PRINT April 1968

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Analysis

FOR PURPOSES OF SUPPOSITION, one might propose a hypothetical polarity in the alternatives open to modern abstract art, particularly art concerned with color. A cycle does seem to have developed either at extended length or at short if isolated intervals, in which painters swing between a tenuous, soft, transparent, open, and above all luminous form of color, on one hand, while on the other, they tend to adopt a hard, settled, flat, opaque chromaticism, fitted to the containment of color as shape or pattern. Each of these conditions has its structural imperatives, but more importantly, each contains unstable ingredients, revealed whenever its implications are pursued too relentlessly. For then the picture surface either begins to look too amorphous and over illusionistic, or too designed and restricted. Pursuing this antithesis as a model, one can think of such extremes as pressures within the physiology of modes, quite apart from the character of local styles, giving rise, once thoroughly explored, to some longing for the other option. At the moment in American art, there can be seen a will to liberate color from the drier, tighter, more uniform formulations of field painting in the last few years. Innumerable parallels of this shift might be cited in the prior history of modern art, but one that is currently open for examination—Neoimpressionism, surveyed at the Guggenheim Museum—has an astonishing pertinence.

That Seurat and his circle nominally aimed to tauten and systematize Impressionism only makes their relevance—but a relevance now on a technological level—more apparent. Already in 1937, Meyer Schapiro could write:

Instead of rebelling against the moral consequences of capitalism he (Seurat) attached himself like a contented engineer to its progressive technical side and accepted the popular forms of lower class recreation and commercialized entertainment as the subjects of monumentalized art. From the current conceptions of technology he drew the norms of a methodical procedure in painting, bringing Impressionism up to date in the light of the latest findings of science.1

Complacency, indeed celebration of the industrial complex, wedded with a desire to granulate color, or to crystallize light, are familiar ingredients of painting today. What further mutually distinguishes our present situation and Neo-impressionism, is their faith in a mechanistic, or at least a non-painterly execution that guarantees a kind of union entrance into a new order, ostensibly as removed from the personal and the romantic as it is reductive, generalized, and optimistic. To quantify and make evident various ratios of color-light is the aim of this impulse. It makes little difference that the Neo-impressionists were involved with resurrecting a classical tradition, or even Egyptian or Japanese forms, while current art at most utilizes architectonic schemes. There is a common realm which both sensibilities attempt to share: a nostalgic terrain located between isometric thought and fugitive sensation.

The question arises: why has it taken all this time for, a really thoroughgoing account of NeoImpressionism—such as Robert Herbert’s at the Guggenheim—to be given its full measure of attention? The answer lies beyond the merely enormous research difficulties involved. Like Art Nouveau, with which it had a mild liaison, it constituted a kind of international style during the early nineties, and enjoyed a remarkable resurrection in every major movement through 1914. Yet, if there were hundreds who submitted to its discipline, few can be said to have sustained it. To have tracked down even a portion of them is to have surfaced a phenomenon that was more a movement of taste than a style, and more an anxious dream, with a quite debilitating esthetic dilemma, than it was the revolutionary formulation announced by some of its practitioners. But that Neo-impressionism has in any sense been neglected is a false notion. Nothing is capable of being neglected until there comes into existence a consciousness sympathetic to its reception. Ten years ago, a show of this magnitude was not conceivable because the prime double issues of luminous color matched by a systematic formal aspiration had not joined hands to solicit any reflection from the past.

