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19Th Century European Century

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  • Category: Painting

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Seurat’s¬† Grande¬† Jatte¬† is¬† one¬† of¬† those¬† rare¬† works¬† of¬† art¬† that¬† stand¬† alone;¬† its¬† transcendence¬† is¬† instinctively¬† recognized¬† by¬† everyone.¬† What¬† makes¬† this¬† transcendence¬† so¬† mysterious¬† is¬† that¬† the¬† theme¬† of¬† the¬† work¬† is¬† not¬† some¬† thoughtful¬† emotion¬† or¬† momentous¬† event,¬† but¬† the¬† most¬† banal¬† of¬† workaday¬† scenes:¬† Parisians¬† enjoying¬† an¬† afternoon¬† in¬† a¬† local¬† park.¬† Yet¬† we¬† never¬† seem¬† to¬† fathom¬† its¬† elusive¬† power.¬† Stranger¬† still,¬† when¬† he¬† painted¬† it,¬† Seurat¬† was¬† a¬† mere¬† 25¬† (with¬† only¬† seven¬† more¬† years¬† to¬† live),¬† a¬† young¬† man¬† with¬† a¬† scientific¬† theory¬† to¬† prove;¬† this¬† is¬† hardly¬† the¬† recipe¬† for¬† success.¬† His¬† theory¬† was¬† optical:¬† the¬† conviction¬† that¬† painting¬† in¬† dots,¬† known¬† as¬† pointillism¬† or¬† divisionism,¬† would¬† produce¬† a¬† brighter¬† color¬† than¬† painting¬† in¬† strokes.

“Seurat¬† spent¬† two¬† years¬† painting¬† this¬† picture,¬† concentrating¬† painstakingly¬† on¬† the¬† landscape¬† of¬† the¬† park¬† before¬† focusing¬† on¬† the¬† people;¬† always¬† their ¬†shapes,¬† never¬† their¬† personalities.¬† Individuals¬† did¬† not¬† interest¬† him,¬† only¬† their¬† formal¬† grace.¬† There¬† is¬† no¬† untidiness¬† in¬† Seurat;¬† all¬† is¬† beautifully¬† balanced.¬† The¬† park¬† was¬† quite¬† a¬† noisy¬† place:¬† a¬† man¬† blows¬† his¬† bugle,¬† children¬† run¬† around,¬† there¬† are¬† dogs.¬† Yet¬† the¬† impression¬† we¬† receive¬† is¬† of¬† silence,¬† of¬† control,¬† of¬† nothing¬† disordered.

¬† I¬† think¬† it¬† is¬† this¬† that¬† makes¬† La¬† Grande¬† Jatte¬† so¬† moving¬† to¬† us¬† who¬† live¬† in¬† such¬† a¬† disordered¬† world:¬† Seurat’s¬† control.¬† There¬† is¬† an¬† intellectual¬† clarity¬† here¬† that¬† sets¬† him¬† free¬† to¬† paint¬† this¬† small¬† park¬† with¬† an¬† astonishing¬† poetry.¬† Even¬† if¬† the¬† people¬† in¬† the¬† park¬† are¬† pairs¬† or¬† groups,¬† they¬† still¬† seem¬† alone¬† in¬† their¬† concision¬† of¬† form¬† –¬† alone¬† but¬† not¬† lonely.¬† No¬† figure¬† encroaches¬† on¬† another’s¬† space:¬† all¬† coexist¬† in¬† peace.

“This¬† is¬† a¬† world¬† both¬† real¬† and¬† unreal¬† –¬† a¬† sacred¬† world.¬† We¬† are¬† often¬† harried¬† by¬† life’s¬† pressures¬† and¬† its¬† speed,¬† and¬† many¬† of¬† us¬† think¬† at¬† times:¬† Stop¬† the¬† world,¬† I¬† want¬† to¬† get¬† off!¬† In¬† this¬† painting,¬† Seurat¬† has¬† “stopped¬† the¬† world,”¬† and¬† it¬† reveals¬† itself¬† as¬† beautiful,¬† sunlit,¬† and¬† silent¬† –¬† it¬† is¬† Seurat’s¬† world,¬† from¬† which¬† we¬† would¬† never¬† want¬† to¬† get¬† off.”

Studious,  solitary,  painstaking  Georges  Seurat  died  at  the  age  of  31,  overworked  and  largely  unacknowledged.    His  professional  life  did  not  last  much  longer  than  seven  years,  and  in  that  time  he  sold  two  pictures.    Thus,  as  someone  has  pointed  out,  he  was  twice  as  successful  commercially  as  Van  Gogh,  who  sold  only  one.    Fortunately,  his  family  had  means,  and  he  did  not  have  to  depend  on  his  painting  for  his  livelihood,  for  his  method  of  work  involved  untiring  labor  and  patience.    Seurat  was  that  seeming  contradiction  in  art,  a  methodical  visionary.    His  researches  in  the  theory  of  color  were  extensive,  and  he  apparently  thought  of  his  pictures  as  demonstrations  of  the  painting  method  he  had  evolved.    But  beyond  his  mechanics  there  was  a  feeling  for  paint,  and  beyond  that  his  tireless  effort  to  realize  a  formal  structure  with  its  own  interior  harmony.

