Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about George Seurat painting Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Seurat is probably the only Pointillist painter whom most people might name. The Pointillists are known for connecting millions of dots of color into landscapes. Some used strong color pallets with intense contrasting hues. Others washed nearly all the color with shades of white or black. The Phillips Collection, in Washington D.C., is hosting an exhibit of Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities.
Artistic style come and go, breaking boundaries of orthodoxy until the style itself becomes saturated and orthodox. The Impressionists had accomplished this cycle a generation before, using rapid brush strokes to convey domestic scenes, country and urban life. But, Van Gough’s swirling trees and skies, and Gaugan’s rose, purple, and orange saturated beaches and villages of Tahiti overwhelmed the romantic softness of the Impressionists’ bathers, dancers, and sun-drenched farms. Braque and Picasso would soon smash and tear the edges of still-life compositions to create Cubist images. Meanwhile, a group of painters began to experiment with different concepts of light, color, and form.
I will admit that I could not have named more than Seurat and Camille Pissarro as painters working with pointillist techniques. Even those I would have considered extension of Impressionism, especially as Pissarro had used impressionist techniques previously. Later in his career he took his loose, white saturated brush stroke and formed them more into dots. But, this exhibit filled half a dozen rooms with artists whom I had not recognized from before.
Theo van Rysselberghe nearly overwhelms the canvas of Big Clouds with purple and yellow, maybe adding the silhouetted ship in the center of the canvas, as if at the last-minute, to provide the viewer with an expected subject, other than illuminated sky, shadowed clouds, and reflecting ocean. The stark contrast of the colors within such a narrow range is nearly mesmerizing to look at. This reproduction missed a key element of the composition, the frame. It contains the painting in about four inches of frame that is fully covered by purple dots.
Paul Signac fills the canvas with broad geometric regions of sand, water, and sky, in Saint-Briac, The Beacons. Along the horizon are suggestions of the beacons which guide ships into the bay. Otherwise, the scene is calm, devoid humans or birds that usually dot the shores of beaches to bring us into the scene. No, Signac leaves us out of this setting, which a high tide could wash away all of his dots of sand. If you look long enough, you might perceive that the dots of the water begin to move with the rising or ebbing tide, or the sky might turn light or dark, depending on whether you consider this a dawn or dusk painting.
Artistic styles establish techniques which are sometimes heightened by those who use and violate the rules at the same time. Henri-Edmond Cross’ Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul) sets the beach, tidal-pools, and ocean-sky-far-shore background using the pointillist dot technique. However, the three boys in the foreground are tightly painted, including delicate outlining. Only their shadows revert back to the dots, tying them into the scene. Who knows, maybe all those creamy dots on the beach are really sea-shells!
Maximilliem Luce’s Paris, View of the Seine, Night also adds brush strokes, in the trees and foreground people, which are not only dots, but slashes and wiggles. While the yellows of the sky and water shimmer with the dabs of paint, these longer strokes add movement and life.
Some pointillist paintings refine the points of color so carefully, that from across the gallery the images seem soft but clear. I found that I could imitate this process just by shifting from looking through the distance region of my bifocals to the reading lens. Presto, all those dots melded together. This seems to work best for far-sighted persons, as near-sighted glasses tend to magnify the effect of the dots. Louis Hayet’s Blue Hills demonstrates tightly worked pointillism, with the foreground plants in greens, middle-ground hills of blue, and distant clouds in white and grey. When inspected closely, each of these color ranges is made up of many variations, but at a distance, the colors blend for a cohesive representation.
In contrast, George Lemmon’s Promenade by the Sea uses large enough dots that the figures are nearly obscured. We can identify clouds, ocean, beached ships, and people walking along a boardwalk. But, none has distinct features. They are primarily light, color, and form.
Seeing and not seeing is an aspect of pointillism. The artists can demonstrate that they can use a collection of dots to create detailed images, or to create plains of ambiguous color. Camille Passarro plays with these ideas in The Flock of Sheep, Eragny. Our eye might be initially drawn to the familiar houses and trees of the street scene to right of the painting. To the far left is a vaguely presented shepherd holding a staff over his shoulder. Across the full plane of the lower quarter of the painting a line of sheep walk away from us. The dusty road stretches between us and them. Above is a diagonally drifting cloud of that dust, which fills the street. The cloud is divided between the light-colored region in the sun and the dark region in the shade of the houses on the left side of the street. The static nature of the buildings is halted by the bustling of the sheep and the movement of the dust under their hooves.
Some art historians have concluded that the Impressionist movement was a reaction to the development of photography. Cameras allowed the artist to capture sharp, realistic images. Impressionism blurred those images by emphasizing light and color. Pointillism broke light into component colors, then reassembled them. Ironically, digital photography essentially uses pointillist technique to create sharp images. The pixels in a digital camera record a dot of light. Those dots are arranged such that lines and hues meld into the image.
Early digital cameras, I believe our first was 3 megapixels, resulted in grainy images if enlarged too much. With cameras now recording 15, 20, 25 megapixels, the images become progressively clearer. But, digital photographs are still an assembly of dots.
I took the above photograph of flowers on our recent photo-safari at the National Cathedral. If I progressively enlarge this image, I select fewer and fewer pixels to fill the picture space. With using fewer pixels, I generate a pointillist image.
The last room of the exhibit played with this idea. Against one wall, they had a back-drop of the Tidal Basin in cherry blossom time with the Washington Monument behind it. An iPad was positioned on a poll such that you could set up a fake selfie. After snapping the picture, you could then select the size dots, adjust the color intensity and clarity, to make your own pointillist portrait. They then had you e-mail it to yourself or someone. Well, there you are: a Hermit original!
For my portrait, I chose “large dots” and warm tones. For the ladies’ portrait, they wanted “medium dots” and cool tones. Millions of pixels compiled digitally in moments. Technology puts another artist out of the painting business.