When it appeared in the eighth (and final) Impressionist exhibit in May of 1886, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte—1884 (FIG. 1) left an indelible impression on the critics, artists, and public of the time. Here was a painting that was a collage of contradictions—impressionist paintings were all about modernity, plein air painting, spontaneity, and improvisation. The Grande Jatte was a painting of modern life, but it was hardly impressionistic. There was nothing spontaneous about the painting. Everything was clearly modeled and studied. Figures were rigid.
The painting was enormous (2 meters by 3 meters). And the surface of dots was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The result? Seurat created the Neo-Impressionist movement, inspiring others to take up his ideas of painting. While the effect his painting had is certainly interesting, perhaps even more so is the process behind it. The Grande Jatte took two years to complete and in that time, Seurat completed many sketches and studies of individual sections of the painting. He played around with composition and structure until he finally was ready to finish the final draft.
In 2004, the Art Institute of Chicago (the current home of the Grande Jatte) held a special exhibition on the making on the Grande Jatte, which collected the various drawings, sketches, and studies that Seurat made. This paper will analyze, discuss, and interpret those drafts to reveal how the painting came into being. Georges Seurat was born on December 2nd, 1859 and died 31 years later on March 29th, 1891. He lived an incredibly short life, but it was a busy one. When he was little, he drew a lot at the encouragement of his mother.
At sixteen (1878), he enrolled in the French academy of painting (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) and studied under Henri Lehmann (a student of Ingres). Even at that early age, he was a skilled draftsman (see FIG. 2 in the attached Appendix at the end). However, Seurat was an independent type of teenager (also known as a teenager) and he frequently did poorly in school. He left the academy after only a year and a half. Starting in 1880, he independently began painting and drawing. In his drawings, Seurat tended to align closest to the midcentury naturalists, Millet and Courbet.
This was a break from the academy, but it did not mean that he was politically radical . Seurat would frequently go into Paris and capture quick sketches of people and landscapes in his notebooks. One such subject is the woman in Woman Seated on a Bench (FIG. 3). This sketch of the woman sitting on a park bench is perhaps not the most realistic sketch, but sharp, geometric pencil markings capture the shape of the body and the surrounding light quite well. Unlike most of his sketches made around this time, Harvester (FIG. 4) was signed and dated by Seurat.
The drawing is an early (but certainly not the only) attempt by Seurat to portray a peasant at work. In it, Seurat uses slashing lines to define the bending body of the worker and applies lighter and darker shades to provide contrast in the clothing. In Woman Leaning on a Parapet by the Seine (FIG. 5), Seurat begins to perfect his unique style that he uses in the Grande Jatte; the rounded form of the woman, the contrasting perpendicularity of the trees, and the two trees boxing in the woman are ideas found in the Grande Jatte.
In Nurse with Child (FIG. ), he develops his style further and focuses solely on the curving shape of the female figure. In a rare choice for Seurat, the child directly confronts the viewer with its gaze . His Girl in a Slouch Hat (FIG. 6. 5) again focuses on the curves of the girl, but also throws in the use of shadows and light, which become major focuses for the Grande Jatte. These drawings provide little to no narrative in the Harvester, the harvester is clearly at work, but there’s no detail showing the space he is in), but they do “signal his social awareness. “.
And as a general rule, his rural figures were peasant/working types and his city figures were the people one would see traveling around city streets (such as laundresses or vendors). Drawing was incredibly important to Seurat and in his very short life, he exhibited far more drawings than paintings. While Seurat was obviously a skilled drawer, he was also interested in painting. While in school, he read Charles Blanc’s Grammar of Painting and Engraving, which led him to learn about Michel Chevreul’s Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors.
This essential book on color discussed how colors could be amplified when placed next to certain other colors (for example, blue and orange). This new color science was essential to Impressionists, as well as Seurat. His earliest paintings, however, did not incorporate this new science. This can be seen in Stone Breaker and Wheelbarrow, Le Raincy (FIG. 7). The colors themselves are relatively muted (certainly, the green and yellow don’t amplify each other), but he did adopt a crisscross brushwork pattern that was similar in some aspects to his style of drawing (this is most clearly seen when compared to Harvester).
There are even a few instances were Seurat uses color opposites–in particular, the blue and orange around the head and waist of the stone breaker–but for the most part, Seurat stuck with tradition for this painting. Seurat went on to paint more paintings of stone breakers, and his paintings certainly harken back to Millet’s work. Seurat was an artist who was quite aware of those who had come before him, but he went beyond simply copying Millet, Corot, Courbet, and Rousseau–he put his own spin on naturalism. For example, in Stone Breaker, Seurat’s worker has no clear location.
He could be in a rural area, or he could be in a suburb–unlike Millet, Seurat never specifies. Moving into 1883, Seurat began to notice the work of Impressionists (before, he had been sheltered from radical painting). This led him to introduce the new color ideas into his own art. This can be seen in his first large-scale painting, Bathing Place, Asnieres (FIG. 8). The colors are vibrant, particularly the green and orange elements, and there are contrasting colors found in the water and in the blades of grass. And yet, this painting is unlike any Impressionist painting.
