Pointillism in Art History, What is pointillism?

Pointillism is a painting technique whereby thousands of tiny dots of a pure colour are applied to a canvas very close to one another to form an image. The main concept behind pointillism is to use dots of only two to three colours in a particular area. The smaller the dots, the clearer the painting will be and the sharper its lines will be. The basic idea behind pointillism is that your mind and eye blend the colours together to create the image when viewed from a distance.

Does it have a specific subject matter?

No – pointillism is all about the painting technique. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, as long as it’s painted with small dots of pure colour. There are many famous paintings covering different subject matters that are painted in the pointillist style. Examples include Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait and Paul Signac’s Sunday, which depicts a Parisian couple at home on a typical Sunday.

Who developed it?

Pointillism was developed by Impressionist painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Seurat’s pointillism painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, is one of his most famous works and is known throughout the world. This particular painting took over two years to finish and remains the most iconic pointillist painting. Seurat died in 1891 but Signac continued doing pointillist paintings and completed many paintings using the technique.

When did it begin?

In 1886 Seurat and Signac pioneered this painting technique as a branch of Impressionism. Seurat originally called it ‘divisionism,’ referring to the way the image is divided into many different dots of colour. However, art critics weren’t too favourable and labelled this technique ‘pointillism’ as an insult to pointillist works. The reason for this was that the critics didn’t think pointillism was as renowned or impressive as other painting techniques. Nowadays, however, the word ‘pointillism’ is used without the insulting connotations it once had.

When did it reach its peak?

Pointillism reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s. There are very few artists of note who have done paintings in this style. Part of the reason why pointillism never had a bigger impact was because pointillist paintings don’t allow for depth or texture. A full range of colours can be produced in a pointillist painting, but pointillism was more about lots of little parts forming a whole. It was all about the technique and getting the eye to join the dots, so to speak. It was never intended to be taken seriously as an art movement, so it wasn’t.


Though pointillism as a single art movement didn’t take off as much as other movements, it did form the basis of neo-impressionism. This new branch of impressionism consisted of a more scientific approach to painting, looking at lines and colours in a more methodical way. This movement started waning by the end of the 19th century, but it influenced key painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Paul Gaugouin.

Pointillism is still used as a painting technique today. It’s well past its peak, but many artists continue to be intrigued by it and enjoy creating pointillist paintings. It offers a different way of painting and makes you think of paintings in a different way. It may not be the most influential or well-known of movements, but it’s still left a mark.