I wish somebody would mount an exhibit of black-and-white work by the great colorists.
I love color. I adore Monet and his sun-drowned afternoons. Yet color, even when it only suggests, has a way of imposing its claim to truth, while black and white, symbolic and enigmatic, asks more than it tells. Beginning artists tend to rush into color like archy the cockroach slipping happily into a ragout "for a warm bath and a bite to eat." But Seurat, the great analyst of color and its emotional chemistry, deliberately forswore it for years to learn the discipline of black and white.
The result was about 400 drawings, called by his colleague Paul Signac "the most beautiful painters' drawings in existence."
Some are pure, stark outline. Some consist of diagonal lines from which shapes rise almost like rubbings. Some are deep chiaroscuro masses gradually revealing, as if through a fog at night, people and buildings, lampposts and carriages and trees.
These masterly studies, with their bottomless blacks and dazzling whites, have an organic quality: They seem to have grown there on the paper, as perfect, as true to their own interior logic as lichen. With a soft Conte' crayon, Seurat creates sculptural depths and subtleties of expression with an apparent ease that must have sent uncounted amateurs racing for their sketchpads.
Part of the secret was the Michallet paper. Prof. Robert L. Herbert says, "It is a thick rag paper, milk-white when fresh but a creamy off-white after exposure to the air. Under a microscope its myriad tufts can be seen to project from the surface in little comma-shaped hooks. When Seurat lightly stroked its surface, the hooks caught the crayon here and there, leaving the valleys between them untouched. As a result, his grays are truly three-dimensional, with the white showing between the touches of dark . . ."
The paper itself provides the light source for the drawings, Herbert observes, light upon which the artist applies the darkness of his crayon.
Take a look at this male nude, a study for the central figure in "The Bathing Place," the huge painting--the first he had ever shown in public--with which Seurat burst upon the world in 1884 at age 24. (One of those golden children, he would die at 31.)
See how the white of the paper becomes the sunlight glinting off the boy's shoulder and thigh, haloing the head, picking out the curve of the back, balancing the figure's mass with its smooth descent into shadow. This is only one of 10 drawings and 14 paintings, not to mention lots of indirectly related sketches, that led up to the final masterpiece. But it could stand by itself.
Some of the other Seurat drawings look ahead to film: scenes of hurtling carriages gleaming in the rainy night. Some, like "The Child in White," evoke the sunstruck snapshots of the past. Probably the best way to see them, short of visiting the private collectors who own most of them, or in Washington the Phillips Collection, which has one, is to get the oversize paperback Dover Publications book of the drawings.
And when you've studied it well, go back to the great Seurat paintings and see them all over again.