Sophie Matthiesson

Recent acquisition: 'Paysage à l’Écluse (Landscape with a Lock)', 1886–87 by Albert Dubois-Pillet

Recent acquisition: 'Paysage à l’Écluse (Landscape with a Lock)', 1886–87 by Albert Dubois-Pillet

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Last year, the Gallery welcomed an exciting addition to its permanent collection: Paysage à l’Écluse (Landscape with a Lock), 1886–87 by leading Neo-Impressionist painter Albert Dubois-Pillet. Purchased with the support of the Lyndsay Garland Trust, it is currently on display in Light from Tate: 1700s to Now. In the below article, Sophie Matthiesson, Senior Curator, International Art and coordinating curator of Light from Tate: 1700s to Now shares her insights into the often overlooked significance of Dubois-Pillet’s visionary career, and this remarkable painting.


By the mid-1880s, Impressionist painting in France was losing its power to jolt and was sliding inexorably into the ranks of bourgeois art. The artists who had pioneered it were scattered and rarely saw eye to eye. Their eclipse had been forecast by a radical Paris art critic, Félix Fénéon, who warned that a scientific movement was about to supersede Impressionism.[1] Arising out of Impressionism, the new movement, sometimes known as ‘Pointillism’, aimed to control the optical properties of colour and light by placing tiny touches of paint side by side, to produce an effect of vibrating luminosity. The movement’s leader was the young painter Georges Seurat, who was working to apply the colour and optical theories of modern scientists such as Michel Eugène Chevreul, Charles Blanc, David Sutter, Hermann von Helmholtz and Ogden Rood.

While Seurat preferred the term ‘chromoluminarism’, the new style was dubbed ‘Neo-Impressionism’ by Fénéon, on the grounds that it aspired not to capture the fleeting moments of light in a landscape – as Monet was famously doing – but to immortalise the sensations of light through the careful manipulation of colour.[2]

To describe the artists who adopted Neo-Impressionist methods as Seurat’s ‘followers’, is somewhat misleading. Seurat’s ‘scientific’ approach appealed to some of the most intellectual and independent artists of the Paris art scene, such as Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro and Albert Dubois-Pillet. While the early involvement of Signac and Pissarro is well known, the contribution of Albert Dubois-Pillet, is much less so. The Gallery has just acquired a truly scintillating example of early Neo-Impressionist painting by this little-known but pivotal member of the 1880s Paris avant-garde, who died in 1890, four years after the movement was launched. So who was he?

Dubois-Pillet was not simply an early and prolific member of the select group around Seurat: it was he more than anyone who created the conditions in which Neo-Impressionism could flourish. An outwardly conservative figure, Dubois-Pillet was raised in an upper-middle class family in Toulouse and became a career soldier, fighting in the Franco-Prussian war (1870–71) and suppressing his own countrymen in the notorious Paris Commune of 1872. A self-taught painter, Dubois-Pillet later arranged to be stationed in Paris where he soon joined fellow artists in their struggle to find exhibiting venues and advocates. Surprisingly, perhaps, in light of his own military background, Dubois-Pillet appears to have been drawn to the most radical segment of this artistic fringe – ex-Communards and sympathisers of anarchism, the utopian philosophy of Russian exile, Pierre Kropotkin. They in their turn appear to have welcomed this unlikely newcomer into their midst.

In 1884 Dubois-Pillet, widely recognisable by his monocle and cravat, became the driving force behind the formation of the now-legendary Société des Artistes Indépendants. Its objective was to stage regular open exhibitions, in contrast to the official Salon, and to challenge its stranglehold on public taste and artists’ prospects. Virtually single-handedly, and within the space of a few days, Dubois-Pillet devised the radical framework of the new society, which eliminated juries and prizes and distributed money from sales equally among the participating artists.[3]

It was at an 1884 exhibition of the Indépendants that Seurat and Signac first met, and where Seurat first showed his Bathers at Asnières, 1884 (National Gallery London), a strangely frozen scene of working-class Parisians at play made up of simplified forms and blocks of colour. Secretive to a fault, Seurat over the following months allowed a miserably small number of fellow artists, including Dubois-Pillet, to witness his next painting in progress, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–86 (Art Institute of Chicago). The canvas, which featured more robotic pleasure-seekers by the Seine, was created through thousands of flecks of colour vibrating at an almost molecular level against one another with hallucinogenic effect. Entranced, Dubois-Pillet, Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro attempted Seurat’s new ‘pixilating’ method for themselves. By the following year, Dubois-Pillet’s works were wholly Neo-Impressionist.

