From the moment Seurat set out on his own to learn the techniques, skills and theories of painting, he took a systematic approach to discovery that would characterize his aims and methods as an artist for the rest of his career. The subtle qualities of observation and analysis that Seurat reveals in Paysan travaillant, and other landscapes and rural figure paintings executed in 1882-1883, already announce that this talented and perceptive young painter was embarking on a brilliant enterprise, which, as fate would have it, would last less than a decade before being sadly cut short. Seurat learned quickly and well, and with the completion of La Grande Jatte, his magnum opus, in 1885--at the age on only 25--he had become a genuine innovator, an influential player in the development of modern art. Old Pissarro, whose selfless example and dedication to the new art had already inspired many a younger painter, came to study and apply Seurat's findings to his own work. Seurat had moreover quickly achieved a distinctive maturity in his now famous and well-appreciated drawings, which has tended to distract attention from the artist's accomplishments in the quickening evolution of his early paintings. He advanced these twin sides to his work, in black-and-white and color, in tandem at a prodigious pace, as if the young artist sensed that he had no time to lose.
Classes at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris held Seurat's interest for less than two years, and while he had shown skill in drawing the figure, he failed to place in the academy's annual competitions. When he returned to Paris in November 1880 following his year of obligatory military service, he was keen to begin painting in oils and using color. He moreover believed it to be essential that he work outdoors, en plein air, just as the more progressive artists of his time had been doing--the Impressionists, and before them, the Barbizon painters. A fervent admirer of Delacroix, Seurat took a strong interest in color theory, and purchased a copy of Ogden Rood's Théorie scientifique des couleurs, the French translation of the Columbia University professor's Modern Chromatics, which had been recently published as a title in an everyman's line of science books.
Seurat's earliest rural landscapes were made during the summer and fall of 1881 while staying with his friend Aman-Jean in Pontaubert, in the Yonne region. A year later Seurat again worked sur le motif while on outings in the Fontainebleau forest, in the vicinity of Barbizon, the community which gave its name to the colony of pioneering plein-air landscape painters of an earlier generation, including Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny, Harpignies and Diaz. During the period prior to 1884, the year in which he completed Une Baignade, Asnières, his first major work, Seurat produced about twenty oil paintings on canvas and another seventy on small wood panels, among them Paysan travaillant, which depict both pure landscapes (Hauke, no. 51; fig. 1), and studies of figures seen in a landscape setting, peasants working chores in the fields (Hauke, no. 58; fig. 2), and stonebreakers wielding hammers as they cleared fields for ploughing (Hauke, no. 33; fig. 3).
Seurat's sudden focus on these agrarian subjects is a development unique to this period; he did not return to them later on, as he subsequently became known instead as a painter of Parisian and suburban themes, and in his landscapes, the Channel ports. The many studies of farm folk and laborers did not result in a major large composition as a summation, as in the cases of La Baignade and La Grande Jatte, each of which had been preceded by numerous studies on panel. Seurat's interest in rural labor stemmed mainly from the young painter's need to work through what he considered to be the useful legacies of earlier trends in painting, as he examined the work of the Realists, Barbizon painters and his own contemporaries, the Impressionists. In this way Seurat quickly recapitulated in his own work the path to modernism in painting. Courbet's iconic, revolutionary Les casseurs de pierres, 1850 (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie; destroyed in World War II) was especially relevant in this context. Seurat--like the Dutchman Van Gogh, whom he would later befriend--was also drawn to the popular art of Millet, celebrated for the artist's dedication to the lives and work of ordinary rural people. It is likely that Seurat knew the major biography of Millet that Alfred Sensier published in 1881. A reproduction of a Millet drawing for a peasant girl who appears in The Harvesters, 1849, was found after Seurat's death in a folio in which he had collected various popular printed images and art reproductions, and several Seurat drawings have been linked to sources in Millet's oeuvre.
