Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1884-86)

Today I am starting My Daily Art Display blog by introducing you to some new “isms” which have a connection with what is to follow.  They are Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism and Divisionism and they all are connected in some way to today’s featured artist George Seurat.

By now you will have read many of my blogs that cover the works of the Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, Degas and Caillebotte and so by now you are familiar with the term Impressionism.  Post Impressionism was a style of painting that grew out of Impressionism or maybe we could say it was a style of painting which was a reaction against Impressionism. The three main artists who were central to this new group of painters and who were termed Post Impressionists were Gaugin, Van Gogh and Cézanne.   Gaugin retained the intense light and colour of the Impressionists but discarded the idea of painting from nature.  He was totally against naturalism, where artists depict nature just as it is, and in its place he wanted his works to have more inventive subject matter and he also liked to experiment with colour.   On the other hand Van Gogh continued to paint from nature but developed a highly personal use of colour and brushwork which openly expressed his own expressive response to a subject.  Cézanne kept faith with the Impressionist’s principle of painting from nature but his works came across with a greater energy and vitality.

Today I am going to look at Neo-Impressionism and Neo-Impressionist artists who were a distinct group of painters within the Impressionist movement and in some ways formed a transition period between the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists.  The two leading figures of this trend were Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and they wanted to have a more scientific approach on how light was depicted in their paintings.  Their works were characterised by the use of a technique known as Divisionism or Pointillism.  Divisionism, also sometimes known as Chromolumanarism, was a method of painting in which colour effects were achieved by applying small areas of dots of pure unmixed colours on the canvas so that  an observer standing at an appropriate distance from the painting (suggested distance for best effect was three times the diagonal measurement of the work) the dots would appear to react together giving a greater luminosity and brilliance than if the same colours had been mixed together before putting them on the canvas. What these artists wanted to achieve was that the observer of the painting combines the colours, which are in the form of dots, optically instead of the artist pre-mixing them on a palette before putting them on the canvas.

Pointillism comes from the term peinture au point, which was used by the French art critic Félix Fénéon, when he described today featured painting by Seurat.   It can be defined specifically as the use of dots of paint and does not necessarily focus on the separation of colors.  Divisionism refers mainly to the underlying theory, pointillism describes the actual painting technique associated with the likes of Seurat, Signac and to a lesser extent Pissarro. Pointillism is related to Divisionism which is a more technical variant of the method. Divisionism is concerned with color theory, whereas pointillism is more focused on the specific style of brushwork used to apply the paint.

Enough is enough !!!!  I don’t want to get too bogged down with “isms” and their meanings and I am sure that there are many people out there who can give a much more expansive explanation of the differences between Divisionism and Pointillism .   My Daily Art Display today features what many believe is Georges-Pierre  Seurat’s greatest work.  It is entitled A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.  It was the one of the first painting to be executed entirely in the Pointillist technique and the first to include a great many people playing a major role.   It caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886.  It is thought that it was possibly intended as a pendant to Seurat’s other work, Bathers at Asnière,  which I will look at in a later blog.

He started the work in 1884 and did not complete it until 1886.  He spent two years making over sixty preparatory pencil and ink drawings, conté crayon studies and oil sketches on panel for this work.  He would alter the grouping of people, the number of people within a group and where each group or individual were positioned until he was satisfied that he had achieved the perfect balance.  There was a smaller version of the painting which can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  There is also a version of the scene without the people which was once in the private collection of Mrs John Hay Whitney.   This painting we see today is massive in size measuring 207cms high by 308cms wide (almost 7ft tall and 10ft wide) and since 1924 has been housed in the Art Institute of Chicago.  Seurat completed the final version of this painting in his small Paris studio.

The Models by Seurat (1886-88)

In 1888, Seurat also completed another painting which was entitled The Models  using his pointillism technique, and which depicts models in his studio.  Included in the painting is a section of La Grande Jatte and art historians believe that by doing this painting, he was showing the world that this technique of Pointillism worked just as well for indoor scenes as outdoor ones.

The Île de la Grande Jatte is a small island in the River Seine, downriver from La Défense.  It is about 2 kilometers long and just 200 metres wide at its widest point.  At one time it was reduced to being an industrial site but now has public gardens and houses.   Living on the island are approximately 4000 inhabitants.  However in the days of Seurat it was a pastoral retreat where Parisians could come at weekends from their claustrophobic city existence and soak up the quiet and peace of this little idyll.

