On Seurat, by Howard Hodgkin and John-Paul Stonard

Art and Architecture, Courtauld Institute of Art, 2006

On Seurat
Seurat’s Bathers, 1998-2000

Seurat is often seen as a painters’ painter. What qualities do you admire in him?

What I admire in him most is his instant ability in the face of nature, whether he’s drawing or painting, to make a language of his own. His studies from nature, as with the Man Painting a Boat are not really studies from nature at all; they’re little pochade, they’re beginnings of paintings, remarkably different in their effect from the effects of nature.

I never thought that Impressionism was much to do with the effects of nature, but more with those of time. Seurat developed this with his own sensibility, which seemed to come from somewhere else; he came out of an academic background but transformed that into something else.

It seems that his sensibility was above all one of restraint.

Yes, I would absolutely agree. I know so little about things like games of tennis, or techniques of dance and so forth; but the physical control one sees in a Seurat is so relaxed, so simple, so straightforward and so visible that the effect is breathtaking. And I’m sure that painters through jealousy, envy, and a desire to emulate therefore admire him very much. Whether this is the case for English artists is something else.

Do you think that his appeal has been limited by the idea that he is the painter of lots of tiny dots?

No, not in the least. I think they were a liberation. But equally important were his drawings. When he began to draw without using linear marks, just putting tones down, suddenly he could do what he liked. Suddenly, a simple physical gesture with a conté crayon set him free. And though these small studies seem very free in their own way – they show his ability in the face of nature to make his own structures, as I have said – he has a different and perhaps an even deeper type of freedom when he paints his ‘divisionist’ works.

There’s a strong feeling of slow, patient, method to all his works. Is there a decisive moment when the work is made? Is that something that happens in your own paintings?

It certainly happens during the making of the painting; but in paintings such as the National Gallery Bathers, I think he began to worry about the painting a bit too much, hence its later revisions. The moment had already happened. But the ‘decisive moment’ is a good phrase for these sketches; it clearly occurred for him in most of them. In the later works it was almost as if he had gone far beyond this, the balance had tipped in favour of an art that occasionally became grotesque. John Russell writes somewhere that in the later painting Le Cirque it is essential to look at the faces of the crowd. Because by that moment the process of divisionism and making forms had reached such a point that the people become grotesques. Whereas with these three small paintings we are here looking at here, that never happens; there’s a balance between something outside Seurat, and something inside Seurat, which is very delicately preserved.

This little painting, The Fisherman in the Moored Boat is far more …. complete, and decisive than it perhaps at first looks. Don’t be deceived by the loose handling, because there’s nothing loose about the pictures themselves. In the later paintings he started jumping to conclusions which in the drawings, and the earlier painted sketches here, he never made.

Again, the drawings use a technique which he invented, where you can lose yourself within the space which is the surface of the paper. Because it is revealed by the conté crayon drawing over it, rather than using lines which makes edges, means you’ve got space to do all sorts of things; a figure that is far away could suddenly be brought near, like the portrait of his mother, which is like a seventeenth-century tenebrist painting. But it’s not really like that because it is so much freer.

Have you wanted to emulate his drawing technique?


What about these two small paintings, one of Gravelines, and the other a small study for Le Chahut?

Well they show very well the two different sides of his personality, the caricature and then the serious painting. But the caricature side, which you can see clearly in the study for Le Chahut, he never managed to resolve – that’s why the spectators in Le Cirqueare so ghastly; it’s an attempt to make caricatures into something they could never be; but he’s not been able to make the jump from humanity to art.

I remember the English critic R.H. Wilenski wrote about the monkey in La Grande Jatte, about how beautiful the study for it was, but in the finished painting it had acquired a self-conscious stiffness that, in an unpleasant way, anticipates Art Nouveau. It may be an over elaboration, but if you put the two things side by side, you see the point at once – self-consciousness has taken over. He’s like a lyric poet who is suddenly turning into a great public orator.

Is that also the case with the colours he used?

I think his colour is mostly very beautiful, particularly when one looks at studies he made for La Grande Jatte.

A few years ago you made a painting base on the painting Une Baignade, Asnières, in the National Gallery, which was then hung next to the original as part of the exhibition Encounters. What was your relationship to Seurat at that moment?

What I was doing, which seemed to offend English people tremendously, was to try and make a revised version of the Bathers, very humbly, I hasten to add. I wanted to paint a version of it in the style of a three-quarter size study for La Grande Jattethat is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which I’ve long thought of as one of the most successful of his large paintings.The scale of the marks to the size of the picture – they hit the target again and again and again. If you compare the study to the final version, which is monumental, rigid, decorative, then the study looks almost like a defrosted version.

Had you always wanted to make a painting based on the National Gallery Bathers?

Yes, I certainly had, but I never thought that it would be possible. I was asked what I’d like to do, and I knew immediately which painting I wanted to use. I was really delighted – and, although it became a frightening thing to carry through to the end, really it turned out, in my terms, to be much more successful than I could have thought possible. When I saw them together I wasn’t, to my surprise, disappointed – most people were, they were furious. But I wasn’t trying to improve on what he’d done, I was just trying to make it a little more open-ended.

You said once that your idea of classicism in painting was ‘a beautifully articulated anonymous architectural memorial’. Could this be applied to Seurat’s classicism?

He was one of the first people who tried to use anonymous marks in a way that quite a few twentieth-century artists have tried to do since. He managed to do this of course despite the fact that his work is instantly recognisable from across the room. My version of Seurat’s Bathers was really a memorial to the original – the subject matter of my painting was his painting – that’s why it was called Seurat’s Bathers.

Seurat is often connected to anarchist circles in late-nineteenth century Paris, but the exact extent of his involvement is not really known. You too have been called an anarchist. Is he an anarchist? Are you?

Well I may well be but I don’t think he is. Because eventually, especially in the later paintings, he is perhaps more than anything else an old-fashioned French rhetorician. Can’t you imagine him saying ‘La France c’est moi!’ – I can. The rhetoric in his large pictures is something that I find unattractive. But he was much less a great conservative artist than he liked to think, and these small paintings show that very well. This collection of small studies do make him seem very near, near to us now while we are sitting here.