First Scottish display of post-impressionist artist’s work

An important painting by Post-Impressionist and Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891) will soon go on display in Scotland for the first time.

The painting has been loaned to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) from one of Europe’s most significant collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, The Courtauld Gallery.

Young Woman Powdering Herself, which has never previously been shown north of the border, was painted between 1888 and 1890 and is an unusual portrait depicting Seurat’s mistress Madeleine Knobloch (1868-1903).

Knobloch’s identity was kept concealed even after this artwork was first exhibited in 1890, and their clandestine relationship, which included having a child together, remained a secret to all but the artist’s closest friends until after the Seurat’s premature death in 1891.

Visitors to the Scottish National Gallery have until the autumn of 2020 to view the painting, which The Courtauld has lent to the Galleries whilst the London-based institution is in the midst of a two-year transformation project, Courtauld Connects.

The Courtauld’s substantial collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art is one of the most important in Europe, thanks to the generosity of the textile tycoon Samuel Courtauld, who acquired outstanding examples of the work of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and others during the 1920s.

Speaking about this loan, Christopher Baker, Director of European and Scottish Art and Portraiture at the National Galleries of Scotland, said: ‘This exceptional and very generous loan provides a fascinating complement to the major Post-Impressionist paintings in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

‘A deeply personal portrait, executed in Seurat’s distinctive and shimmering technique, it gives a glimpse of the private bohemian world of 1880s Paris. It also demonstrates the skills of one the most experimental artists of the age, who celebrated modern subjects and so carefully calibrated every aspect of his mesmeric works.’

The National Galleries of Scotland also has an impressive Impressionist collection and Young Woman Powdering Herself will enhance the small group of Seurat works currently held in its collection. This includes two works related to the masterpiece with which the French artist made his name, The Bathers, Asnières, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London.

Even though he died tragically early at the age of just 31, Seurat was the inventor and leading exponent of the scientific style of painting known as Neo-Impressionism, whereby the paint is applied using small dots of colour, often referred to as ‘pointillism’.

Like the Impressionists, Seurat painted landscapes and modern urban subjects: people walking in the park, at the circus or at the musical hall. Unlike the Impressionists, however, Seurat preferred to work in the studio, often building up his finished compositions from a series of drawings and oil studies made out of doors. His manifesto painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte (Art Institute of Chicago) was exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, where it caused a sensation.

Seurat was interested in optical physics and was influenced by the theories of, among others, Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), Ogden Rood (1831-1902) and Charles Henry (1859-1926). He experimented with colour contrasts and optical mixing, as well as exploring the emotional impact of colour and line.

In Young Woman Powdering Herself, Seurat has built up the composition in areas of light and shade, exploring contrasts between rounded and more angular forms. His mistress is portrayed in a humorous way, her curvaceous figure contrasted with the tiny table at which she is seated. She is applying make-up, and the painting and its laborious technique can be read as a conceit; a satire on the artifice of modern urban life.

An x-ray reveals that Seurat originally painted a face (said by some to be a self-portrait) in the frame on the wall, but was persuaded by a friend to paint it out and replace it with a vase of flowers.

Young Woman Powdering Herself joins two studies for his large-scale The Bathers, Asnières: a drawing called Seated Nude: Study for ‘Une Baignade’ and a small preparatory oil study of the artwork, as well as a third entitled La Luzerne, Saint-Denis, 1884-5, a larger oil painting and an excellent example of the artist’s move towards Neo-Impressionism.

The first owner of Young Woman Powdering Herself was the well-known critic and art dealer Félix Fénéon. There exists an interesting parallel with La Luzerne, which was owned by the English critic Roger Fry, one of Courtauld’s chief advisors and the man who invented the term ‘Post-Impressionism’.

The painting’s arrival also coincides with the opening of our Bridget Riley exhibition. Riley was profoundly influenced by Seurat’s work and it was her early encounters with the artist’s paintings in the Courtauld collection in the late 1950s that inspired her journey towards abstraction.

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat will be on show at the Scottish National Gallery until October 2020.