The Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886, at The Art Institute of Chicago
Georges Pierre Seurat 2 December 1859 – 29 March 1891) was a French Post-Impressionist painterand draftsman. He is noted for his innovative use of drawing media and for devising a technique of painting known as pointillism. His large-scale work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886), Seurat’s most famous painting, altered the direction of modern art by initiating Neo-impressionism, and is one of the icons of 19th century painting.
Seurat was born into a wealthy family in Paris, France. His father, Antoine Chrysostome Seurat, was a legal official and a native of Champagne; his mother, Ernestine Faivre, was Parisian. Georges Seurat first studied art with Justin Lequien, a sculptor. Seurat attended the École des Beaux-Arts in 1878 and 1879. After a year of service at Brest Military Academy, he returned to Paris in 1880. He shared a small studio on the Left Bank with two student friends before moving to a studio of his own. For the next two years he devoted himself to mastering the art of black-and-white drawing. He spent 1883 on his first major painting—a huge canvas titled Bathers at Asnières.
After his painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, Seurat turned away from such establishments, instead allying himself with the independent artists of Paris. In 1884 he and other artists (including Maximilien Luce) formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants. There he met and befriended fellow artist Paul Signac. Seurat shared his new ideas about pointillism with Signac, who subsequently painted in the same idiom. In the summer of 1884 Seurat began work on his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to complete.
Later he moved from the Boulevard de Clichy to a quieter studio nearby, where he lived secretly with a young model, Madeleine Knobloch, whom he portrayed in his painting “Jeune femme se poudrant”. In February 1890 she gave birth to his son, who was given the first name of Pierre Georges.
Seurat died in Paris on 29 March 1891. The cause of Seurat’s death is uncertain, and has been attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and/or (most probably) diphtheria. His son died two weeks later from the same disease. His last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time of his death.
Scientific background and influences
During the 19th century, scientist-writers such as Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood andDavid Sutter wrote treatises on color, optical effects and perception. They were able to translate the scientific research of Helmholtz and Newton into a written form that was understandable by non-scientists. Chevreul was perhaps the most important influence on artists at the time; his great contribution was producing a color wheel of primary and intermediary hues.
Chevreul was a French chemist who restored old tapestries. During his restorations of tapestries he noticed that the only way to restore a section properly was to take into account the influence of the colors around the missing wool; he could not produce the right hue unless he recognized the surrounding dyes. Chevreul discovered that two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close together, would have the effect of another color when seen from a distance. The discovery of this phenomenon became the basis for the Pointillist technique of the Neoimpressionist painters.
Chevreul also realized that the ‘halo’ that one sees after looking at a color is actually the opposing, or complementary, color. For example: After looking at a red object, one may see a cyan echo/halo of the original object. This complementary color (as an example, cyan for red) is due to retinal persistence. Neoimpressionist painters interested in the interplay of colors made extensive use of complementary colors in their paintings. In his works Chevreul advised artists that they should not just paint the color of the object being depicted, but rather they should add colors and make appropriate adjustments to achieve a harmony. It seems that the harmony Chevreul wrote about is what Seurat came to call ’emotion’.
Seurat’s melding of science and emotion
Seurat took to heart the color theorists’ notion of a scientific approach to painting. Seurat believed that a painter could use color to create harmony and emotion in art in the same way that a musician uses counterpoint and variation to create harmony in music. Seurat theorized that the scientific application of color was like any other natural law, and he was driven to prove this conjecture. He thought that the knowledge of perception and optical laws could be used to create a new language of art based on its own set of heuristics and he set out to show this language using lines, color intensity and color schema. Seurat called this language Chromoluminarism.
His letter to Maurice Beaubourg in 1890 captures his feelings about the scientific approach to emotion and harmony. He says “Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, considered according to their dominance and under the influence of light, in gay, calm or sad combinations”.
Seurat’s theories can be summarized as follows: The emotion of gaiety can be achieved by the domination of luminous hues, by the predominance of warm colors, and by the use of lines directed upward. Calm is achieved through an equivalence/balance of the use of the light and the dark, by the balance of warm and cold colors, and by lines that are horizontal. Sadness is achieved by using dark and cold colors and by lines pointing downward.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte shows members of each of the social classes participating in various park activities. The tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colors physically blended on the canvas. It took Seurat two years to complete this 10-foot-wide (3.0 m) painting, much of which he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Seurat made several studies for the large painting including a smaller version, Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1885), that is in the collection of theMetropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.
Edited from Georges Seurat