The one area not scrutinized by the exhibition, rightly, from the viewpoint of pictorial achievement, is 1895 to 1905. It corresponds to a crisis, a wavering of faith, in which the varying conflicting ideals of the Neo-Impressionists came divisively to a head. In a letter of 1900 to Charles An-grand, Henry Edmond Cross put it as follows:

The problem is the indispensable passage between the dream and execution. And if we sin, it is by ignorance of the elements of the problem, properly speaking. We have not pushed far enough the scientific study of colors, we haven’t had enough experiences in the studio—I was going to say laboratory. We ignore too much, finally, the connections which exist among the multiple aspects of nature, the sources of the dream and our material colors.2

The expressive union, the dream, of reconciling observation, an arbitrary, if methodical process of color contrasts, and the physical autonomy of colored pigments on the canvas, is an index, not only of the ambition of the artist, but of the obstacles he is putting in his own path. Signac, a less anxious person than Cross, had already in 1894 confided to a journal that, “Some years ago, I, also, forced myself to prove to others, by scientific experiences, that these blues, these yellows, these greens, are found in nature. Now I content myself to say: I paint this way because it is the technique which seems to me the aptest to give the most harmonious, the most luminous, and the most chromatic (coloré) result.”3 But this acknowledgement of artifice was still factored out of an attempt to rationalize “optical mixture,” an equivalent of light waves beyond the capacity of pigments to implement. Luminosity, which, for these two painters had a naturalistic origin, was confused with “purity” (high saturations), which had a formal value. Cross and Signac would admit that their color selections were arbitrary, but felt the need to compensate by making them predictable. Losing sight of their positivistic assumption, they redoubled their efforts.

Of course, this was a repercussion from their earlier practice. The theme of Neo-impressionism was the reorganization and reformulation of Impressionism on the basis of a more analytic awareness of color dynamics. The reformers had in common with their models a high-keyed, brilliantly-lit landscape vision, and an emphasis on color seen as a component of light and shadow, executed through a highly motorized patterning of strokes which shredded volume, solidity and contour, all with the implied effect of giving priority to felt aerial sensations rather than to the depictions of substances. In Impressionism, however, the accent was on the shifting environment of the moment, materialized through various processes of improvised tactile change and states of finish, such that the capricious vivacity of touch allowed the eye to wander casually within the scene, pasturing at will among its unstressed rhythms. But in Neo-impressionism, most of this changes. Here, the differentiation of paint units is so even and consistent that a startling homogeneity is achieved, reducing and equating the scale of the touches, organizing the cool and warm masses front to back in complex repoussoirs, and anchoring within zones dots that would otherwise tend to float on or “above” the surface. Just as local colors, shadows, reflections, and direct illumination were all assigned individual hues, so they could now be intermingled by means of recipes for any area of the surface, a surface that appears to look like a particularly well behaved patch of Impressionism magnified to become the whole. Further, the wind has gone down in this pervasive scintillation, with the result that time, or rather the particularities that mark its passage, is extruded from the tableau. Unlike Impressionism, where the eye is persuaded to move as freely as the energies within the represented scene, in Neo-impressionism perception of change, and therefore of time, occurs only with regard to the pictorial forces, and not the landscape itself, which has been immobilized.

Shortly after Seurat’s death in 1891 (making Neo-Impressionism a movement that had lost its leader at the crucial prime of its development), it became evident that the more intimate the dotting, the more the tones became either greyer, or more bleached. Signac, for a while, was to justify this as an objective response to the southern locale. “Light reflected everywhere eats all the local colors, and greys the shadows . . . Under the pretext that they are in the Midi, people wait to see some red, some blue, some green, some yellow . . . Now, on the contrary, it’s the North, Holland, for example, which is colored . . . while the Midi is ‘luminous’.”4 But, for their part, the Dutch Neo-impressionists of the time created dematerialized spreads of pastel color in fluctuating aggregations of lapidary points, now sometimes overtly decorative or tactile, at other moments evoking, by the subtlest of vibrations, weird halftones that are buoyed about in weightless matrices of atmosphere. The inbred character of this art, exquisite in the deterioration of its energy, may account for its mayfly lifespan. To mince and pulverize a wide gamut of hues is to transform what was once a color inductive rationale into a tonal dimness, a means of conserving and heightening, into a process of losing, optical piquancy.