The bodies of the bathers look sculpted, like the classical figures of David or Ingres. They are incredibly smooth and unlike anything Monet or Renoir would paint. The bathers are motionless, frozen in an instant of time. Seurat would carry these ideas further in the making of the Grande Jatte. Before diving into the creation of the Grande latte, it is important to simply examine the painting. Ile de la Grande Jatte is an island in the Seine, just outside of Paris. In the late 19th century, Sunday became a day of leisure for all Parisians, and la Grande Jatte became a communal resting area for upper and lower-class Parisians.
The Grande Jatte captures such a Sunday afternoon. All classes are represented (with more than a little social awkwardness) and it’s clearly a bright, sunny day. And yet, the painting is far more than a photograph or journalistic picture. Figures are grouped together and yet separated. There’s a lot of empty space between people and there are actually surprisingly few figures in the painting. The people are painted somewhat realistically, with figures precisely measured and drawn, but most lack many physical details.
In fact, Seurat pokes at reality quite a bit, highlighting the slightly ridiculous nature of this leisurely activity. The people are not drawn to scale–for example, the reclining boatman in the bottom left corner is far larger than the dandy behind him. A few of the female figures seem shaped out of ancient Egyptian art. The light, clearly a focus of the painting, is not painted realistically, with shadows having a mind of their own (see the large shadow in the foreground coming from nowhere, or the angles of the shadows from the various trees, or the shape of the shadow from the orange umbrella).
In the background, sailboats, all at ridiculous sizes, display wind blowing in opposite directions. To top it off, the woman in the foreground is walking her pet monkey (as one does). There’s certainly something ridiculous and humorous about all these inconsistencies, but there is also a great sense of loneliness and isolation. Additionally, every element of the painting is covered with small dots which form a clear picture from a distance, but up close make the painting inscrutable. Surrounding the painting is a frame composed of more dots, which create an effect of looking through colored blurred glass.
The ideas of contrasting and vibrant colors may be pulling from Impressionism, and the carefully composed figures and natural elements may be referencing Classicism, but the painting on the whole is a new beast entirely. Seurat begun work on the Grande Jatte in 1884 (a fact he references directly in the title, even though he wouldn’t go on to display it until 1886–a pointed difference from Impressionists, who liked to imbue their paintings with a sense of timelessness). The Grande Jatte was not some spur-of-the-moment, plein air painting. Seurat made at least 56 drawings and panels, and three painted canvases before painting the final work.
The Grande Jatte was a culmination of the previous work Seurat had completed as an artist–a combination of his drawing of figures from all sorts of locations and classes, and of his multiple studies for painting the Bathing Place along the Seine. Seurat made it clear that he had decided on la Grande Jatte as the location of his next painting with his studies, Seated Woman and Seated and Standing Figures (FIG. 9 and 10 respectively). The slight differences in viewpoint between the two painted studies suggest that Seurat had not yet settled on a final vantage point for the painting, but that he was serious about painting it.
By the time he painted Seated Figures (FIG. 11), he’d settled on the view and was playing around with figures mixed into the natural setting. The painting also features far finer brushwork and colors closer to the final painting. Seurat also conducted closer studies of individual elements of la Grande Jatte. In Trees (FIG. 12), he sketched the trees which eventually became a major element in the upstage center area of the final work. He very precisely captured the details and structure of the tree, drawing in a realistic and classical style.
He did not draw an impression of the trees, he drew the trees. He did this again in Tree Trunks (FIG. 13), where he sketched the distinctive, straight trunks that populated the upper-right corner of the final work. At a certain point in the midst of his preparations, Seurat decided that this painting was going to be large, as revealed in the aptly named Sketch with Many Figures (FIG. 14). It is, admittedly, a mess of figures with plenty of overlapping body parts. It is far removed from the careful, precise placement of the final painting.
However, notably, this is the first panel of his that includes multiple figures at multiple levels in the foreground (the background has numerous figures–far more than the final painting). There is a mixture of standing and sitting and reclining people. The woman in the orange dress eventually becomes part of the final painting (where she is portrayed as fishing). Comparing this to Seated Figures, one can clearly see how Seurat was developing this painting into something far more than just a landscape. To accomplish this, he relied largely on trial and error, painting numerous studies until he achieved something he liked.
Seurat also painted studies which focused more closely on individual figures, as in Rose-Colored Skirt (FIG. 15). In this panel, Seurat zoomed past the characters that populated the foreground and focused on the woman with the rose skirt and distinctive orange umbrella. He centered her (a technique he frequently deployed in his early drawings as well) and painted her in relation to fellow Parisians, nature, and sunlight. However, one can clearly see Seurat had not finished arranging the composition–for one, the woman is childless. Additionally, to the left is a man who disappears in the final painting.
Finally, to the right is a couple that survives to the final composition, however they are in front of the tree in this study whereas they are behind it in the completed work. “Seurat developed his composition hesitantly, as though he were a theater director moving figures about on a stage. ” Beyond compositional changes, there are important color changes. Seurat’s earlier studies had relied on slightly more muted colors–Rose-Colored Skirt has bright, vivid, contrasting colors which align far more closely with the colors in the Grande Jatte.