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 involves the creation of form out of small spots of pure color. In the viewer’s eye, these spots 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.
Seurat painted a frame around the scene, buffering the transition between the world of the painting and reality. At the upper right, the spots on the frame grow lighter, lengthening the rays of the setting sun.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Seurat spent the summer of 1886 in the French coastal town of Honfleur in order to “wash the light of the studio” from his eyes, he said. He meticulously applied at least twenty-five colors here, in the form of thousands of dots carefully placed on the canvas. Long bands of clouds echo the horizon and the breakwaters on the beach. The vast sky and tranquil sea meet at the horizon line, bringing a sense of spacious light to the picture; yet from up close they also have a peculiar visual density. Seurat added the wooden frame later, hand-painting it with the same technique to add greater luminosity and suggest the extension of the image past its boundaries.
Gallery label from 2011.