Before us we see Seurat’s idealized version of the Grand Jatte omitting both the cafés and restaurants and the nearby ugly shipyard and factories.  In the painting we see members of different social classes out for a stroll along the Grand Jatte by the side of the Seine.  The figures, shown mainly in profile or frontal position, have a peculiar formal and artificial feel to them.  As we look at the painting head-on, there seems to be a definite elongation of some of the people although I believe if you stand at a certain angle to the painting this is minimised.  Seurat would sketch individual groups or single characters and then return to his studio to decide if and where each group should be placed on the canvas.  He sketched people of different classes in society to give the idea that all types of people enjoyed promenading along La Grande Jatte.   Look at the trio in the right foreground.  Here we have the a man wearing a top hat and holding a cane who is more than likely from the upper classes of Paris society.  The man with the muscular arms, lying back with a cap on his head, smoking the pipe is probably a working-class boatman and finally we have the young genteel lady of an indeterminate class.  An unusual trio and who, although physically close in the painting, would be unlikely to have a closeness in that present-day society.  The faces of the people in the painting show little personality.  There is something very impersonal about them.  We must presume that this was a deliberate ploy by Seurat who seemingly did not want the painting to be sullied by observers of the painting trying to interpret facial expressions.  I don’t believe the artist ever intended this to be in any way a moralistic statement about the French culture and classes at the time. However, some would disagree.   Art historians like to interpret every painting and seek symbolic depictions within a work so let us have a look at a few that have been thrown up for consideration with regards this work of art.

In the left middle ground we see a lady dressed in gold and orange fishing in the river.  I suppose there is nothing strange about that albeit she is hardly dressed as a woman who was to go out on a fishing expedition.  Well consider what the French word is to fish – it is pêcher and some have suggested that Seurat has made a play on the word as the French word to sin is pécher.  So is Seurat secretly identifying her as a prostitute.  Again look at the woman in the right foreground accompanying the gentleman.  Look what she is holding in her left hand – a monkey on a leash.  That is certainly an unusual pet to take for a walk.   So why did Seurat include a monkey.  One possible reason is that a female monkey in French is une singesse.  The symbolists would have us believe that a monkey is a symbol of licentiousness and that is why the French slang for prostitute is singesse.  So again I ask the question is Seurat trying to tell us by symbolism that this woman is a prostitute who is out for a stroll with her client?

It is interesting to note and it is not shown in my attached picture, that later Seurat painted the border using parallel red, orange and blue dashes and dots.  He varied the combination of colours in different parts of this border in order to accentuate the adjacent colours in the painting itself.  Maybe if you go to see the painting in Chicago you can let me know if Seurat’s idea with this border really works.

Finally, I came across a poem about this painting which I was going to add to the blog but it was too long so instead I have added the URL where you can find it.  It is:

http://www.lamaquinadeltiempo.com/algode/delmore2.htm

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, Divisionism, French painters, Georges Seurat, Impressionists, Pointillism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

  1. sammieg says:

    Thank you for your historical insight. I have one question, which I really, really want answered about this painting: If you imagine a verticle line drawn directly above the man smoking the pipe (first person in the foreground, left corner), going between the couple, and up to the tree, there is a very strange image. What is that? Directly under a man sitting with the umbrella, to the left of the tree. It looks like a white circle wrapped in an orange scarf on top of a rock which has a tree leaning against it. To me, this is by far the strangest thing in the painting. It is not hidden: it is almost the brightest image in the paining, and even toward the center — but what the !@#$% is it? Can someone please enlighten me?

    • benson says:

      I agree with Delilah. I always thought this was the back of a woman’s head with the ribbon hanging from her hat.

  2. delilah says:

    i think it is the back view of some one a lady perhaps. idk now u got me thinbking

  3. How can you be certain the lady in the left foreground is fishing? The only hint of her fishing is that she holds a stick over the water; everything else screams against that conclusion, her posture, her dress, not to mention the very idea of such a lady doing such a thing in such a place.
    I believe Seurat was not hiding any abstract meanings in this work, but being very literal. The woman with the monkey on a leash, for instance, should not be too surprising. In that period monkeys and chimps were kept as pets in every part of the world.

  4. Pingback: Sunday in the Park | The Deltiology Deity

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