But for Signac, a logical consequence of the Seurat method was to preserve saturation, and to give it greater potency. Opting for “color,” he had no choice but to enlarge the pictorial unit so as to make of his form a more readable charade of analysis. Literal synthesis, resulting from too small a paint dab, or large a color block, had to be rejected at any cost. Naturally the composition was at all times rigorously constructed, but the painter had to suggest that the spectator’s eye synthesizes what the artist only analyzes. The behavior and shape of the touch was, therefore, a subject of great concern. “When,” wrote Cross, “one has conceived the ensemble, study separately each fragment, then the details of each fragment, finally the details of each detail, in order to anticipate as much as possible, that each detail itself is a pretty thing.”5 A concern of this kind eventuates in an increasingly decorative treatment of color, a color, however, that could not call attention to its physical presence without proportionally subverting some of its metaphorical information about light. There ensues, in the pictures around the turn of the century, a conflict between affirmation of the surface by bulky touches grounded in a collage like format, and the continued illusionistic limning of space retained in the Impressionist inheritance. It was a period of scaly textures, unresolved tensions between modeling, drawing and color, a disturbing separation of image and paint substance, and at the same time, either a forcing of contrasts to achieve too pat a harmony, or a harmony that wins entirely over contrasts, resulting in a cosmetic tinting of colors. By 1905, a species of irradiated opaque bricks or colored tesserae had replaced what had once been a multi purpose stipple; a step by staggered step change of value had substituted itself for the infinitely subtle chromatic gradations through dots.

Such a metamorphosis had not occurred without a harrowing degree of questioning, indecision, and torment. Cross’s letters to Angrand, Signac, and Van Rysselberghe are like a seismograph of the internal difficulties, and hence, the fascinating esthetic issues that were at stake. He is, to begin, a man preoccupied with the question of the individual freedom of the artist, conceiving it as a willfully discovered ratio of energies emerging from, but transcending the necessities of his twin servitude—to nature, and to system. The fear of chaos, in Cross, is balanced only by the flight from monotony. Constantly searching for a logic, a syntax of execution which, for him, represents the aim of art more than the quest for truth, he is no less aware that harmony so achieved implies sacrifices, and limits invention. At one point, he complains that he must make several studies after nature in order to stop his thought. Even more, he is haunted by the problem of moving from the part to the whole, sometimes conceiving a total plan (pensée première), for a picture, sometimes arriving at his unity only through an endless row of adjustments and local transitions. Vulnerable to a threatened loss of spontaneity, Cross supposes that divisionism is the spirit, while the color point is the body of his procedure, and that the two can only be successfully fused by an instinctual sense of the picture, once again, an evasive dream, which, however, exists outside his dialectic, and can never be formulated.

ON THE EVIDENCE OF THE exhibition itself, NeoImpressionism emerges overall as a technique that provides a normative base and renders personable a host of talents that otherwise would have been adrift and undistinguished. It immediately makes evident and even flatters whatever competence an artist possesses. But it also pitifully reveals, or makes transparent, every deficiency of vision short of genius. The yeomen of the style include Albert Dubois-Pillet, Léon Gausson, Maximillien Luce, and Hippolyte Petitjean, among the French, and Willi Finch, Georges Lem-men, and Théo Van Rysselberghe, among the Belgians. Charming paintings, doctored and leavened with many neutrals, occasionally come from their hand, but they are works that in their blandness never make one aware of the fundamental tensions in the mode itself.

