19Th Century European Century
- Pages: 6
- Word count: 1402
- 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” – Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin; – 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 après-midi à l’Île 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.
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