Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 358-360
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Herbert, Robert L. Seurat: Drawings and Paintings. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2001. Pp. 208, Illus: 117 b/w + 40 color. ISBN 0-300-07131-0
Seurat: Drawings and Paintings reprints a selection of texts by the influential art historian Robert Herbert and represents almost half a century's worth of writing about the French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Ten chapters range from Seurat's early drawings to his last major canvas, Circus (1890-91), left unfinished at the time of his death. Each section addresses, in some form or another, the various scientific and aesthetic theories on which Seurat drew throughout his career. Five of the chapters (2, 4, 5, 7, and 9) reproduce essays and/or individual entries from the catalogue of the major Seurat exhibition, curated by Herbert himself, held at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1991. Briefly, these chapters consider Seurat's activity as a draughtsman between the years 1881 and 1884, prior to the completion of his most famous work, A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86); Seurat's images of the French countryside and rural life, 1879-84; the execution and reception of La Grande Jatte; Seurat's views of Port-en-Bessin, a small seaside town near Bayeux, dating from 1888; and his Chahut (1889-90), an electric rendition of a dance performance at a Montmartre café-concert. The remaining five chapters come from a variety of sources, and are equally eclectic. Chapter one, "Seurat's Theories," reprints Herbert's contribution to a volume, The Neo-Impressionists, edited by Jean Sutter in 1970. Chapters three and six excerpt sections of Herbert's 1962 publication, Seurat's Drawings, and consider, respectively, the many artists that inspired or influenced Seurat's production and the significant shifts in subject matter and style that characterize his drawings from the years 1886-1890. Chapter eight, perhaps the most engaging portion of the book, consists of an essay on the relation of Seurat's Parade de cirque (1887-88) to Charles Henry's theory of expressive direction, originally published in 1980 in the Revue de l'art and here translated into English for the first time. Chapter ten reproduces the essay "Seurat and Jules Chéret" which appeared in The Art Bulletin in 1958. Herbert also includes, as appendices, relevant and important primary source texts, all translated into English (and, unfortunately, unaccompanied by the original French): Seurat's "Esthétique" [End Page 358](1890); a letter from Seurat to the critic Félix Fénéon that details Seurat's scientific and aesthetic researches (1890); and excerpts from Henry's Introduction à une esthétique scientifique (1885), to which Herbert refers extensively in chapter eight.
In the preface to the collection, Herbert writes, "I remain the empirical historian who begins with the work of art." The book, he states, offers up lessons in how to read drawings and paintings (vii). Indeed, Herbert's text presents the reader with a sampling of what many would argue are its author's greatest strengths, as demonstrated by this volume and by previous books, most notably the important Barbizon Revisited (1962) and Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (1988): that is, careful description and analysis of subject matter and style, the former rooted in attention to social and cultural context, the latter based in rigorous examination of the material characteristics of a given work of art. Herbert's descriptions of what he calls Seurat's earlier, "independent," drawings (1881-84), especially those of single figures engaged in tasks such as drumming, vending, sewing, writing, and gardening, are uniquely evocative, and his grasp of Seurat's virtuoso manipulation of the medium of the conté crayon is both firm and profound. Herbert's entries on individual drawings compel the reader to look at these works, which are often marginalized if not overlooked in accounts of Seurat's pictorial practice, with new eyes. Herbert is also at his best when he undertakes...