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Pointillism - The Dotted Art of Early Modernity

  • Pointillism Dotted Art
July 6, 2016
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Pointillism can be described relatively simply – it’s an art movement named after a technique in which small dots of color are applied to canvas in order to form an image. Today, the term dotted art is also in colloquial use, and it describes the application of small dots of different color painted on canvas. As a historical art movement, Pointillism has a very particular implication, but nowadays it’s usually described as a special technique that has been used by a number of different artists, all of them creating in various contexts when it comes to art movements. The birth of Pointillism dates back to the Belle Epoque in Paris and the time of the Impressionist art. It is generally related to the French painter George Seurat, whose masterpiece Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte is widely praised as the most famous of the Pointillism paintings.

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Paul Signac – L’Hirondelle Steamer on the Seine, 1901

The Emergence of Pointillism

George Seurat and Paul Signac’s practice and paintings led to the emergence of Pointillism, usually associated with the year 1886. Both artists used this style earlier, but it was art critics who coined the term, in order to describe their extraordinary innovative approach to canvas and paint. In the very beginning (the late 19th Century), the critique had a rather mocking attitude towards the technique used by Seurat and Signac – they were criticizing their practice, believing that the term “Pointillism” would have a pejorative connotation. However, history proved these sharp-penned pedantists wrong, while Pointillism entered the books as one of the most progressive art movements of the era. Introducing a completely new perception in the field of color studies, Pointillism has had a huge influence on various art movements, spanning from the end of the 19th century and the avant-garde throughout the 20th.

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Maximilien Luce – Morning, Interior, 1890

Definition of the Style and Technique

Pointillism describes a technique in which hundreds of small dots or dashes of pure color are applied to the canvas, or another surface, in order to create maximum luminosity. This technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a range of tones. This technique is in sharp contrast to the traditional methods of blending pigments on a palette. It’s more similar to the four-color CMYK printing process used by some color printers (Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and Key (black)). If the composition is viewed from a certain distance, (supposedly three times the diagonal measurement) the dots of color give a richer and more subtle effect than can be achieved by conventional techniques. The subject-matter is not as important as dots in Pointillist compositions. It’s all about the dots and the image they create. Finally, the majority of Pointillism paintings has been done in oil paints. There are exceptions to the rule but they are scarcely to be found.

Pointillism Dotted Art
Hippolyte Petitjean – Pont neuf

What is the Difference between Dotted Art and Pointillism?

Terms dotted art and pointillism refer to the same thing. The only difference is that Pointillism is used more among art historians, art lovers and collectors, while the dotted art among wider public. Dotted art is popular among non-professional artists and there are many other artistic practices that use “dotted painting”. For example, Aboriginal art is, among many other things, known for its dotted paintings. Apart from these contextualizing differences, there isn’t much more to be said about differences between dotted art and Pointillism.

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Georges Seurat – Bathers at Asnières

Pointillism and Divisionism

Pointillism is sometimes wrongly associated with Divisionism (sometimes called chromoluminarism). Divisionists also used a similar technique of patterns to form images, but the final result of their practice was different. Both techniques emerged at the same time, and both of them were considered to be part of Post-Impressionism. Divisionism emerged thanks to the scientific theories and rules of color. For example, famous Charles Blanc’s color wheel influenced the practice of Divisionists. However, while divisionism was preoccupied with colors, and their divisions, Pointillism was founded on possibilities of creating pattern art, shapes and perspectives out of dots. When pointilist piece of art was created, not much attention was given to the separation of colors. It could be argued that the confusions arose due to the fact that same artists were “responsible” for the emergence of Pointillism as well as Divisionism (Seurat, Signac, and even van Gogh). Maybe the biggest deference between the two styles may be noticed when inspecting the “final product”. Divisionists used larger cube-like brushstrokes, while Pointillism compositions are obviously characterized by multicolor dots.

Pointillism Dotted Art
Henri Edmond Cross – Regatta in Venice, 1903-4

Pointillism and Other Art Movements

The biggest names who used the pointillist technique were in part Post Impressionist artsts. Post-Impressionism emerged in the mid-1880s, and by many is regarded as the first true avant-garde movement in painting. One of the main aims of the movement was to incorporate the latest explanation of optic and color perceptions. By using dots or larger cube-like brushstrokes, Post-Impressionists actually practiced the latest discoveries of theory of colors and perception. However, Pointillist approach isn’t exclusively related to Post-Impressionism. It also had a big impact on other styles as well, including Cubism, and even Pop Art. Finally, today there are many of contemporary artists who still use this extraordinary technique in their art. Observing the current trends in digital creativity, one can certainly pose a question: Is there not a connection between Pointillism and pixels in computer art? Isn’t the pixel art a sort of dotted art as well? The logic is the same, however, the style and context are completely different.