Paysage à l’Écluse, dated 1886–87, was painted in the early phase of this new movement. Quietly powerful, this small study depicts a wide canal, edged by poplars in misty, early morning light. A strong diagonal orientation recalls the dramatic cropped compositions of Japanese woodblock prints, much admired by Paris connoisseurs. At its vanishing point is the raised gate of a canal lock, the unpoetic emblem of modern industry. A sea of coloured dabs, still luscious and plump on the canvas, meld to create a shimmering and fragile whole. Solid forms become ephemeral, and the ephemeral becomes solid in the light of this misty, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. While the exact location is not known, the subject is likely one of the light-industrial areas outside Paris preferred by the Neo-Impressionists, such as the Canal de Chelles, beyond the eastern outskirts of the city.

These first Neo-Impressionist paintings quickly found detractors. Monet’s loyalists derided the touches of colour as ‘fly specks’, while the sardonic Edgar Degas called Dubois-Pillet a mere ‘worker in petit-point’ and joked that his name meant sawdust: ‘Ce qui fait le mieux du pointillisme, c'est du bois-pilé.’ (‘It is in fact better than pointillism; it is crushed wood.’)[4]

The barbs directed at Dubois-Pillet may well have been provoked by his success in challenging the primacy of the Impressionists. It was Dubois-Pillet who secured regular exhibition venues year after year and recruited artists of the calibre of Pissarro to the Neo-Impressionist cause. It was Dubois-Pillet who acted as a promoter and adviser to fellow artists and connected them with art dealers such as Georges Petit, with critics such as Félix Fénéon, and with publishers such as Thadee Natanson. It was Dubois-Pillet’s studio-apartment at 19 Quai Saint-Michel that formed the unofficial headquarters of the Neo-Impressionist movement and it was Dubois-Pillet who hosted regular dinners for artists and writers to meet and who lent them money, despite his own modest means.

While Georges Seurat may have been at the centre of the Neo-Impressionist movement, he was never its only driver. Dubois-Pillet’s appetite for scientific exactitude, for example, exceeded Seurat’s. Dubois-Pillet’s use of the colours red, green and violet in Paysage à l’Écluse reflects his personal adherence to the theories of Thomas Young, who claimed that the eye was especially receptive to them as ‘primary colours of light’. It was Dubois-Pillet and Signac who began making monochromatic drawings using only dots and no lines, a technique that Seurat later toyed with. It was also Dubois-Pillet who produced the group’s first still lifes and portraits.

Dubois-Pillet’s career was cut short in 1890. Alarmed by his moonlighting, the army relocated him to Le Puy-en-Velay, 400 kilometres south of Paris. He died nine months later of smallpox, aged 43. A retrospective of over 60 paintings, many of them loaned by his fellow painters, was organised at the Indépendents in 1891 by Signac. With Dubois-Pillet’s premature death, and that of Seurat soon after, the early phase of the movement was over. A fire later destroyed the bulk of Dubois-Pillet’s oeuvre, making examples of his work rare today.


[1] John Rewald, Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh to Gauguin, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1956, p 13.

[2] As above, p 99. 

[3] Deborah L Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-De-Siècle France, California University Press, Berkeley, 1989, p 212

[4] See Joan Ungersma Halperin, Félix Fénéon Aesthete & Artist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1988, p 87 and Paul Smith, ‘The Neo-Impressionist Painter: Color, Facture, and Fiction’, in Cornelia Homburg (ed), Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music, Yale University Press/The Phillips Collection, New Haven & London, 2014, pp 47–71.