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 MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Seurat painted this view of the seashore using lots of little dots of color—one right next to the other—to make up all the things we see: sailboats, anchors, buildings, lampposts, flagpoles, and the water, beach, and sky. Looking at the colors, what time of day do you think this is? Think about the colors you would use if you painted this scene at a different time of day.
Gallery label from For Kids, 2019