Pointillism in Music

Pointillism in Music

The term “Pointillism” also refers to a music genre that emerged in the end of the 1940s. It’s also sometimes called Punctualism and point music. Stockhausen defines this type of music as music that consists of separately formed particles — however complexly these may be composed, as opposed to linear, or group-formed, or mass-formed music. This term firstly emerged in early 1920s. The French word pointillisme, evoking Seurat’s painting technique, had been applied to music in this opposite sense of a “mosaic-like method of construction, an infinite accumulation of small and insignificant inorganic details“, with reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s operas, Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand. But, the most notable representatives of this music genre were creating in the 1940s and 1950s. They are Anton Webern, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, and many others. Of course, there aren’t direct relations between Pointillism in visual arts and Pointillism in music. However, they are based on the same contemplative principles.

Georges Seurat - The Seine and la Grande Jatte - Springtime, 1888 - Collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium - Image via
Georges Seurat – The Seine and la Grande Jatte – Springtime, 1888 – Collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium – Image via

The Most Influential Pointillism Artists

Beside George Seurat and Paul Signac, who conceived Pointillism as an art technique and conducted the group of artists who adopted that painting style, later on, there were many other artists who were influenced by Seurat and Signac, claiming to be Pointillists themselves. Mostly, those were French, Italian and Belgian artists, as they were the ones who contributed the most to the development of the Expressionism in Europe. Alongside them, some Dutch artists contributed to the acknowledgment of the technique. Vincent van Gogh was one of them, as he occasionally painted clearly using what was known as the Pointillism technique. But, it wouldn’t have happened, if his brother Theo van Gogh didn’t introduce him to Camille Pissarro in the first place. Side by side with Pissaro, there were artists like Albert Dubois-Pillet, Henri-Edmond Cross, Charles Angrand, and many others, who took the leading roles in the Pointillism development throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Paul Signac - Grand Canal (Venice) - Image via
Paul Signac – Grand Canal (Venice) – Image via

Camille Pissarro – Depicting the Ordinary Life

Camille Pissarro was one of the artists that stood out within the use of Pointillism as a painting technique. But how did he get to that point? By the 1880s, Pissarro had already begun to explore new themes and methods in order to break out of the ordinary painting at the time. So, he turned his back to Impressionism, and went all the way back to his early topics – portraying a common man, with his paintings depicting people at home, or at work, but in rather realistic settings. It was the time when Pissarro met Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who already had used small patches of colors to create the illusion of blended colors and shading when viewed from a distance. Pissarro embraced the new technique referred to as Pointillism and spent years from 1885 to 1888 practicing and implementing it in his work. Pissarro eventually became the only artist who went from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism. But later on, he turned away from Post-Impressionism, claiming that its system was too artificial.

Camille Pissarro - Children on a Farm 1887 - collection of George Signac Paris - Image via Wikipedia org
Camille Pissarro – Children on a Farm, 1887 – Collection of George Signac, Paris – Image via

Albert Dubois-Pillet – Military Officer and a Self-Taught Painter

Albert Dubois was a French military officer who fought in the Franco-Prussian war. But, there was another part of is personality, which was in direct opposite to militarism. He wanted to be a painter, so he taught the techniques for himself, and eventually closely aligned with Post-Impressionist as an amateur painter. He was certainly talented, and various Salons accepted his work for exhibitions during 1877. Dubois was a friend of Georges Seurat, and he was the one who founded the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1884, and also helped to write its statute. In the meantime, Albert Dubois became one of the first artists to adopt Pointillism. But, his military service conflicted his artistic expressions, so he had to hide. In order to camouflage his artistic practice, he started signing his art pieces with his last name, Dubois, with the addition of his mother’s maiden name – Pillet. So, he remained known as Albert Dubois-Pillet in the artistic circles.

