• Sign in
    • Sign up
    • My Wishlist
    • My Artists
    • My Recent Art
  • us

Art Movements

A Brief History of Pointillism

Following the Impressionist period, a new movement came onto the scene - Pointillism! Also called Neo-Impressionism or Divisionism, it appeared in the 19th century thanks to the impetus of Georges Seurat and his contemporary, Paul Signac. Read on to discover the peculiarities of this movement and the great artists who embodied it.

By Cécile Martet

The birth of pointillism

It was in 1886 that the word "pointillism" first appeared in a note by the art critic Arsène Alexandre. Despite the fact that this was a new movement in the direct tradition of Impressionism, it was not a very glorious name!

It's almost with a certain disdain and undisguised condescension that art critics ridicule the works exploring this new pictorial research. So what does pointillism really consist of? Its name makes it easy to understand. For the artist, it's a matter of distinctly applying small dots of colour to form an image.

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Georges Seurat, "The River Seine at la Grande Jatte". Spring (oil on canvas, 1888)

The pointillist movement was mainly driven by two painters: Georges-Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac. But along with them, other painters paved the way for a new vision of painting: Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Henri Edmond-Cross, Théo Van Rysselberghe, Henri Matisse and even Van Gogh were inspired by them!

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Camille Pissarro, “Picking peas” (1887)

An original technique derived from Impressionism

Pointillism, also known as Divisionism, is a highly accomplished pictorial technique. It trains the eye and the mind to blend and assimilate patches of colour into a wider chromatic range. It's a relatively original approach, since the succession of dabs of colour applied to the canvas allows us to see, from a distance, a true work of art being created. The artists associated with this artistic period, like those associated with Impressionism, depicted landscapes, portraits and seascapes: generally bucolic, soothing worlds that they painted directly in the open air.

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Henri Edmond-Cross, “The lake in the Bois de Boulogne” (oil on canvas, 1899)

Instead of mixing colors on a palette, the pointillists apply their brush directly to the canvas with raw tones. They place small round or square touches on it: the mixing and blending of pigments occur directly on the canvas and not beforehand. This technique completely breaks away from traditional painting methods!

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Albert Dubois-Pillet, “The banks of the Marne at dawn.” (1886)

The pointillist theory holds that one can only distinguish the dots from each other from a certain distance. The farther one gets from the work, the better one can consider it as a whole. The visual result obtained is quite different from that which arises from a prior mixing of colors on a palette.

Thanks to this use of colors, it sometimes happens that certain areas of the canvas that remain untouched become visible, which gives an even brighter effect to the work. The raw pigments thus retain their natural brilliance, and that's also why pointillism is so original: striking chiaroscuro and colorful contrasts that continue to amaze us!

Patience, patience... pointillism is a matter of patience.

Imagine yourself in front of an easel. Brushes in hand, paint tubes nearby, all that's left is to paint. But as a pointillist painter, you have quite the constraint! You'll have to progress dot by dot and without mixing. Yes, the task seems monumental. One might wonder why painters went through so much trouble. One of the reasons is simple: they wanted to revolutionize art and present a groundbreaking vision of painting.

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Paul Signac, "Woman Combing Her Hair." Opus 227 (Arabesques for a Dressing Room, 1892 / Encaustic on Canvas Mounted on Panel, Musée d'Orsay Collection).

To achieve this, they relied on scientific theories of the time based on optical phenomena. One of them, Charles Henry, even wrote a book titled "Color Circle" which demonstrates how colors can be combined by placing them on a circle. The complementarity of colors arises from this.

A concept widely used today, as the search for harmony also involves the use of complementary hues, meaning colors that are opposite each other on the color circle. Blue with orange, red with green, yellow with violet.

These opposing pairs are ultimately associated and can be found in the works of the pointillists. Chromatic juxtapositions that create strong contrasts and even appear to intensify the individual colors. The colors vibrate with each other, in places where you wouldn't necessarily expect them. Touches of red in Paul Signac's sky, a violet sea – in short, the application is methodical.

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Theo van Rysselberghe, “Sunset at Ambletsuse” (oil on canvas, 1899)

Even though it characterizes Pointillism, saturation is not an unchanging principle. This explosive use of colors, of course, paved the way for Fauvism, and it's easy to understand why! As meticulous as Georges-Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac were, they also employed variations of the same hue, without necessarily mixing the pigments.

Certain canvases appear softer and less visually aggressive, even though they are based on the same principle. The gradation of tones was explored further, adding complexity and richness to the painting. Because beyond the scientific realm, the Pointillists were also deeply sensitive individuals...

Petite histoire du Pointillisme
Georges Seurat, “Port-en-Bessin at high tide” (oil on canvas, 1888)

Related Artworks

Related Guides









Read This Next