A luminous inkling of those tensions emerges in a little watercolor on muslin, Doorways, by Louis Hayet, still one of the most enigmatic of the group. Its porous fabric not only permits the literal filtering through of daylight from behind the work, but apparently was also intended as a scrim veiling and yet also being affected by a primary hue on a backdrop mounting. (In this respect, it was rather interesting for the show to have displayed some of the croquetons—oil sketches on wood using its brownish or reddish tone as a warm ground for cooler paint dabs frequently produced by the Neo-impressionists.) In any event, pigmented metaphors of Hayet’s idea can be found in Seurat, Angrand, Signac, and Cross. They are of a light coming from some indeterminate flat in the distance, profiling foreground images which yet resist the decoloration of the contrast, and are half raised in value to be seen through their own dotted film of light. Something of the kind must be responsible for the solarized impression given off by Angrand’s gemlike Dawn Over The Seine, 1889, all the punctiliously vaporous and splendid Crosses of 1892–3, and many of Seurat’s marines. It is as if the artist attempts to get beyond the natural source of light to arrive at a kind of abstract generation of it. But this abstraction must find its way through a corpuscular shadow of swizzled light greens and lavenders, powder blues and ochres, all wavering slightly off the implied complements of the orthodox color wheel. These surfaces, so busy creating themselves, yet so limpid in their formulation, instill a curious optical expectancy in the viewer. The immeasurability of their distances, wedded to the finiteness of the dots, moreover, evokes a micro-grained illusion that is almost hypnotic. One’s eye constantly strives to move around and between the dots, hardly realizing that it is their distribution, and the minute thermal nuances in their color variations, which produce their clandestine expressiveness. And precisely because the color identity of these masses, unlike the fully lit midday scenes built on blue-green against orange-yellow, is so held in question, one does not know whether the whole fabric will dissolve into a void, or precipitate into a more intense and solid patterning of color.

Much has been written about the intersection of Neo-impressionism and Symbolism during the late eighties and nineties. The strongest liaison between them is that equation the painting makes between paint unit and idea, just as Symbolism itself identifies word sound with meaning, image with abstraction. If the mind itself conditioned phenomena, if worldly life is known only as a representation, then ordinary physical or optical experience could be reconstructed by an artist on a “higher level” of reality. Since nature could offer no fixed or absolute perceptions, the artist was authorized to invent conceptual criteria that would formalize his results. Auriér, Morice, Paul Adam, and Fénéon, among the critics, all partook of a Hegelian dialectic which Cross, for one, took up, while also supplementing with a spice of Nietzche. Works of art could be judged externally, that is, independently of nature, by a new covenant of knowledge, in which forms and sensations more consciously allude to thought, rather than transcribe what is seen. Gustave Kahn could write in 1886: “The essential aim of our art is to objectivize the subjective (the exteriorization of the idea) instead of subjectivizing the objective (nature seen through a temperament).”6 It was a situation that Robert Goldwater describes as follows. “. . . whether objective or subjective, semi-scientific or semi philosophical, the purpose of the theorizing (of the ’80s) is to establish the importance of the representation the artist has undertaken, and to establish it precisely by making it, in some way, go beyond realism.”7

In terms of subject matter alone, Seurat’s Parade, 1888, is an amazing and thoroughgoing realization of this program. Its incessant translation of gaslit tonalities that charge every local color into a phantasmagoria of artifice, is the epitome of a new objectivization, precisely because its fanciful effect has a perceptually accountable base. (Paradoxically, its chopped straw and pinpoint execution is the freest in all Seurat, as if the artist’s “computer” had to go marvelously haywire.) Compared to Parade, Signac’s explicitly Art Nouveau Portrait of Felix Fénéon is a mere illustration, and mild joke (though it lacks the irony of Seurat’s sideshow). Though apparent, the influence of Charles Henry, the color scientist, amateur, and psychologist, to which this picture refers, is something of a red herring. For the one to one analogies which Henry made between, say, downward curving lines and sadness, postulated an emotional affect for which there could be no check, while they were too particular to be anything but a gratuitous canon, a too literal symbolism, grafted into the pictorial form. By the mid-nineties, Signac, in any event, had done with the Henry thesis.

