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Georges Seurat's Evening, Honfleur And Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night: Differences And Similarities In Style And Subject Matter
The painting styles, if not the subject matter itself (i.e., in both cases an impressionist evening scene) of Georges Seurat's Evening, Honfleur (1886) and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night (June 1889) appear, especially at first, to be extremely dissimilar. Content of the two paintings appears dissimilar as well, with The Starry Night's being an extremely busy and complex looking scene, and Evening, Honfleur's being comparatively calm, straightforward, and placid. This is perhaps because French impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) pioneered, within Evening, Honfleur and other paintings, an intricate and highly original colorist technique, called pointillism (consisting of painting with small dots of color, to comprise, to the viewing eye, a combined color, shading or lighting effect, object and/or scene). Van Gogh, for his part, was more bold and deliberate, within The Starry Night, in his own expressionistic uses of color. However, van Gogh was in fact influenced by Seurat (despite Seurat's being the younger of the two painters by six years). Closer examination of Evening Honfleur and Starry Night, side by side, reveals various similarities between the paintings, in addition to their more apparent differences.
According to art critic Robert Hughes in The shock of the new (1980), the radically original, highly impressionistic painting style of Georges Seurat was, in fact:
one of the most lucid classical styles developed since the fifteenth century, and it was based on the dot. The unit of Impressionism had been the brush-
stroke, fat or thin, clean or smeared, streaky, squidgy, or transparent . . .
Seurat wanted something more stable than that. . . . his theory was based on scientific studies of colour analysis and visual perception. (p. 114)
Seurat's technique of pointillism is clearly evident within his painting Evening, Honfleur, one of the greatest of his works. Moreover, Seurat's use of colors (or more accurately, shades, such as tanned grays) within Evening, Honfleur is quite subtle, blended, and muted, with a gray-purple greenish sea and purplish-gray clouds being the most colorful objects, along with the muted browns of the shore, wooden objects, and rock that also appear in the painting.
Seurat's creation of pointillism was based not just on impressionistic sensibility, but also on scientific theory. According to MoMA.org (The Museum of Modern Art):
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.
An example of Seurat's magical shimmer technique is evident within Evening, Honfleur, on the right hand side of the painting, just below the middle of the canvas, where the pointillist technique is used by Seurat to create an impression of a patch of sunlit water visible from the artist's shoreline viewpoint. Van Gogh in The Starry Night, on the other hand, most frequently uses deliberately contrasting streaks of color, which serves to underscore, rather than blend, as Seurat does in Evening, Honfleur, contrasting units of color.
In terms of similarities between the two paintings, each contains a large object in the lower-left foreground. Within Van Gogh's The Starry Night the object is a large cypress tree. Within Seurat's Evening, Honfleur, the dominant foreground objects are wooden structures of various kinds. Each of the lower left-hand figures is dominant within its respective painting; darkly shaded, and is also complemented, at either a slight upward or a slight downward angle, by a smaller, similarly darkly-shaded object (in The Starry Night this appears to be a hill; in Evening, Honfleur, the object is a rock) on the opposite side of the canvas. Further, in each painting, color is used unusually, in fact singularly, by the artist, not only for visual effect, but also to convey an impression of light, shading, or movement, of (for example) the stars and the clouds within The Starry Night, or of the setting of the sun upon the water, in Evening, Honfleur, as the sun and the clouds travel across the sky.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), painted The Starry Night, one…[continue]
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