He¬† took¬† from¬† the¬† impressionists¬† their¬† freshness¬† of¬† color,¬† but¬† like¬† his¬† fellow¬† “post¬† impressionists”¬† ‚Äst Cezanne,¬† Van¬† Gogh,¬† Gauguin;¬† ‚Äst he¬† went¬† beyond¬† surface¬† appearance¬† to¬† inner¬† reality.¬†¬†¬† “Art”,¬† he¬† said,¬† “is¬† harmony”¬† and¬† the¬† art¬† of¬† the¬† painter¬† lies¬† in¬† the¬† “space¬† hollowed¬† out”¬† in¬† the¬† canvas.¬†¬†¬† In¬† other¬† words,¬† the¬† picture¬† frame¬† contains¬† not¬† merely¬† a¬† window¬† giving¬† on¬† nature,¬† but¬† a¬† definite¬† area¬† in¬† which¬† the¬† artist¬† creates¬† the¬† order¬† or¬† essence¬† or¬† rhythm¬† behind¬† the¬† show¬† of¬† appearance.¬†¬†¬† Sunday¬† on¬† the¬† Island¬† of¬† la¬† Grande¬† Jatte,¬† which¬† may¬† be¬† seen¬† in¬† the¬† Helen¬† Birch¬† Bartlett¬† Memorial¬† Collection¬† at¬† The¬† Art¬† Institute¬† of¬† Chicago,¬† reveals¬† very¬† clearly¬† the¬† combination¬† of¬† the¬† artist’s¬† personal¬† technique¬† and¬† those¬† impersonal¬† qualities¬† of¬† formal¬† composition¬† that¬† make¬† his¬† best¬† works¬† a¬† rare¬† aesthetic¬† experience.

Seurat¬† developed¬† Pointillism,¬† where,¬† rejecting¬† broad¬† brushstrokes¬† of ¬†mixed¬† color,¬† he¬† instead¬† applied¬† tiny¬† “points”¬† of¬† pure¬† color¬† to¬† his¬† canvas,¬† relying¬† upon¬† the¬† observer’s¬† eye¬† to¬† mix¬† the¬† colors.¬† The¬† result¬† was¬† astonishing,¬† but¬† the¬† method,¬† painstaking.¬† This¬† scene,¬† with¬† over¬† forty¬† figures¬† and¬† their¬† surroundings,¬† took¬† the¬† artist¬† almost¬† two¬† years¬† to¬† complete,¬† during¬† which¬† he¬† refused¬† to¬† lunch¬† with¬† close¬† friends¬† lest¬† they¬† distract¬† him¬† from¬† his¬† work.¬† Today¬† it¬† remains¬† his¬† best-known¬† masterpiece¬† and¬† a¬† monument¬† to¬† dedication.

Seurat  was  not  just  interested  in  the  way  that  the  colors  were  put  onto  the  painting  or  the  painting  itself.  He  was  mostly  concentrating  on  the  science  in  the  picture  and  the  optical  mixing  of  the  colors.  Before  actually  painting  the  picture,  he  would  sketch  out  parts  of  his  artwork  so  that  the  models  would  not  have  to  wait  forever  while  he  found  the  exact  color.

Seurat¬† had¬† many¬† people¬† who¬† really¬† didn’t¬† like¬† the¬† new¬† work¬† that¬† he¬† was¬† introducing.¬† They¬† may¬† have¬† thought¬† it¬† as¬† “fuzzy”¬† or¬† “messy”.¬† In¬† their¬† opinion¬† it¬† really¬† wasn’t¬† very¬† good¬† at¬† all.¬† But¬† there¬† were¬† some¬† artists¬† who¬† really¬† felt¬† that¬† what¬† he¬† was¬† doing¬† was¬† very¬† artistic¬† and¬† complicated.¬† Paul¬† Signac,¬† a¬† fellow¬† artist,¬† was¬† one¬† of¬† those¬† people.¬† He¬† praised¬† Seurat¬† very¬† much.¬† In¬† one¬† of¬† his¬† journal¬† entries¬† he¬† says¬† of¬† Seurat:¬† “He¬† surveyed¬† the¬† scene¬† and¬† has¬† made¬† these¬† very¬† important¬† contributions:¬† his¬† black¬† and¬† white,¬† his¬† harmony¬† of¬† lines,¬† his¬† composition,¬† his¬† contrast¬† and¬† harmony¬† of¬† colour,¬† even¬† his¬† frames.¬† What¬† more¬† can¬† you¬† ask¬† of¬† a¬† painter?”