Neo-impressionist iconography does not differ overmuch from the normal themes of the fin-de-siècle avant-garde. To be sure, gas tanks are more indigenous to the early development of the Seurat group than Pont Aven peasants, and arcadian nymphs and shepherds dominate Neo-impressionism’s “fauve” period. Psychologically, this shift is very revealing of a will to escape the modern world, more at variance with its directives than Cézanne’s grand nudes, or the pays enchantée of the Nabi, because of the original engagé impulse of the Neo-Impressionists. From a rhetorical point of view perhaps the most characteristic statement was Signac’s 1893–5 Au Temps d’Harmonie. Now in the Mairie of Montreuil, it depicts “a vision of peaceful labor and human concord which was Signac’s own dream of an anarchist future society.”8 Signac was quite capable of imagining Seurat not merely to be satirizing the can-can dancers, café-concerts, circuses, but expressing his “keen sentiment of the vileness of our epoch of transition.”9 Such a sentiment could never be gleaned from Signac’s own sympathetic Breakfast, 1886–7, the bourgeois chez eux, a remarkably comforting, solid, and wry painting. There was no hope of reconciliation between political propaganda and an authentic art, even one as “revolutionary” as Neo-impressionism, just as there was no practical tie between a longing for the past, and a projection into the future.

But one finds three canvases in the Guggenheim exhibition which express more about their own creative moment through subject than any of their counterparts. In Cross’s utterly strange Cascading Hair, a woman delicately combs through the speckled glitter of tresses that completely conceal her face. The compression of her buoyant bulk contradicts the lightness of sequinned pigment adhering to a surface more tangibly than the half melting contours of the image itself. Richard Lorber, of Columbia University, points out that the substance of the comb and the hair are indistinguishable, and that consequently the subject performing the action, and the object (the hair) on which the action is being performed, are integrated. Depicted subject mimes what the artist himself does, i.e. comb through dots, which are here equivocally shorn of their representational function. It is perhaps not coincidental that Signac in Femme se Coiffant, and Seurat in his La Jeune Femme se Poudrant (Courtauld Collection, London), are occupied with variants of the same idea. Though commonplace with an artist like Degas, this theme occupies a much more self-illuminating position in Neo-impressionism.

Even more suggestive is the work of Henry Van de Velde, who, with Cross, is finally given the exposure his staggering talents as a painter merit. With Woman at Window, 1889, and Bath House at Blankenberghe, 1888, the Belgian artist, by implication, places the viewer in a foreground shadow that acts as if to dilate his pupils, while the light mid-zone, though actually weak in wattage, behaves like a dazzling field which contracts them. Furthermore, it is astonishing to perceive in the beach scene that certain of the color seeds which simulate minute reflections on the sand will represent ficures without a drastic change of presence. (Just as we accept a sky as pebbly as the beach.) With Van de Velde, the process of vision is shown to net only a species of hallucination, and yet to deposit, molecule by molecule, its own credibility. Signac thought that art was a matter of contrasts; Van de Velde shows that it can also be a question of contexts.

IT MAY BE RELEVANT at this point to sum up, and to ask, finally, what was Neo-impressionism? Signac, the most programmatic of its exponents, and probably touchy about outside criticism, said that it was not a system, but a philosophy. Nothing in his books or notes, and very likely his paintings, justifies the movement as philosophic, despite some amateur psychologizing. For all their covert nostalgia for the fluidities and naturalness of the Impressionists, Signac and Cross never seem to have considered their method as a means of expression, but rather as a discipline providing the most practical means to instrument higher ends—which were clearly not those of their predecessors, but never adequately articulated in themselves. When compared with a Symbolist art like Gauguin’s, with which it could not avoid sharing many predispositions, Neo-impressionism proves itself obviously more specific methodologically, as well as less attitudinizing overall. If the Neoimpressionists considered themselves less arbitrary than, say, the Nabis, and as eschewing the imperatives of “style,” they certainly belonged to the fin-de-siècle search for style, even if they were unable to accept the consequences of that search. For theirs was an operational construct committed to intensifying the sensory techniques pioneered by the Impressionists. As a result, Cross and Signac could never be quite sure whether it was more advisable to “objectivize” or “subjectivize” such techniques. The fact that both interpretations were possible after Seurat died proved how curiously ambivalent Neo-impressionism was, even as it played an advanced role.

