SEURAT: Trying To Connect The DOTS

…Seurat suspended work on the large canvas until the fall. When Seurat resumed work on La Grande Jatte in October 1885, he incorporated his new divisionist technique and color theories that he began formulating during the summer while painting in Grandcamp. For his second campaign, Seurat revised both palette and technique to conform to his new ideas. His palette consisted solely of prismatic colors that were minimally mixed together. He abandoned the use of iron oxide yellow, burnt sienna and black while adding zinc yellow and additional hues of chrome yellow, vermilion and red lake. He modified his painting technique employing
brushwork in the form of small dots, dabs and dashes-for simplicity referred to as “dots”- that were applied next to one another without blending or mixing on the canvas. Seurat also altered the figures and animals by enlarging or adding contours to their forms. The painting was exhibited in its revised form in May 1886 at the Eighth and last Impressionist exhibition.

---Benfey: Contributors to the MoMA catalog credit Seurat with, among other achievements, inspiring Van Gogh's broken brush strokes; showing the way toward abstract art; anticipating many of the effects of photography; and predicting the pixels of computers. But always with Seurat, as in the barbed-wire enclosure for this mysteriously veiled cat-woman, there is something that eludes us. As British abstract artist Bridget Riley remarks in a fine tribute in the MoMA catalog, Seurat adopted rational and scientific methods like a "protective shield" and presented us instead with "the mysterious." "Even today I feel a thrill," Riley writes, "when I read Félix Fénéon's first essay on Seurat, which ends: 'Let the hand be numb, but let the eye be agile, perspicacious, cunning.' "

“Influenced by the Symbolist poets and painters he met through Fénéon, Seurat gave a darker, dreamier turn to the favorite subjects of the older Impressionist generation. Instead of the dappled bridges of Monet, we get this jagged rendition of a drawbridge at dusk. The upraised forms of the divided bridge could be two sinister hands playing cat’s cradle, with a snarl of string in between. Little in this stunning drawing marks it as dating from the 1880′s—it could easily be mistaken for some early sketch of De Kooning or Diebenkorn—except perhaps its brooding intimation of industrial alienation. In contrast to the idyllic harvester, this scene is eerily deserted. And yet there’s a restless energy in the violently applied crayon and the swirling sky, and a lingering mystery in the stark composition.”

Christopher Benfey:While Seurat kept his opinions to himself, Fénéon noted that "his literary and artistic friends and those who supported his work in the press belonged to anarchist circles; and if Seurat's opinions had differed radically from theirs … the fact would have been noticed."

aaaSunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Sunlight, sailboats, parasols, and pets: how long have toy taken this cheery summer scene for granted? You may never do so again…..

Loyal disciples and friendly critics replied with the theory, which was by no means new, that Seurat’s little blobs, his pointillism, would fuse in the eye of the viewer and yield tints much more brilliant than those obtainable by mixing colors on palettes. This optical mixture explanation is still circulated, usually without qualifying comment, in some art manuals. However, its principal effect is to embarrass admirer’s of Seurat. For the plainly visible fact is that his pointillist colors are neither brilliant nor even, in some instances , very agreeable; an inert violet and a dismal orange-brown occur too frequently, and the general impression is often that of a faded lantern slide. The most luminous passages in the finished pictures are precisely those- the river in “La Grande Jatte” , for example- in which the handling is the most free, the least “scientific.”

One reason for the failures is that the artist’s studies did not embrace enough practical chemistry; some of his paintings, according to contemporary testimony, deteriorated almost immediately. A more important reason, however, is simply that his color theory and method, although partly correct, were ultimately too crude to allow him to manipulate the myriad variables he would have had to control in order to produce, by calculation instead of by the trial and error he disdained, a given sensation of hue and saturation at a given distance. He was attempting something more complex than he was equipped to deal with.