Signac¬† also¬† commented¬† on¬† the¬† importance¬† of¬† color¬† purity¬† in¬† a¬† pointillist¬† piece:¬† “I¬† attach¬† more¬† and¬† more¬† importance¬† to¬† the¬† purity¬† of¬† the¬† brushstroke¬† –¬† I¬† try¬† to¬† give¬† it¬† maximum¬† purity¬† and¬† intensity.¬† Any¬† defiling¬† sleight¬† of¬† hand¬† or¬† smearing¬† disgusts¬† me.¬† When¬† one¬† can¬† paint¬† with¬† jewels,¬† why¬† use¬† [manure]?¬† Each¬† time¬† that¬† my¬† brushstroke¬† happens¬† to¬† come¬† up¬† against¬† another,¬† not¬† yet¬† dry,¬† and¬† this¬† mixture¬† produces¬† a¬† dirty¬† tone,¬† I¬† feel¬† great¬† physical¬† disgust! ¬†It¬† is¬† this¬† passion¬† for¬† beautiful¬† colours¬† which¬† make¬† us¬† paint¬† as¬† we¬† do…and¬† not¬† the¬† love¬† of¬† the¬† ‘dot’,¬† as¬† foolish¬† people¬† say.”¬† Signac¬† states¬† here¬† that¬† the¬† pointillist¬† artists¬† were¬† not¬† physically¬† into¬† their¬† paintings¬† for¬† the¬† “dot”¬† as¬† most¬† people¬† would¬† think.¬† But¬† for¬† the¬† phenomenal¬† optical¬† mixing¬† of¬† the¬† colors¬† themselves.

Seurat¬† invented¬† a¬† way¬† to¬† show¬† colors¬† as¬† they¬† really¬† are.¬† Not¬† mixed¬† or¬† dulled¬† or¬† anything¬† else.¬† He¬† invented¬† art¬† in ¬†which¬† you¬† are¬† allowed¬† to¬† keep¬† the¬† purity¬† of¬† the¬† colors¬† as¬† they¬† come¬† from¬† the¬† tube,¬† and¬† yet¬† still¬† paint¬† and¬† use¬† an¬† abundance¬† of¬† tones¬† to¬† bring¬† life¬† to¬† your¬† painting.¬† We¬† all¬† have¬† him¬† to¬† thank¬† for¬† that.¬† So¬† whether¬† you¬† like¬† the¬† “fuzziness”¬† of¬† pointillist¬† paintings¬† or¬† not,¬† note¬† the¬† concentration¬† that¬† a¬† pointillist¬† artist¬† would¬† have¬† to¬† have¬† to¬† create¬† a¬† piece¬† that¬† would¬† have¬† to¬† be¬† pleasing¬† to¬† the¬† eye¬† as¬† well¬† as¬† scientifically¬† stimulating.

In¬† 1875¬† Seurat¬† took¬† drawing¬† lessons¬† under¬† the¬† sculptor¬† Justin¬† Lequien.¬† Seurat¬† also¬† took¬† lessons¬† from¬† an¬† artist¬† named¬† Ingres.¬† Ingres¬† didn’t¬† paint¬† like¬† Seurat¬† did.¬† But¬† he¬† was¬† the¬† praised¬† student¬† of¬† Jacques-Louis¬† David.¬† Ingres¬† was¬† know¬† for¬† his¬† meticulous¬† working¬† procedure¬† in¬† his¬† works.

Seurat¬† spent¬† his¬† life¬† studying¬† color¬† theories¬† and¬† the¬† effects¬† of¬† different¬† linear¬† structures.¬† He¬† developed¬† the¬† style¬† of¬† painting¬† known¬† as¬† Pointillism.¬† He¬† had¬† 500¬† works¬† of¬† art¬† of¬† his¬† own¬† and¬† he¬† was¬† proclaimed¬† to¬† be¬† a¬† master.¬† But¬† it¬† isn’t¬† just¬† the¬† number¬† of¬† his¬† works¬† that¬† make¬† him¬† an¬† expert.¬† His¬† magnificent¬† pointillist¬† pieces¬† in¬† make¬† him¬† the¬† famous¬† artist¬† that¬† he¬† is¬† today.

A¬† Sunday¬† Afternoon¬† on¬† the¬† Island¬† of¬† La¬† Grande¬† Jatte¬† (French:¬† Un¬† dimanche¬† apr√®s-midi¬† √†¬† l’√éle¬† de¬† la¬† Grande¬† Jatte)¬† is¬† Georges¬† Seurat’s¬† most¬† famous¬† work,¬† and¬† is¬† an¬† example¬† of¬† pointillism¬† that¬† is¬† widely¬† considered¬† to¬† be¬† one¬† of¬† the¬† most¬† remarkable¬† paintings¬† of¬† the¬† 19th¬† century,¬† belonging¬† to¬† the¬† Post-Impressionism¬† period.

The  island  of  la  Grande  Jatte  is  in  the  Seine  in  Paris  between  La  Defense  and  the  suburb  of  Neuilly,  bisected  by  the  Pont-de-Levallois.  Although  for  many  years  it  was  an  industrial  site,  it  is  today  the  site  of  a  public  garden  and  a  housing  development.  In  1884,  the  island  was  a  bucolic  retreat  far  from  the  urban  center.

 

Reference:

Georges Pierre Seurat, French Painter, 12 Dec 2007, www.discoverfrance.net/France/Art/Seurat/Seurat.shtml

George Seurat, 12 December 2007, www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Emerson/seurat.html

Georges Seurat, 12 December 2007, www.artchive.com/artchive/S/seurat.html

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