Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Sunday on La grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a French, Post-Impressionist (or Neo-Impressionist) artist who invented a technique known as pointillism. He was from a wealthy family and attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After a year of military service, he returned to Paris and devoted 2 years to just doing black and white drawings. He wanted to master drawing before moving on to painting. In 1883, he produced his first major painting The Bathers. This painting was rejected by the Salon. Subsequently, he and a few other artists formed the Société des Artistes Indépendants. An ironic note. The established school of painting at this time was the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir) which several years before was the anti-establishment school of painting. In 1884 he began work on his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte.
A Sunday on La Grande-Jatte took two years to finish. Obviously a very patient man, Seurat placed small precise brush strokes of different colors next to each other. These dots of color would blend together when looked at from a distance.He had study the new sciences of color theory and opticals and wanted to put them to the test in his paintings. Seurat believed that an artist could use color to create emotion and harmony in art the same way a musician uses counterpoint to create harmony in music. He believed that scientific use of color was just like any other natural law and he was obsessed with proving his point. He says in a letter to Maurice Beaubourg, "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 on La Grande-Jatte is his greatest work. It shows people of different walks of life and social classes enjoying various activities in the park, Le Grande Jatte, which is an island in the River Seine. He spent two years on this painting, visiting Le Grande Jatte and making more than 30 oil sketches in preparation for the final painting. The painting is 10 feet long. It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
As with most major paintings (and other art forms, literature, etc) scholars have different theories about the painting. Some think it represents hostility between the social classes. They all congregate there but no one looks or speaks to each other. For others it shows the growing middle class at leisure. I tend towards the latter because Seurat's purpose centered around his theories of color. don't think he would have bothered making any kind of political statement.
An interesting aside - in 1984 a new Stephen Sondheim musical opened based on this painting. "Sunday in the Park with George" starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. I never got to see it in person but I did see the televised version (I also have the original cast album). It was glorious. It fictionalized Seurat's life, of course but I believe it caught his spirit.
Below is a link to youtube - the final number of the first half ,when the painting is finished.

Georges Seurat was only 31 when he died,most probably of diptheria. He produced 7 major paintings and 60 smaller ones.

* near bottom of article.

Other seurat works:(top) The Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87); (bottom) La Parade de Cirque (1887-89) also called Invitation to a Sideshow

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