Monday Lectures

5 April 2021

From Seurat to Matisse: Painting the Sea after the Impressionists

Georges Seurat, The Lighthouse at Honfleur, 1886

Washington, National Gallery of Art

This lecture is in part a sequel to the talk held on 17 March – The Seaside in impressionist Art. After 1880 the vision of the sea in French painting changed fundamentally away from the social and documentary depictions that were initiated by Boudin of the Normandy beaches in the 1860s. Bourgeois tourist beach scenes give way to a vision of the sea that is more contemplative and more personal, with a new emphasis on the artist’s inner sensations and the analysis of light.

 

The Neo-Impressionist school initiated by Seurat and continued into the early 20th century by Signac, Cross and Rysselberghe combine the experience of nature and light before the sea with a new emphasis on the analysis of color, line and form creating a more self-consciously artificial style emphasizing the iridescent nature of light.

 The followers of Gauguin on the coast of Britanny – the Synthetists or “School of Pont Aven”including Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis– added a strong note of rustic primitivism and folklore, partially inspired by Japanese art, to their visions of the sea. They openly rejected the modern tourists and sought to create an idealized and decorative vision of the seashore.

 

 

By 1905 Matisse and his friends and followers – Derain, Dufy, Marquet, Braque - went even further. They translated their sensations and experience of light before the sea into the boldest possible colors using a newly intuitive and improvisational painting technique. With Matisse we will witness the birth of Fauvism on the Mediterranean coast in Collioure and with it the advent of 20th century modern art.

Henri Matisse, Luxe, calme et volupté, 1904

Paris, Musée d'Orsay