through a pointillist phase.

Three Apples, 1878-79. (Art courtesy The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library.)


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