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Maximilien Luce (1858 – 1941) was one of the original pioneers of the Neo-Impressionist movement. Often known as the pointillists, these painters sought to apply optical science to art for the first time, challenging the looser technique of the older Impressionists. Using small brushstrokes, the style sought create an unprecedented brightness and vitality by using the contrasts and harmonies revealed by the invention of the colour wheel; understanding for the first time that the viewer’s eye was able to synthesise these into natural tones. Maximilien Luce was born in Paris in 1858, to working class parents. At the age of eighteen, he was apprenticed at the shop of Eugène Froment, a well-known engraver. In his workshop, Luce acquired the technical mastery needed for the many illustrations Froment produced, and this high-quality draughtsmanship would serve to underpin the artist’s work for the rest of his career. After completing his military service, Luce entered the studio of Charles Carolus-Duran where he finished his training. The older artist introduced Luce to Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac, and he quickly became involved in their new artistic experiment, Neo-Impressionism. From his first appearance at the Salon des Indépendants in 1887, Luce was closely associated with the Neo-Impressionist effort, which had been developed by Seurat in his two monumental canvases, the Bathers at Asnières, 1884, and A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte, 1884. The movement developed the new technique of pointillism and a novel approach to colour that rested on the careful contrast between complimentary tones to achieve unprecedented brightness. Of particular interest to Luce was what he described as ‘the violent effects of light’, and his work is often characterised by an exploration of strong chiaroscuro effects, employing Neo-Impressionist contrast to great effect. During the formative years of the movement, it would be Signac and Luce who would become closest to Seurat, who was the leader of the movement, to the extent that when Seurat unexpectedly died in 1891, the two artists were asked to plan the funeral and divide his estate. While Luce’s primary activity was his painting, he also became well known in France for his radical politics, which he shared with his artistic contemporaries. His anarchist tendencies had become so well known, probably due to his pictorial successes, that when the French President, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated in 1894, Luce was almost immediately arrested as a primary subject (although he was quickly found innocent). The artist would routinely write articles and provide illustrations to leading leftist newspapers throughout his career. Luce’s paintings often sought to portray industrial workers or the urban poor, subjects which were juxtaposed against the exuberant richness of his brushwork. The social realist focus of his painting set him apart from his Neo-Impressionist contemporaries, who shared his political stances, yet lacked his pictorial interest in the working class. Luce was therefore, in every sense, one of the earliest iterations of the modernist artist, politically involved, academically interested, and located within a close group of avant-garde contemporaries. Having debuted at the Salon des Indépendants in 1887, Luce would go on to exhibit at every one of its shows, except those interrupted by the First World War, until his death in 1941. He would go on to succeed Signac as the group’s president in 1935, although he would resign in protest in 1940, due to the exclusion of Jewish artists. As one of the foremost Neo-Impressionist artists, and a leading presence in the avant-garde at the end of the nineteenth century, Luce’s legacy as one of France’s great modern painters is assured, attested by the presence of his works in countless national institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
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