Albert Dubois-Pillet - Little Circus Camp - Image via Google Art Project neo
Albert Dubois-Pillet – Little Circus Camp – Image via Google Art Project

Charles Angrand – Important Member of Parisian Avant-Garde

Charles Angrand was a French artist who gained acknowledgment for his paintings and drawings, later deemed Post-Impressionistic. He was an important member of the Parisian avant-garde art scene in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Influenced by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, Charles Angrand also interacted with artists like Seurat and Signac through the mid-1880s, which led his style towards Post-Impressionism. Although, Angrand’s implementation of Pointillist techniques differed from others’. His palette was more muted than bright contrast colors of Seurat and Signac. Angrand mostly used dots of various colors to enhance shadows, but he was avoiding the violent coloration found in many other works of the manner. He painted in monochrome conté crayon technique, which could be seen in his self-portraits, for instance. “His drawings are masterpieces. It would be impossible to imagine a better use of white and black. These are the most beautiful drawings, poems of light, of fine composition and execution”, Paul Signac noted for Angrand’s artworks.

Left: Charles Angrand - Couple in the street, 1887 - Collection of Musee d'Orsay, Paris - Image via / Right: Charles Angrand - Self Portrait, 1892 - Image via
Left: Charles Angrand – Couple in the street, 1887 – Collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris – Image via / Right: Charles Angrand – Self Portrait, 1892 – Image via

Vincent van Gogh – Finding and Expressing Light

Even Vincent van Gogh painted occasionally in a Pointillist style. Lucien Pissarro, son of Camille Pissarro, believed it was due to his father’s direct influence on Vincent van Gogh and his art. Reportedly, it was his brother and art dealer Theo van Gogh who first came to an idea to connect Vincent with Camille Pissaro. It happened in 1884 when Pissarro accepted to take in the celebrated painter as a lodger in his home. Lucien Pissarro wrote that his father was impressed by Van Gogh’s work and had foreseen the power of this artist, who was 23 years younger than himself. Camille’s son also noted that his father did explain different ways of finding and expressing light and color to their young protege, which he later used in his paintings. Largely influenced by Pointillism at the time, Pissarro also transferred some of that technique to van Gogh, who later occasionally painted some of his paintings using the dotted art.

Vincent van Gogh - Undergrowth, 1887 - Image via
Vincent van Gogh – Undergrowth, 1887 – Image via

Henri-Edmond Cross – A Divisionism Portraiture

One of the most influential artists throughout the second phase of Post-Impressionism was a French painter and printmaker Henri-Edmond Cross. He is most acclaimed as a master of Post-Impressionism, with an instrumental influence in the development of Fauvism. In 1884, Cross was a co-founder of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, which was the time when he met many like-minded artists, including Georges Seurat, Albert Dubois-Pillet, and Charles Angrand. Despite the close relationship with them, Henri-Edmond Cross didn’t adopt their style for many years. It was in 1891 when he finally began painting in the manner of the group and the same year he exhibited his first art piece made with Pointillist technique. It was a divisionist portrait of Madame Hector France, who became Cross’s wife in 1893. “The picture is softly charged with a granular, atmospheric glow”, Robert Rosenblum wrote about this Cross’s painting. In the years to come, the work of Henri-Edmond Cross had a special impact on the artistic development of the artists like Henri Matisse and many others.

Henri-Edmond Cross - Eveneing Air, 1893 - Collection of Musee d'Orsay, Paris - Image via
Henri-Edmond Cross – Eveneing Air, 1893 – Collection of Musee d’Orsay, Paris – Image via

Théo van Rysselberghe – Exploring the Modern Art Scene

Théo van Rysselberghe was the founder of Les Vingt (The Twenty), a Belgian group of modern artists, which originally consisted of 20 progressive painters, sculptors, and writers based in Brussels, who joined together from 1883 to 1893 to exhibit innovative art. He was a frequent visitor to galleries where he explored the modern art scene. There he was exposed to work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. His famous portrait of Alice Sèthe from 1888 was painted with direct influence of Pointillism’s, and eventually, it became the turning point in his career. In that period he made many Neo-Impressionistic portraits, such as the portrait of his wife Maria and their daughter Elisabeth, but also many landscapes and seascapes. In 1897, Théo van Rysselberghe moved to Paris, where he had worked along with Camille Pissarro, Maximilien Luce, Van Dongen, and many others. He also contributed to the anarchist magazine Temps Nouveaux. During the late-1890s he slowly started abandoning the use of dots in his artworks and began using some wider brush strokes, which announced the end of his Pointillism period.

