Neo-impressionism – the science of colour



The neo-impressionist masterpieces on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan in New York can still be seen at the Palazzo Reale in Milan up to January 25 2009 in the exhibition Georges Pierre SEURAT, Paul SIGNAC and the Neo-impressionists.

Seurat and Signac met in 1884 at the first Salon des Indépendants. This meeting marked the official birth of neo-impressionism.Georges Pierre SEURAT was the real instigator of pointillism, a painting technique inspired by the chemist Eugène Chevreul’s discoveries on how colour is perceived. Seurat died prematurely in 1891 and only explored pointillist technique over 7 years. The style was taken up and made known in France by Paul SIGNAC, Camille PISSARRO, Albert DUBOIS-PILLET, Charles ANGRAND, Henri Edmond CROSS and Maximilien LUCE, and in Belgium by Henry VAN DE VELDE and Théo VAN RYSSELBERGHE.

The market for Georges Pierre SEURAT is very small: only 27 paintings have been put up for auction in 20 years, 26 studies and only one masterpiece. Seurat’s only centrepiece is Paysage, l’île de la Grande Jatte, a preparatory piece for the founding work of Pointillism, Un Dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (1884-1886), which is currently in the Art Institute of Chicago. Paysage, l’île de la Grande Jatte, which fetched USD 32m at Sotheby’s NY in May 1999, still holds the record for the movement. Since then, his best sale price was for Au divan japonais, a pencil and gouache drawing that went for USD 5.5m at Sotheby’s Paris on December 3 2008.
The rarefaction of Seurat’s works has tended to boost price levels of other neo-impressionists, and Paul SIGNAC in particular. Signac’s price indices, for example, rose by 138% between 1998 and December 2008 and bids over a million are increasing: in 2008, nine paintings went for more than a million dollars compared to six in 2007.
2007 was an exceptional year for the neo-impressionist market and price records were broken. The following were among the new records hit that year: Maximilien LUCE’s La Seine au pont Saint-Michel went for USD 2.5m (May 9 2007, Christie’s NY), Paul SIGNAC’s Cassis, Cap Canaille a typical painting from his pointillist period sold for USD 12.5m (November 6, Christie’s NY), and Camille PISSARRO’s exceptional quadryptique illustrating the four seasons fetched USD 13m (November 6, Christie’s NY). The estimate of this artwork has tremendously doubled since its last auction in November 1991 at Christie’s.

Today, an accomplished Pissarro work goes for between USD 400,000 and 4m. For between USD 5,000 and 20,000, enthusiasts of the genre might find a watercolour drawing by Henri Edmond CROSS or a painting by a less famous artist like Louis HAYET.

Neo-impressionism’s price levels rose constantly over 10 years, reaching a peak in January 2008 (+142% between January 1998 and January 2008) but fell off significantly in the following months. After the collapse in the autumn 2008 sales, the movement’s price index fell by almost 23%, returning to its 2004 level (according to the Artprice index calculated on January 6 2009).