Georges SEURAT | Landscape with 'The poor fisherman' by Puvis de Chavannes [Paysage avec 'Le pauvre pêcheur' de Puvis de Chavannes]

Georges SEURAT
France 1859 – 1891

Landscape with 'The poor fisherman' by Puvis de Chavannes
[Paysage avec 'Le pauvre pêcheur' de Puvis de Chavannes]
c. 1881
oil on wood panel
panel 17.5 (h) x 26.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with assistance from Fondation Meyer 2002
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

This early Seurat work was surely never intended to leave the artist’s studio. Hastily executed, on two separate dates, it shows an oil sketch of Puvis’ The poor fisherman painted over the top of a landscape study. Yet on this small piece of parquet panel we are given a sense of Seurat’s early artistic leanings. The poor fisherman was shown at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in 1881. Seurat, like many young artists, was struck by the painting—so much so that he sacrificed an earlier work to record his impression of it.1 A rough sketch at best, in the painting underneath we can nevertheless detect the influence of the Impressionists, who prefigured Seurat’s development of the Pointillist technique.

The little landscape was painted en plein air at St Ouen around 1879. (The other side of the panel, which was detached in 1951, showed a similar landscape.) In this work, using short, sharp brushstrokes, Seurat depicts a distant cottage seen over a body of glistening water. A flowering tree is captured with dabs of pink against a deep green at the centre of the image; in the foreground a suggestion of foliage is rendered in taupe and dark blue-green. The blue of the sky is interrupted by wisps of grey which may represent cloud, smoke, or nothing but a simple experiment with colour mixing by a young artist.

Seurat returned to this sketch in 1881, and painted a copy of The poor fisherman, which he had no doubt recently seen at the Salon, over the right hand side. In his rendition of the work Seurat focused on the elongated figure of the fisherman, and especially on the flat colour planes and the gentle curve in the landscape created by the riverbanks. The influence of these undulating compositional lines, the broad expanses of colour and the large-scale format of The poor fisherman, can be seen in Seurat’s subsequent iconic work, Bathers at Asnières2, completed three years later in 1884.3

On the lower right of the panel, Seurat inscribed: ‘Hommage à Pierre Puvisse [sic] de Chavannes’. The misspelling of the name has often been read as a joke at Puvis’ expense4, however, given the influence that Puvis’ work had on Seurat—he was bitterly disappointed when Puvis toured the 1891 Salon des Indépendants exhibition without so much as a pause in front of his The circus, 18915—and the high esteem in which he was held by the young avant-gardes, it was more than likely an honest mistake.

Emilie Owens

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. It is worth noting that Aristide Maillol also made a copy of Puvis’ painting. Maillol’s was a direct, but slightly smaller, copy and is also in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  2. National Gallery, London.
  3. For a more detailed discussion of this influence see Michael F. Zimmerman, Seurat and the art theory of his time, Antwerp: Fonds Mercator 1991, p. 149.
  4. Robert L. Herbert, Françoise Cachin, Anne Distel et al., Seurat, 1859–1891, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991, p. 109.
  5. R.H. Wilenski, Modern French painters, London: Faber and Faber 1963, p. 106. The circus is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris