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Photograph shows Georges Seurat’s large painting "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884" hanging on a blue-gray wall between two open doorways to other galleries wearing a flat, wide, sharp-cornered white frame. Photograph shows Georges Seurat’s large painting "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884" hanging on a blue-gray wall between two open doorways to other galleries wearing a flat, wide, sharp-cornered white frame.

La Grande Jatte, Frame by Frame

From the Frames Lab

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Widely considered one of the most brilliant and innovative artists of the 19th century, Georges Seurat was equally ahead of his time when it came to the frames he chose to display his works.

If you’ve had a chance to visit Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 recently, you may have noticed that the monumental painting is sporting a brand new frame. This lighter, brighter white frame is the culmination of a yearlong collaboration among the departments of Conservation and Science, Painting and Sculpture of Europe, and Experience Design to more closely match the artist’s original vision.

Photograph taken at a slight angle shows Georges Seurat’s large painting "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884" hanging on a blue-gray wall between two open doorways to other galleries wearing a flat, wide, sharp-cornered white frame.

La Grande Jatte with its newly constructed frame in Gallery 240


Traditionally, a frame functions as a bridge between the inner world of an artwork and the outer world of the viewer. For much of the 19th century, gold frames were favored for their light-gathering abilities and an otherworldly glow that helped ease the transition between a painting and its surroundings. Seurat, however, took a different approach with his frames, experimenting in ways that would help transform the perception and presentation of artwork in the modern gallery settings of the next century.

Black-and-white photographic portrait of a young man, Georges Seurat, with a dark beard, light skin, curly hair, and a calm expression.

Georges Seurat, 1888


At the age of 16, the artist first encountered color theorist Eugène Chevreul’s influential writings, which describe the visual effects of colors in juxtaposition to each other. Chevreul wrote of how “white placed beside a color heightens its tone; it is as if we took away from it the white light that weakened its intensity.” He also offered advice on framing, urging artists to choose their own frame for each work and to “pick one that will show the work to its best advantage and be careful to subordinate to those areas of painting to which it is closest.”

When Seurat visited the 1879 Impressionist Exposition at the age of 20, the use of white frames left an “unexpectedly deep impression” on the young artist. Unfortunately, no photographic images have been discovered of the first exhibitions that Seurat himself participated in or the frames that he used. But contemporaries present when La Grande Jatte was first exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 mention the use of white frames—and Seurat occasionally depicted his own white-framed paintings within other works.

Pink-hued painting of a group of three slim, nude women with dark hair, two seated and dressing before an enormous painting, Seurat's "La Grande Jatte." The centermost woman stands looking just past the viewer, hands folded.

Models (Poseuses), 1886–88


Georges Seurat. Barnes Foundation, BF811

La Grande Jatte’
s frame shape is suggested in Seurat’s Models but is not entirely clear. It could have been a gentle, curved cushion shape with rounded, torus-shaped outer and inner moldings. Or perhaps it had a slightly angled profile with a narrower inner molding slanting toward the painting and a torus-shaped outer molding.

His painting Models (Poseuses), from 1888, offers a glimpse at what is thought to be La Grande Jatte’s original frame. As depicted in this painting, the frame has a heavy, white, wide profile substantial enough to support the considerable weight of the glass behind it.

In 1886, when Seurat began working on Models, he also began altering the paint handling on the outer edges of his compositions, using color along with brushstroke direction and size to bridge the color and light of the scene with the reality beyond its borders. Harmonizing the colors within, Seurat created a sense that light is emanating from the paint itself, an effect that also emphasizes the materiality of the work by calling attention to its painted surface.

You’ll notice that within Models, La Grande Jatte does not yet sport the distinctive, multicolored painted border familiar to museum visitors today. Only after completing Models did Seurat begin to rework the edges of many of his previously finished paintings. Some, like La Grande Jatte, were taken off their stretchers so their tacking margins could be folded out and primed with a lead white underpaint upon which the painted borders were added. It was likely at this point, in 1889, that the original frame for La Grande Jatte was lost, as it would have been rendered too small with the painting’s expansion.

With other paintings, rather than expand the canvas Seurat added a border that encroached on the original composition’s outer edges. At times he even made the transition directly on the outer, independent frame.

Painting of a serene, rocky shoreline in a wide frame painted with colored dots of various shades.

Evening, Honfleur, 1886


Georges Seurat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy, 266.1957

More typically, however, Seurat used a uniformly light color for his outer wooden frames. Descriptions range from white to a gray or cool white. The frame he adopted was a simple flat fillet profile with a shallow depth and square edges. These frames were commonly used as a molding called passe-partout and functioned the way a mat board does for works on paper, transitioning the viewer’s eye from the artwork to the frame beyond. Seurat’s inner painted borders offer a pause of sorts between the painting’s interior and its white frame, and the white frame in turn creates a flat neutral zone around the work, much like the white gallery walls commonly used in displays of modern art today. We have taken to calling this frame profile “passe-partout,” signifying its function as a passage or intermediary to the world beyond.

A panoramic black-and-white photograph of a row of artworks of various sizes, many in sharp-cornered white frames, Seurat's "Models" at center.

This 1892 exhibition image shows a variety of Seurat’s approaches to framing.


The low-quality image above gives us our best information regarding the approach Seurat would presumably have preferred if he had been able to create a new outer frame for La Grande Jatte before his death. Look closely at the frame on Models. Although it is difficult to discern, we believe it either has a slightly curved face or is similar to the flat fillet frame described earlier. Through close examination of this image, and by examining other original surviving Seurat frames of the 1888–9 period, we honed in on a profile for the new frame: a similarly flat, wide molding with a brighter white finish that embraces the passe-partout style Seurat seemed to favor from this time forward.

Framing any Seurat, let alone La Grande Jatte, is a humbling task. From the time Seurat began adding his inner painted frames, he increasingly considered his outer wood frames to be extensions of the painting as a whole. As a framer one is put in the unenviable position of trying to complete something only the artist himself should be undertaking. The new frame represents our current best guess. It joins a long line of frames the painting has worn since its initial, unphotographed debut. 

Although Seurat’s frames were seemingly plain and straightforward, with flat surfaces and mitered corners, the construction of the new frame for La Grande Jatte was far from simple. His frames almost always have the appearance of being light in structure. Yet La Grande Jatte is enormous, and its frame must carry the heavy weight of a large sheet of laminated, nonreflective glass created specifically for the painting by Chicago-based glazing company Tru Vue Inc. And as a keen eye will observe, La Grande Jatte itself is not truly rectangular but slightly trapezoidal. 

A light-skinned man and a dark-skinned man hold the cornerpiece of a white frame up to Seurat's "La Grande Jatte.

Corner samples were used in the most recent frame design process to help build consensus for the final look.


Due to its shape as well as its size, we constructed the new frame almost entirely by hand, employing complex lapping joinery hidden beneath the frame’s mitered corners for additional strength. Though the frame edges that border the painting appear to form straight lines, when you observe them up close, you’ll notice we’ve contoured the frame to precisely follow the painted area, which is not precisely straight—allowing you to see absolutely everything Seurat painted.

Photograph of numerous figures in blue uniforms surrounding and touching the white frame of Seurat's "La Grande Jatte" on all sides, some on ladders, a red machine at center.

Art Institute specialists, conservators, and technicians install the reframed La Grande Jatte.


From left to right: Jonathan Worcester, Robert Burnier, Kirk Vuillemot, Christine Huck, Kun Wansom, Daisy Wong, Chris Brooks, and Milan Bobysud

Our hope is that in trying to honor Seurat’s framing practice and preferences, this new frame will serve La Grande Jatte in the same way Seurat’s surviving frames have served his other works, providing a clean and calming border that allows the viewer to more clearly focus on the incredible beauty of the work within.

—Christopher Brooks, conservation technician for framing, Conservation and Science, and Kirk Vuillemot, associate conservator of preparation and framing, Conservation and Science


Sponsors

Funding for the conservation of this artwork was generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

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Topics

  • Conservation
  • Collection
  • Museum History
  • Artists

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