Benfey, Slate magazine:Urban entertainments in nightclubs and cafes were long familiar, in the work of Degas and Manet, when Seurat began his own tenebrous and melancholy riffs on the subject. This drawing depicts the kind of traveling street show, with pony, clowns, and lady equestrienne, that toured the working-class suburbs and shantytowns on the outskirts of Paris. Seurat found in such spectacles a fusion of urban grit and symbolist dream. The spectators in the lower half of the drawing have morphed into a frieze or barricade of crosshatching. There seems something confrontational in the impersonal audience and the joyless performers in their creepy, Halloween-like costumes.

Fortunately, the dots were useful in nonchromatic ways. They may have contributed, as units of scle, to the monumentality he achieved. They certainly served, as he could have discovered from engravings, as a technique for obtaining the subtle gradations of tone from light to dark in which he delighted and in which, much more than in color, his gifts were at home. Indeed, one of his secret reasons for inventing the “petits points” may have been a desire to duplicate in painting, the black and white sparkle , the rich tonal values, and the congealed -vapor forms  he had been getting in his drawings by merely rubbing the black chalk known as Conté cryon across rough-textured paper.

Fortunately again, the dots were far from being the only result of his research. Although much of the geometric, aesthetic, and psychological theory he consume was about as scientific as astrology, it did nourish him with the “laws” his Cartesian temperament yearned for, and it did stiffen a sensibility that could easily have become wanly academic. By one of those devious processes that are common in the history of artistic doctrines, he extracted from his pseudo-science a workable set of rules for managing the proportions , the dominant lines, and the masses of light and shade in a painting. Eventually he had an architectural system of contrasts and harmonies that really did make him a cousin of  Poussin. In brief, he reinvented the classicism that the impressionists had dismissed as obsolete.

Chris Dunmire:"The

ciation I make with La Grande Jatte is of Impressionism style painting because the further away from the painting you stand, the clearer and more refined it looks. Seurat's painting differs from the Impressionism style familiar in his day (such as Monet's Waterlillies or Caillebotte's Paris Street: Rainy Day) in that he made his Impressionistic style more controlled, defined, and detailed."

Why he did not take the logical step of reinventing at the same time the subject matter of classicism is not clear. He was certainly aware of the possibility; referring to “La Grande Jatte” , he once observed: “I could just as well have painted, in another harmony, the struggle between the Horatii and the Curiatii.” Perhaps he wanted to defeat the impressionists on their own ground. Perhaps, as even some of his supporters alleged, he lacked the power to imagine a scene. Or perhaps, when he was planning his first large canvases, he just happened to find La Grande Jatte and neighboring Asnieres a pleasant pretext for working on location.

"The surprising variation we see between these two studies is due in part to Seurat’s newfound interest in the effects of different hues, and in divided colour theory. Seurat also experimented with different paint application processes, using a wider brushstroke in these studies than the fine brush points used in the final work. He also tested diagonal brushstrokes, before rejecting them in favour of dots"

Interpretations of the painting range from scandal to satire. The plaque next to the painting at the Art Institute notes:

“‘Bedlam,’ ‘scandal,’ and ‘hilarity’ were among the epithets used to describe what is now considered Georges Seurat’s greatest work…. In recent years some have commented that the content of the painting depicts ‘Not as a decorous Sunday promenade but as a place of encounters among prostitutes and clients….’” (Seurat 176)

Still, others suggest Seurat is using humor and satire to mock the pretentiousness of the characters, and expressing his own interpretation at the stiffness and uniformity of fashion. One other observation is of a dialogue of cohesion and separateness of the characters in relationship to one another.

Simeran Maxwell:In these two studies, differences in the figures’ poses, combined with a deep perspective, create considerable vertical movement. Seurat was extremely precise and methodical, ensuring no haphazard placement of figures in the relationship to landscape or to each other. For the most part the landscape remained fixed, and served as a stage for testing figurative combinations. His early panels show tiny figures enveloped by the landscape, whereas these two later studies have larger characters with a sense of their final positioning and authority.

“Seurat’s pictorial pattern … is tantamount to actual social conformism; the stiffness and psychological isolation of the figures, however, argue for disjunction … Seurat’s people assume roles in a collectivity, yet because they seldom communicate with one another, their actual isolation is revealed.” (Seurat 177)

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