When the structure of those artists often exhibited a tropism toward that of many other styles current at the time, their surfaces would come to look dispossessed, even superfluous. Neo-impressionism here demonstrated a confusion between means and ends, a lack of awareness that permitted too many images to appear covered over by “colored fleas.” Trouble of this sort was due to the inability to wrest form and color, which reciprocally enhanced each other, from the status of mere convention. But Signac and Cross refused to go over to any other camp, unlike many of their friends, or sink into academicism, as did the majority of the Pont Aven and Nabi groups. Signac eventually succeeded in “stylizing” Neoimpressionism by forcing into uniformity his now enlarged touches, a procedure whose superficial boldness did not disguise its deeper mechanism. But Cross, who wrongly accused his work of being pompier by 1906, could not take such timid liberties, given the assumptions of his art, without abandoning himself to mannerism. Some of his anguished purchase of compromise began to pay off as he freed himself to conceive of an inflammatory color that moved out, rather than was superimposed over contours, as in the gorgeous Garden in Provence, 1906–7. As he fought, terribly, to preserve the dialectical tensions in his art, he was like someone who was perched precariously on a taper burning at both ends. And somewhere equidistant from these self-consuming terminals, and hence always growing smaller in area, was the final, dreamlike destination of Neoimpressionism.

AS A WHOLE, THE GUGGENHEIM exhibition is a monument of determined scholarship, whose catalog by Professor Robert Herbert, of Yale, is a major contribution to the literature. In it are found troves of unpublished data, liberal quotations from important private archives, and capsule biographies and sensible bibliographies that allow one to graph for the first time the real spread of the movement. Moreover, the quality of his choices is extremely high, even from work barely known, or even unknown, to specialists. Finally, the show attempts to document, sketchily, to be sure, examples of art contingent to Neoimpressionism, transiently influenced by it, and in the 20th century, a great quotient of the art that drew upon it, giving it an imaginative afterlife that is one of the remarkable phenomena of early modernism. Most successful is the revelation of the little Dutch group of Neo-impressionists: Aarts, Bremmer, and the extraordinary Toorop, who, in his canvas The Sea, seems to be tacking thousands of translucent colored brads into beaded shadows of foam. The pointillism of Vermeer is not far in spirit from these crystalline vistas, with their curious silvery light and pearl stitching. And perhaps just as good an account is given of the crucial exchange between Signac, Cross, and Matisse, 1904–6, where the most relevant pictures are for the first time made available for comparison. Matisse could make something new of Neoimpressionism because he could think of it as raw material, whereas the source material of the Neoimpressionists was still of a variously qualified nature. The revolution of 20th-century art consists partially in the fact that every succeeding avant-garde can treat the accomplishment of its predecessors as a fiction that can be altered at will, rather than as a comment on experience. Here, certain pictures by Mondrian, Klimt, Kandinsky, and above all the Italians, Balla, Carrà, Severini, whose divisionist work is a fascinating prelude to the veering of color analysis into the dynamicism that was Futurism, would more effectively have rounded out the show. Unfortunately, little can be said in favor of the installation, which is vaguely confusing, or of the lighting, which is the Guggenheim’s.

Max Kozloff



1. Meyer Schapiro: The Nature of Abstract Art, in Marxist Quarterly, Jan.–Mar. 1937, p. 84.

2. Angrand archives.

3. Paul Signac: Journal Inédit, Gazette des Beaux Arts, Sept. 1949, p. 101.

4. Paul Signac: quoted in Signac, Musée du Louvre, Dec. 1963–Fev. 1964, p. 33.

5. Le dernier carnet d’Henri-Edmond Cross, Bulletin de la Vie Artistique, Vol. 3, 15 May–15 Oct. 1922.

6. Gustave Kahn: Réponse des Symbolistes, L’Evenement, 28 Sept. 1886.

7. Robert Goldwater: Symbolic Form; Symbolic Content, in The Twentieth International Congress of Art Historians, Princeton, 1964, p. 119.

8. Eugenia Herbert: The Artist and Social Reform, Yale University, 1961, p. 190.

9. Herbert: op cit., p. 189–190.