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sparkling silence

It seems strange to think of works of visual art as silent,m and yet Seurat's drawings are undeniably the opposite of noisy. They seem to contain, and be contained by, silence itself. They aren't merely calm, they are serene. They take stillness to the point of tranquility. The word "static" is sometimes applied to them, but, as this portrait of his friend and fellow artist Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean superbly shows, immobility is not necessarily a state that denies the momentary.

To say that this image (and the way it was drawn) is static is not accurate if it implies a lack of animation. Compared with the impressionists -- to Monet or Renoir -- Seurat's "Neo-Impressionist" art has classical stability and deliberate poise. But this portrait nevertheless indicates the vitality of Seurat's vision: hold your breath or Aman-Jean will move. The tilt and concentration of his head will alter; his hand, so neatly holding the brush, will lift or swivel. The act of painting -- the subject of this drawing almost as much as the man himself -- is one of continuous small movements. Here the motion of hand and eye and thought all seem held in a careful -- and silent -- instant.

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Leonardo da Vinci would surely have appreciated Seurat's drawings, with their extraordinary combination of finish and suggestiveness, of exactitude and implication. The Renaissance genuis, in his notes on painting, recommends imperceptible transitions of tone from dark to light: light and shade should move into each other "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke." Seurat's use of black conte crayon over the surface of a highly textured paper, results in forms that apparently emerge from a kind of dark "smoke." Contours are not linear edges to create a form, but the blackness into which a round body turns, moonlike. This form is illumined by infinitesimally varied highlights -- which are, in fact, the white of the paper showing through. Seurat's drawings brought values to the richest black and the most vivid white (here in the cravat) which had scarcely been perceived in art before, and the meticulous realization of the intermediate greys is something that seems to have simply happened, rather than been made to happen. These blacks, greys, and whites have the force of color, and in many cases black and white drawings were indeed an important stage in Seurat's buildup to a large colored painting. In this case, however, the drawing is a complete work on its own account.

One writer has pointed out a parallel between "AMan-Jean" and a picture in the Louvre, "Erasmus," by Holbein, in which the great humanist is shown writing. There may be an unconscious echo of the earlier work in Seurat's drawing, and there is certainly something kindred in the spirit of the two artists, separated by three and a half centuries. A supreme patience, in the most positive sense, is instilled in the art of both, and it makes it difficult to imagine the people they portrayed except in the terms of their immaculate and emphatic vision. "Erasmus" is invested with the efficiency and elegance of holbein. "Aman-Jean" might almost be Seurat's self-portrait in disguise. It seems more a portrayal of an artist's state of mind than a physical likeness, however accurate that may be. One can easily imagine Seurat himself approaching his paper or canvas with just the same measured touch -- a mixture of fastidious sensibility and quiet reasonableness.

Both Holbein and Seudat were describers who elevated a detailed and specific realism into an ordered world of their own visualizing, while still relishing particularly. Seurat's portraiture was confined to friends and relatives; Holbein's subjects were mostly public figures (though Erasmus was both figure and friend). The world of both was idealized, tidied, sober. Yet the differences between these two equally discreet artists are, of course, as vast as the years between them. Seudat's art, as mentioned before, was "momentary" in ways that Holbein's never was. The 19th-century artist couldn't help being conscious of the Impressionists' delight in the fugitive effect. For Holbein the art of portraiture looks like a bid for immortality, or at least for a fixed memorial. Seurat's paradox is another matter entirely: the paradox of permanent evanescence. Holbein's "Erasmus" appears to pause in his writing to enable the artist to picture in every detail, without fuss, a frozen subject. Aman-Jean, for all his stillness, is, when analyzed, found to be nothing but suggestion, implication, hint; most of what we think we see in this drawing isn't drawn at all -- it is lost in mysterious shadow. A great deal of the "evidence" in this picture is left to the observer's assumptions. Yet Seurat persuades one to believe in his precise painstaking accuracy.

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