Proving his point

This Seurat masterpiece was the artist’s heavily plotted retort to his critics

Like an inventor jealously guarding his patent, Georges Seurat was touchy about imitators. Disciples and copycats, he felt, would dilute his originality. He had reason to worry: Before his death at age 31, he was attracting converts all the time.

Seurat’s invention was pointillism, a method of painting (also called divisionism or neoimpressionism) that divides the image into thousands of small, colored dots in contrasting hues. “Models (Poseuses),” at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is a stellar example.

Seurat’s pointillist method evolved out of Impressionism. Inspired in part by the way rippling water scattered colored light, such Impressionist painters as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir had broken images into visibly discrete brushstrokes of high-keyed color.

[Monet's towering obsession]

But the forward-thinking Seurat, like many backward-thinking critics, found Impressionist pictures too sketchy and unstable. Too flat, as well: The method suppressed the variations in tone artists use to create an illusion of depth.

Seurat (1859-1891) wanted to counter Impressionist transience with rigor, stability and a disinterested authority he found in a scientific theory of color harmony. He was only in his 20s, but his method soon attracted followers of the caliber of Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac and, via Signac, Henri Matisse.

Fine, critics said. All very interesting. Lovely when you’re painting landscapes. But your method will fail when you try painting the human figure.

“The Models” was Seurat’s heavily plotted retort. It shows three young models posing in a corner of his studio. The studio was reputedly austere, but here it teems with feminine accessories. A large part of the background is taken up by Seurat’s vast masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884,” now at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Few critics were appeased. “A studio where three nude women, painted in the pointillist manner, expose pathetic, rachitic skeletons smeared with all the colors of the rainbow,” was one writer’s verdict. (“Rachitic” — I had to look it up — means affected by rickets.)

Pissarro, who saw and admired “The Models” while it was in progress, would later lose faith in Seurat, in whose work he said he had begun to detect “the monotony of death.” “His caution is so great,” he said of the younger man.

But I wonder whether Seurat’s “caution” wasn’t really a savoring of ambivalence. Seurat loved the idea that one thing is always implying its opposite or evolving imperceptibly into something else. He was fascinated, for instance, by the parts of Paris where the suburbs and industrial zones melted into the countryside. He was attentive (in this picture) to the evolution of girls into women and alert to the ways in which an eroticized poser might unwittingly reveal herself as a bored mercenary.

By painting a painting within a painting — an outdoor leisure scene inside an indoor workaday setting — the artist wanted to show that the line separating reality from illusion was permeable. And he wanted to depict unmistakably modern subjects in a manner that endowed them with the silence and aloofness of ancient art.

Above all, Seurat cherished the relativity of colors and the constantly shifting interdependency of tones.

His unlikely achievement was to conjure an emphatically linear, classical art out of dots — the very opposite of lines. His visual wit could be devious. Look, for instance, at the spine of the girl on the left. The subtly protruding knobs of her vertebrae remind us that even the body’s central axis, its “line of beauty,” is segmented and stippled. Dots. Points of light.

The models themselves appear to be auditioning, one after the other, in a dreamlike sequence that conjures the narrative progressions of Greek vase painting or comic strips. The conceit lets Seurat show each model from a different angle: front, back and profile. Their deployment registers in the mind like a formula: Three graces? The Holy Trinity? Three-for-the-price-of-one?

Inspired by the mischief of Manet’s “Olympia” — both its situational frankness and its frank artifice — “The Models” paved the way for the artifice and abstraction of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Matisse’s “The Red Studio.” From about this point on, in other words, painting could be anything you wanted it to be.

Models (Poseuses), 1886-1888
Georges Seurat (b. 1859). At Barnes Foundation.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.