Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte…. sunlight sailboats, parasols and pets: It is easy to take this cheery summer scene for granted… You may never do so again.
In his “Confessions of a Young Man” George Moore refers breathlessly to the eighth and last group show of the pioneer impressionists, which opened on May 15, 1886 in rooms above the Maison Dorée, a restaurant near the Paris Opera. “I hear”, Moore writes, “that Bedlam is nothing to it; there is a canvas there twenty feet square and in three tints: pale yellow for the sunlight, brown for the shadow, and all the rest is sky blue. There is, I am told, a lady walking in the foregrond with a ring-tailed monkey, and the tail is said to be three yards long.”
His hearsay was wrong about the dimensions and colors, but right about the uproar. Most of the first day visitors seemed to have agreed that the canvas in question, George Seurat’s ten foot long “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, was the funniest picture they had ever seen. It provoked, according to Seurat’s disciple Paul Signac, “a march-past of abuse and sneering laughter.” It was killing, and not only for unsophisticated viewers. The portraitist Alfred Stevens, who was neither a peasant nor a fogy, shuttled between the Maison Dorée and the fashionable Café Tortoni, recruiting boulevardiers for the spectacle, and he was in such mirthful haste that he frequently forgot to pick up the change from the francs he flung at the turnstile.
In sum, a rather puzzling performance. Today, “La grande Jatte” is apt to inspire affection, admiration, and a bit of churchlike museum silence. In less serious moments we may regard it simply as a vision of the good old summertime, or as a marvelous fashion plate, but certainly not as side-splitting joke. What was all the whooping about?
Critics at the time were merry over the dots of color, the “superb cocotte” with the monkey, the “prostrate jockey” – actually a boater- and the stiff ritualistic strollers “in their Sunday best,” who were seen as “lead soldiers,” a “clearance sale of Nuremberg toys” and a “procession of pharaohs.” None of this, however, quite accounts for such bedlamite hilarity.
Could the fun have been partly stock, like laughing at the vice-presidency, and partly nervous and defensive, like giggling at a funeral? That it was partly stock can hardly be doubted, for Parisians had been hooting and jeering at new paintings since the time of Edouard Manet. Nervousness and defensiveness are, of course, unprovable, but they become at least a faint, mischievous possibility when we remember that viewers in 1886 were still uncowed by avant-garde art and were without our modern emphasis on the formal and abstract elements in painting, and were therefore more sensitive than we are likely to be to the figurative message- the moral, to use a nineteenth-century term- of “La Grande Jatte” .
For there actually is such a message, or moral, in the picture, however much it is ignored by art historians intent on optical effects and spatial organization or by ordinary appreciators engrossed in summertime and bustles. And a similar message can be detected nearly everywhere in Seurat’s mature achievement, rising like a slightly corrosive odor from his characteristic mixture of loveliness , banality, delicacy, and pedantry.
A whiff could have made a “boulevardier” at the Maison Dorée feel obscurely menaced. Consider, as an example, the pipe smoking boater and his two elegant neighbors in the left foreground . At first glance these impressively monumental figures- naked, the boater could be an antique river-deity- seem drenched in the sedative bliss of a sunlit holiday; at second glance the bliss drains away. One could scarcely ask for more eloquent images of uman’s loneliness in a crowd and his inability to communicate with his fellow men.
The same solitude seems to shroud, with a few doubtful exceptions, everyone in the picture, including the mysteriously motivated hornblower in the tropical helmet and even the “superb cocotte” , despite her decorative pet and her evidently affluent protector. It lies heavily on the shoulders of the figures in “Un Baignade, Asnieres” , and isolates each of the melancholy models in “Les Poseuses”. It is equally evident in the series of magnificent drawings, romantic as they are in some respects, that were done as preparation for these three paintings.
This accent on loneliness may be related to another part of Seurat’s message: his tendency to portray human beings as mere objects. As the merry critics of 1886 noticed, this is strong in “La Grande Jatte.” Although these solemn strollers in their Sunday best may not look quite like “lead soldiers” , many of them do resemble dress-makers dummies or automatons, left staring at the Seine when the clockwork ran down. Moreover, a surprising number are practically faceless.
aaaaElsewhere, the dehumanization takes various forms. In “Une Baignade” and the drawings done for it, we are likely to be disconcerted by the beefy mindlessness. In other drawings we may be struck by immateriality, combined as a rule with facelessness. “Les Poseuses” jars with anti-eroticism. in spite of such theoretically suggestive details as the discarded clothing and the stocking-clad leg, the three nudes are not in the remotest danger of becoming the sex objects deplored by ardent feminists. They are just female pictorial objects, seen by a remarkably unsentimental eye and assigned to about the same category as objects in a still life.
What is most predominant is the paradox, that needs to be emphasized in order to inhibit the fairly common impulse to regard Seurat as merely a special kind of impressionist and hence as a celebrator of the passing moment. In fact, he was a rationalist in emotionalist territory, a puritan in pleasureland, a cold fish in warm water. He was also, ostensibly at least, a scientist who scorned the evocativeness of painting, his own included. When studio visitors became unsuitably enthusiastic over “La Grande Jatte” , his reaction was like a schoolmaster’s rap for an end to nonsense.
“They see poetry,” he remarked to a friend, “in what I’ve done. No, I apply my method and that is all there is to it.” Persumably he would have delivered the same rap at talk about his message. He could have felt justified, since there is no evidence that he wanted viewers to worry about loneliness and dehumanization. But, of course, there is no need for any such evidence. A painting is not a telephone, with the artist at the far end of the line and the appreciator at the near end, straining to get through the buzz. The message is the apparatus itself.