Theo Van Rysselberghe - Femme et Enfant - The Portrait of his wife Maria and daughter Elisabeth - Image via
Théo Van Rysselberghe – Femme et Enfant – The Portrait of his wife Maria and daughter Elisabeth – Image via

Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo – Leading Italian Pointillist

Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo was the leading Italian Pointillist. He used a divisionist technique to juxtapose small dots of paint according to specific color theory. His most famous work is Il Quarto Stato (The Fourth Estate) from 1901, which become a symbol for progressive and socialist causes in Italy at the time. This painting was shown during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film 1900 and is currently exhibited at the Museo del Novecento in Milan, Italy.

Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo - ll Quarto Stato, 1901 (detail) - Image via
Guiseppe Pellizza da Volpedo – ll Quarto Stato, 1901 (detail) – Image via

Legacy of Pointillism – From Post-Impressionism to Fauvism

The Pointillism had a large influence on all Post-Impressionists, spilling over well into the 20th century. Many of the style’s contemporaries tried the technique and experimented with dotted art and while some of them explored very little, others moved on, so undoubtedly, there was a strong impact of the technique. Throughout the history of art there were many artists who were directly, or indirectly, influenced by the Pointillism and the technique of dotted art. Although the style is generally considered to have the most impact in the technical area, it did open new doors in color theory, exploring the optical realm similarly to how the Impressionism explored sheer light. Fauvists were definitely one of the first movements that leaned on color, following the path of Pointillism in a slightly different mode. By 1905, Henri Matisse was considered to be the leader of the Fauve movement in France. What Matisse did was the combination of pointillist pure colors and Paul Cézanne’s way of structuring pictorial space to develop the wild expression – a way of not just seeing the world, but feeling it as well.

Henri Matisse - One of his paintings in Pointillism tachnique - Image via
Henri Matisse – One of his paintings in Pointillism tachnique – Image via

Influence of Pointillism on Contemporary Artists

There are many artists today who experiment with Pointillism. They use dots in various forms and shapes, and for such a different range of purposes that it is difficult only to mention few of them, as they all make impressive art pieces based solely on dots. Sandro Freitas, Pablo Jurado Ruiz, Philip Karlberg, and Joe aka Casa-nova, just to name a few all exhibit traces that pointillist technique must have left one century later. Philip Karlberg is also moved by dots, and although his expression is vastly different from the origin to be described as pointillist, the influence is certainly detectable. Inspired by dotted art, he uses dotted sticks to create portraits of celebrities, such as Johnny Depp, Lady Gaga, and Jackie O. A photographer by profession, Karlberg he likes to experiment with dots, creating thought-provoking, but also eye-catching pieces.

But, who is the first contemporary artist that comes to your mind when we say colorful dots? Damien Hirst, right? Although this argument makes a good point, we must still be careful with this classification. Damien Hirst does have a series of dotted paintings, but that is not exactly what the Pointillism essentially is. Pointillism artist dots his canvas dot by dot in order to create a larger image, aiming to achieve tones of color by using pure nuances of dots. When the viewer distances himself from the painting he can clearly see the actual scene in tones as conceived by the author. In this regard, Hirst’s paintings stay what they are – dots. Series of symbolic colored signes, which carry a certain message, while incorporating both ancient heritage and contemporary conceptual principles. However, if we look at it from the other perspective, in a way, it really can be called – a dotted art. Recently, Hirst has gathered the team of artists to produce an artwork of one million dots to be completed in the 9-year period.

Damien Hirst - One of his dot paintings - Image via Artinfo com
Damien Hirst – One of his dot paintings – Image via

Miguel Endara – Making a Hero

One million dots in nine years of Damien Hirst’s artwork-in-production seems nothing in comparison to the Hero, made by illustrator and artist Miguel Endara, which is composed of approximately 3.2 million black ink dots, and took only 210 hours to be completed. This artwork is produced by using a single Sakura Pigma Micron pen with nib size of 005, or should we say the thinness of 0.20 mm. The number of dots in the whole art piece was determined by multiplying the average drawing speed of 4.25 dots per second.

Miguel Endara - Hero, 2011 (detail) - Image via
Miguel Endara – Hero, 2011 (detail) – Image via

Editors’ Tip: Georges Seurat (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)

Georges Seurat is one of the founding fathers of Pointillism, as well as one of the most prominent figures of this extraordinary art technique. His famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte represent one of the most significant paintings in early Modern Art. The unique technique he was using is still very popular, and it’s also called dotted art. This book brings to its readers’ clever illustrations and story lines, together with full-color reproductions of actual paintings, give children a light yet realistic overview of each artist’s life and style in these fun and educational books. Get to know the life and work of Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat – inventor of Pointillism.

Featured Image: Georges Seurat – A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.