Seurat was only 26 when he first showed A Sunday on La Grande Jatte1884 at the eighth annual and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886. In scale, technique, and composition it appeared as a scandalous eruption within Impressionism, a deliberate challenge to its first practitioners, such as Renoir and Monet. It immediately changed the course of vanguard painting, initiating a new direction that was baptized "Neoimpressionism."
Seurat died at age 31. He created other ambitious canvases, but La Grande Jatte has remained his definitive achievement. Although the picture was only rarely seen in the three decades following his death in 1891, its visibility was dramatically increased in 1924, when Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased the picture and placed it on loan at the Art Institute. It has hung there ever since. Seurat's first major painting to enter a public collection, La Grande Jatte has become an icon, one of the art world's most recognizable images.
The exhibition Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte” seeks to examine a familiar picture afresh and consider why it has so captured the public imagination. By situating La Grande Jatte in the context of Seurat's artistic development, his dialogue with the Impressionists, and the many preparatory studies produced over the two years of its creation, we can arrive at a richer appreciation of its unforgettable appealthe way it holds in exquisite balance tradition and innovation, a sense of the momentary and of timelessness, wit and solemnity.
Seurat’s Early Years
Nothing about Georges Seurat's upbringing pointed to the revolutionary role he would play in the history of Modernism. Born in Paris in December 1859 into a middle-class family with enough income to support him throughout his life, Seurat began his artistic career conventionally at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. There he studied under the conservative academic painter Henri Lehmann, a notable follower of the neo-classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
After a year and a half, Seurat quit school. Following one year of compulsory military service, he returned to art, but worked on his own, producing small-scale paintings and drawings. His work in black and white bears the earliest mark of his artistic maturity. This is not surprising, given that drawing was the basis of academic training, preceding lessons in oil paint. The early talent evident in his drawings would blossom into a highly refined and unique style in his paintings by the spring of 1884, when he undertook La Grande Jatte. It is extraordinary that just four years after abandoning art school, Seurat was poised to begin the two-year period of intensive preparation that culminated in his landmark painting.
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Seurat’s Color Theory
When Seurat began painting in the early 1880s he looked to the earthy colors of Jean-François Millet and other Barbizon artists, whose rustic realism preceded the urban themes and bright colors of the Impressionists by several decades. Seurat produced his paintings from this period, such as Stone Breaker and Wheelbarrow, Le Raincy, on small panels that he carried with him in a slotted box. More sketches than finished works, they convey the immediacy and freshness of having been painted quickly on the spot.
These early paintings were informed by the law of contrast as articulated in the writings of M.-E. Chevreul. A noted 19th-century color theorist, Chevreul observed that just as dark and light oppositions enhance each other, any color is likewise heightened when placed beside its “complement”located on the opposite side of the color wheel. When the complements red and green are put side by side, for instance, the red will seem redder and the green, greener. Seurat was also aware of how the optical mixture of colors in the eye was different from their mixture on the palette. Juxtaposing related shades of a color on a canvas (yellows and greens for example) will create a more vivid and luminous effect than if the colors had been blended on the palette.
For his understanding of the interweaving of related or opposing tints that excite the eye“divided color”Seurat first looked to the Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix. Later his attention turned to the high-hued palette and brushwork of the Impressionists Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet.
Seurat’s dialogue with these older artists began in 1881. His large pictures of the Normandy coast of Grandcamp demonstrate how, by 1884/85, he had thoroughly transformed their approach to subject matter and technique. The more rigorous order of Seurat’s brushwork, seen, for example, in the Normandy coastal view Le Bec du Hoc contrasts with the fluttering strokes of Renoir and Monet and moves beyond the tapestry-like surfaces of Pissarro.
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Bathing Place, Asnières
The full scale of Seurat’s ambition was first revealed in Bathing Place, Asnières (188384). Monumental in size, it shares affinities with Impressionism but diverges in significant ways. Its modern subjectmen and boys on the bank of the Seine in the working-class suburb of Asnières was entirely different than the indulgent pastimes pictured by Monet and Renoir. For Seurat, Impressionist spontaneity yielded to a more academic approach, involving 13 preparatory studies, including a compositional sketch in the collection of the Art Institute. Some of these preparatory works were paintings done on the spot and drawings carefully modeled in the studio. It was a highly deliberate process.
Five of the figures in Bathing Place are shown looking across the Seine to the island of La Grande Jatte, visible as a clump of green foliage in the upper right. It is this island that, starting on May 22, 1884, would become the next focus of Seurat’s artistic energy and ambitions.
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Monet's Impressionist View of La Grande Jatte
Seurat used the island of la Grande Jatte and the opposite shoreline as the setting for a number of paintings, but he was not the first artist to find inspiration on or near the island. Earlier, Monet had painted several canvases there in 1878, including Springtime on La Grande Jatte, which Seurat undoubtedly saw when they were shown in the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879. Seurat executed The Seine at Courbevoie (private collection) in the summer of 1885, after he completed his first stage of work on La Grande Jatte. Seurat’s viewpoint in this work was on the north side of the island of La Grande Jatte, looking across the river toward the red tiled roofs of Courbevoie, a town on the opposite shore.
