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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 1, Floor 5

Georges-Pierre Seurat. Evening, Honfleur. 1886

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Georges-Pierre Seurat (French, 1859–1891)

Evening, Honfleur

Oil on canvas, with painted wood frame
30 3/4 x 37" (78.3 x 94 cm) including frame
Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy
MoMA Number:
Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

, 2008

Curator, Ann Temkin: This painting, Evening, Honfleur was made by Georges-Pierre Seurat. It was painted in 1886 when he was just 27 years old. And in fact, Seurat's entire career was less than a decade. He died at 32.

If you look at this painting, you can see that rather than painting in strokes with his paint brush, as most often is the case, he's actually used the tip of the brush to apply very small dots over the surface of the canvas. And so, when you come close to the picture, you can actually almost not make out a composition. And then you step back and they actually begin to form shapes—the clouds, the sea, the horizon line, the rocks on the beach.

I think that Seurat's technique gave a sort of shimmer of light to these pictures, and gave this sense of the way that light—in air, in the world around us—is something that is actually dynamic is always in movement.

Director, Glenn Lowry: Seurat also painted this frame.

Ann Temkin: Instead of using the frame to make a distinction, like some kind of fortress wall between the world of the picture and the world around it on the wall of the Museum, we have a frame that actually continues what's going on in the painting into the space beyond the painting.

It's a beautiful frame. Beyond that, I think it raises such interesting questions about where art stops and the world starts—and maybe those two are a little more blurry than we often think.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 36

Seurat spent the summer of 1886 in the resort town of Honfleur, on the northern French coast, a region of turbulent seas and rugged shorelines to which artists had long been attracted. But Seurat's evening scene is hushed and still. Vast sky and tranquil sea bring a sense of spacious light to the picture, yet also have a peculiar visual density. Long lines of cloud echo the breakwaters on the beach—signs of human life and order.

Seurat had used his readings of optical theory to develop a systematic technique, known as pointillism, that involved the creation of form out of small dots of pure color. In the viewer's eye, these dots can both coalesce into shapes and remain separate particles, generating a magical shimmer. A contemporary critic described the light in Evening, Honfleur and related works as a "gray dust," as if the transparency of the sky were filled with, or even constituted by, barely visible matter—a sensitive response to the paint's movement between illusion and material substance, as the dots both merge to describe the scene and break into grains of pigment.

Seurat paints a frame around the scene—buffering a transition between the world of the painting and reality; and, at the upper right, the dots on the frame grow lighter, lengthening the rays of the setting sun.

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