Among Seurat's older contemporaries, the farm and field figure paintings of Pissarro provided an instructive example of how rural life could be presented in the latest techniques of the Impressionist painters, a movement then less than a decade old. John Leighton and Richard Thomson have written: "Thus a tendency to sombre naturalism was superseded by a more vigorous touch and a more sophisticated handling of colour as he began to study the chromatic adventures of Monet and his contemporaries." They go on to point out, however, that "This might be useful as a general description of the pattern of Seurat's development in the early 1880s, but only a few of his panels can be dated with any certainty and their experimental quality tends to foil any attempt to place them in a logical chronological sequence. Seurat could be flexible in his approach, trying out different methods of brushwork and colour and adopting the style that best suited his subject" (Seurat and the Bathers, exh. cat., The National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 36).
By the time Seurat painted Paysan travaillant, he could already lay claim a very accomplished and distinctive style of drawing, which he had developed soon after leaving the Ecole, having cast aside the classical contours, carefully delineated chiaroscuro and the conventional themes of his academic training. Aman-Jean later stated, "It's drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path" (quoted in R. L. Herbert, et al., Georges Seurat, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 377). During this early phase in his career Seurat drew incessantly, quickly filling pocket-sized sketchbooks he carried everywhere he went, drawing the figures of people in the casual, naturalistic poses in which he encountered them. Back in the studio he was already realizing on larger sheets the nearly mature manner for which he is best-known, in which he rendered forms by means of densely hatched contrasts of light and shade, abstracting and simplifying his forms, placing strongly characterized silhouettes against the light, or conversely, glowing forms against a dark ground (fig. 4). He translated these effects into color as he worked on the panel paintings. "What one should see in painting, or rather what I look for," Seurat stated, "is the form, the whole, the value of the tone; colour for me comes afterwards" (quoted in J. Halperin, ed., Georges Seurat: Oeuvres plus que complets, Geneva, 1970, p. 29).
The panels on which Seurat liked to paint outdoors were durable and extremely convenient--a small supply of them would fit easily in hand-held painting box, called a boîte à pouce. Seurat usually painted his panel pictures au premier coupe, often in a single sitting before the motif, while the larger canvases might have been begun on site and were finished during later sessions in Seurat's Paris studio. Paysan travaillant exhibits a lively, finely worked surface, consisting of small squarish and feathery touches, meticulously applied, in which Seurat worked from dark to lighter tones, building up the paint film thin layer upon layer, angling each stroke over the previous ones to create an irregular but discernible crisscross weave, a gossamer surface that reveals the artist's acutely sensitive response to color and light. It is already clear that Seurat would become a colorist who would eschew bold, brushy effects--such as those of Monet--in preference for a delicate, lustrous and finely nuanced surface, in which color interaction would take place in microscale. This conception would eventually result, over the course of the next several years, in Seurat's fully fledged pointillist technique. Already in evidence as well in the present painting is Seurat's preference for a basic pictorial architecture consisting of contrasting vertical forms and parallel horizontal elements: here he has offset the partly vertical figure of the peasant and his sack at right against the emphatic line of trees in the background, which creates a pronounced effect of downward stress on his bent posture. Leighton and Thomson have written:
"As a group, the array of small canvases and panels that Seurat produced in the early 1880s might offer few clues to the scale of ambition that would be revealed in the Bathers. Yet each of these little studies betrays the quiet potential of Seurat's methods, and close study reveals the careful decisions and calculations that underpin even those pictures that appear to be direct and spontaneous. Perhaps his greatest achievement in these years was his mastery of colour. Seurat inherited the academic view that colour was subordinate to form, but his paintings indicate that study of this element was one of his main preoccupations" (op. cit., 1997, p. 41).
Unnumbered artist photo:
Georges Seurat, date and photographer unknown.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Lisière du bois au printemps, 1882-1883. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, Le Faucheur, circa 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Georges Seurat, Casseur de pierres, circa 1882. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 12.
(fig. 4) Georges Seurat, Femme agenouillée, circa 1881. Sold, Christie's New York, 4 May 2011, lot 14.