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Creating La Grande Jatte
For A Sunday on La Grande Jatte1884 Seurat converted a well-known Impressionist site into an open stage. Across his canvas he positioned a variety of characters that he had developed in his many drawn and painted studies for the work. From these “auditions,” Seurat eventually selected the performers for the final production, combining the functions of both playwright and director.
Seurat used as his setting a small section of the elongated island in the Seine just beyond Paris’s city limits. The many dining and dancing establishments, wine shops, and shipbuilders’ yards located at different points on the island did not make their way into his work nor did the factories across the river, which had undermined the island’s social cachet. Seurat focused instead on the green park at the far northwestern tip, facing the town of Courbevoie.
Seurat’s canvas incorporates 3 dogs, 8 boats, and 48 people who congregate on a Sunday to enjoy and parade around in “nature.” The cast of modern characters includes soldiers, boaters, the fashionably and casually dressed, the old and the young, families, couples, and single men and women.
Unlike the setting, Seurat’s plot is not readily identifiable. La Grande Jatte conveys grand solemnity in counterpoint with a wry sense of humor. Seurat’s stated ambition was to “make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies.” He introduced an element of irony by suggesting a sense of timelessnessin the frozen quality of the figureswhile also insisting on a very up-to-the-moment awareness of fashion. The couple in the foreground presents a striking and elegant silhouette, but they can also be seen as somewhat comically puffed-up fashion plates involved in the ritual of self-display.
Relationships between figures are implied, but the characters’ overt lack of interaction makes it difficult to identify or even imagine the plot. Some have argued that the social order Seurat so elegantly constructed is more tenuous than his rigid composition at first suggests. While the figures appear to fit seamlessly within the whole, their exact social stations and motivations remain open to speculation and debate.
Sets and Sources: Past and Present
Seurat was determined to create a new classicism that would remake Impressionism by eliminating the accidental and the momentary, while preserving the vitality of life in forms that embodied enduring ideals. He drew on a variety of sourcesancient and modern, serious and comicto realize his ambition through a subtle interweaving of seeming contraries. Critics recognized the divergent visual sources that give the figures both modern flatness and anonymity and at the same time a pharaonic (ancient Egyptian) sense of timelessness and seriousness associated with large-scale history painting.
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Seurat began La Grande Jatte in May 1884. Its preparation involved approximately 28 drawings, 28 panels, and 3 larger canvases, including one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Among the drawings included in Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte” are a view of tree trunks and the profile figure of a seated woman. These were executed in conté crayon, a soft black drawing tool, on textured white paper. The flat, simplified forms of these drawings evoke a certain mystery through Seurat's subtle handling of black and white. Painted studies of figures include the strolling woman with the pet monkey; the seated foreground woman; the standing woman with the parasol in the center of the final painting; and one of the soldiers in the background. The differences in the arrangement of figures in a small study of the full composition compared to the final painting reveal the extent of Seurat’s adjustments and reworkings during the creation of his masterpiece. Clearly, the artist’s self-consciously ambitious project involved calculation, but as the studies show, the creative genesis also involved intuition. They chart the process of thinking and rethinking in which Seurat created, altered, and at times rejected different elements before arriving at his ultimate vision.
Seurat was ready to show La Grande Jatte at the exhibition of the Salon des Indépendants scheduled for March 1885. When this was canceled, he momentarily put the painting aside. In October 1885, he began a second stage of work in which he introduced his latest thoughts about color and its application in the form of small dabs, dashes, and lines. He also altered the shape of figures, adding scalloped and curved outlines to previously starker and more columnar forms in order to create sinuous rhythms.
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Public Debut of La Grande Jatte
La Grande Jatte's first public appearance was at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in May 1886. Seurat had been invited by senior Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who had also brought along his son, Lucien, and Paul Signac. All four, whose work manifested their interest in the divided-color technique, were put in a room separate from the other participants, including Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas.
In addition to La Grande Jatte, Seurat showed drawings, painted panels, and canvases spanning his career. Signac, Seurat's friend since 1884, also showed a range of works. These combined his Impressionist manner with areas of distinct strokes that acknowledged Seurat's technique without imitating it closely. Signac's predominant subject matter, the industrial suburbs, however, had no counterpart in Seurat's entries.
Pissarro, who had met Seurat only the previous fall, was now won over from what he termed "romantic" Impressionism to Seurat's "scientific" Impressionism. His chief entry, Gathering Apples, shares with La Grande Jatte its large scale, psychologically isolated figures, methodically stiff or primitive poses, overall decorative character, and woven surface appearance. But it was La Grande Jatte, with its monumental figures and controversial technique, that became the most notorious single canvas in the entire exhibition and defined the new direction of painting.
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