Press release

Neo-Impressionism: The Circle of Paul Signac

October 2, 2001 – December 30, 2001
Robert Lehman Wing

To complement the major exhibition Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present paintings, drawings, and watercolors – selected entirely from the Museum's own collections – by Charles Angrand, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Hippolyte Petitjean and other artists who, like Paul Signac, exuberantly followed the groundbreaking techniques of optical painting introduced in the 1880s by Georges Seurat. On view at the Metropolitan from October 2 through December 30, 2001, Neo-Impressionism: The Circle of Paul Signac will feature some 60 works by these artists as well as by the better-known Signac and Seurat.

The exhibition is made possible by Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc.

Flourishing from 1886 to 1906, the artists who worked in this avant-garde style came to be called Neo-Impressionists. The term was coined by art critic Félix Fénéon in his review of the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition (1886) to describe the work of Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, and, remarkably, Camille Pissarro, pioneers of a daring new vision that deviated distinctly from the waning Impressionist school.

Neo-Impressionism extended its reach to Belgium as well, where an avant-garde group known as Les Vingts (Les XX) embraced Seurat's ideals following the 1887 exhibition in Brussels of his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte. Théo van Rysselberghe was a member of this highly visible Belgian circle, and the exhibition features several examples of his work. Even Henri Matisse briefly experimented with a Neo-Impressionist technique, prompted in part by the publication of Signac's manifesto From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism and by the invitation to paint with Signac at his Saint-Tropez residence. Matisse spent nearly a year in Signac's company.

Neo-Impressionists eschewed the random spontaneity of Impressionism. They sought to impose order on the visual experience of nature through codified, scientific principles. An optical theory known as mélange optique was formulated to describe the idea that separate, often contrasting colors would combine in the eye of the viewer to achieve the desired chromatic effect. The separation of color through individual strokes of pigment came to be known as "Divisionism" while the application of precise dots of paint came to be called "Pointillism." According to Neo-Impressionist theory, the application of paint in this fashion set up vibrations of colored light that produced an optical purity not achieved by the conventional mixing of pigments.

The rigid theoretical tenets of optical painting upheld by Neo-Impressionism's standard-bearer, George Seurat, gave way to a more fluid technique following his untimely death in 1891. In the luminous watercolors of Henri-Edmond Cross, for example, small, precise brush marks were replaced by long, mosaic-like strokes and clear, contrasting hues by a vibrant, saturated palette. While some artists like Henri Matisse merely flirted with Neo-Impressionism and others like Camille Pissarro renounced it entirely, Seurat's legacy extended well into the 20th century in the works of Cross and Signac. Poised between Impressionism in the 19th century and Fauvism and Cubism in the 20th, Neo-Impressionism brought with it a new awareness of the formal aspects of paintings and a theoretical language by which to paint.

Neo-Impressionsim: The Circle of Paul Signac is organized by Dita Amory, Associate Curator, Robert Lehman Collection. Exhibition design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Sophia Geronimus, Graphic Designer; and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer.

June 4, 2001

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