La Grande Jatte: What Was Seurat Thinking?
Leo Segedin   |  8/10/2004 |   Print this essay

I

Even if it is not the ‘world icon’ that the Art Institute’s PR people claim it to be, Georges Seurat’s painting, La Grande Jatte, is a great work of art. Its significance as a work of art, however, is unclear. It may be “arguably the most celebrated and beloved” painting in the Art Institute’s collection, but it is also its most misunderstood. Much that has been written about it is confusing, if not contradictory or just plain wrong. It is famous for its meticulous, colored dot technique, but although Seurat maintained that this application of color theory was scientific and objective, its validity as a descriptive system is questionable and, in my opinion, incidental to what makes it great. I would argue that La Grande Jatte’s significance as a work of art should be based, not on the painting as a product of Seurat’s theoretical, ‘pointillist’ presumptions as it so often is, but rather on its artful, formal qualities.

Although Seurat accepted the general ideas about light and color used by the older, established Impressionist painters, such as Renoir and Monet, he felt that they were too spontaneous and intuitive. He wanted to make his representations of transitory, visual phenomena more solid and timeless than theirs. Ever since he was a student, he had studied, among others, the writings of the chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul, the American artist and physicist, Ogden Rood, the art critic, Charles Blanc and the mathematician and aesthetician, Charles Henry. All of these scientists and scientifically oriented philosophers felt that the representations of our perceptual and emotional experiences could be reduced to impersonal, rational systems that would not interfere with the artist’s originality. Seurat’s color theories were thus founded on the most up to date, if confused and inaccurate, scientific ideas of the 19th century. These ideas were based, first, on the assumption that there are two kinds of color mixtures – additive and subtractive. Mixing colored paint was subtractive and mixing colored lights was additive. The primary subtractive colors – colors assumed to be unobtainable by mixture - were red, blue and yellow, meaning that these were the only colors from which all the other colors could be derived. For example, mixing blue and yellow paint would give you green, blue and red, purple and red and yellow, orange. On the other hand, the additive primaries were red, blue and green. Mixing red and blue lights would give you magenta, red and green, yellow and green and blue, turquoise. Theoretically, adding all colored paints together would result in black and adding all colored lights together would result in white. In practice, this meant that the more you mixed paints together, the darker and duller the mixture became and the more you mixed colored lights together, the lighter and more luminous. Since artists work with paint, the assumption was that the only way they could achieve the luminosity of light was to apply the “law of optical mixture” – the mixing of the separate light rays reflected from a painted surface to the eye. This would lead artists to divide their colors into separate, spectrally colored paints and apply them in small dots that were assumed to fuse as light when seen from a distance.

The other major assumption was “the law of simultaneous contrast”- the 0phenomena that occur when colors are placed side by side. Colored shapes create halos of its color complementary – the color opposite it on a color wheel - that enhance the surrounding areas. In the same way, value contrasts occur in that a dark will look darker next to light, the light, lighter. These halos could also be used for modeling and to modify and enliven neutral tones of gray. Seurat emphasized this effect by surrounding many of the shapes in La Grande Jatte with painted halos of contrasting colors and values. Also, along the edges of the painting is a band of colored dots that are the assumed complements of the colors next to them in the painting (missing in most reproductions). In fact, the followers of Seurat sometimes painted their frames that way, but their patrons did not like them and often replaced them with traditional frames.

In applying these theories, Seurat intended to dissolve the colors he saw into their constituent elements. Therefore, he is supposed to have first applied the local colors of the objects represented, followed by the reflected, incidental light, the partially absorbed light, the reflected light from the adjacent objects and the complements of the adjacent colors and values. Here is Seurat’s great supporter, Felix Feneon’s description (with Seurat’s approval) of the shadowed grass in the foreground of La Grande Jatte:

Most of the strokes render the local color of the grass; others, orange-tinted and thinly scattered, express the hardly-felt action of the sun; bits of purple introduce the complement to green; a cyanine blue, provoked by the proximity of a plot of grass in the sun, accumulates its sifting toward the line of demarcation, and at that point progressively rarifies them. Only two elements come together to produce this grass plot in the sun, green, and orange-tinted light, any interaction being impossible under the furious beating of the sun’s rays. Black, being none-light, the black dog is colored by the reaction of the grass; its dominant tint is therefore deep purple; but it is also attacked by the dark blue arising from neighboring spaces of light. The monkey on a leash is speckled with yellow, its personal quality, and dotted with purple and ultramarine…

II

Although Feneon obviously intended to describe only objective, observable facts in this analysis, he has, however, included, along with physical phenomena, perceptual and other factors. In his description, color is not only on the object represented, in the light rays reflected off that object and in the space around the object, but also in the sensations and their after effects created by those rays stimulating the retina in the eye and in the paint on the canvas. But each of these possible descriptions involves a different analytical system. Is he dealing with physics, psychology, some kind of ‘physiological optics’ or a paint technique? In analyzing these phenomena in such terms, the 19th century scientists and artists, as brilliant as some of their observations were, often confused them. For example, Rood was aware that ‘simultaneous contrast’ is a physiological process, but he also assumed that juxtaposed spectrally colored dots would fuse as light rays in optical mixtures rather than in the eye or mind. To an artist, on the other hand, color is not ordinarily a theoretical issue, but rather is determined primarily by the characteristics of particular pigments and their interactions on the canvas.

Seurat was aware that these various physical and physiological phenomena determined how we see and represent them, but, because he believed what he read, he sometimes got them wrong. The contemporary literature on optical mixtures and complements was confusing. Seurat apparently did not know that red, blue and yellow were not the only possible primaries. He knew of Rood’s additive color wheel and believed in his theory of optical mixture, but in practice, he apparently used Charles Blanc’s wheel, which is subtractive. He wrote about optical mixtures as if the mixtures that worked with paints would work the same way with reflected lights and that optically mixing them would make more luminous versions of the same colors. But such mixtures do not work like paint mixtures; in fact, according to Robert Herbert in Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, the book accompanying the Art Institute exhibition, and contrary to common belief, they don’t work as optical mixtures either.

However, Herbert is not entirely correct in his rejection of the possibility of optical mixture. It may be true that in La Grande Jatte and in the work of Seurat’s followers, such colors do not fuse into single colors. Most colors in these paintings, juxtaposed in tiny dots, do interact. They shimmer and vibrate - create something called ‘luster’ - but they don’t mix. They tend to lighten and neutralize rather than intensify each other. But - when the values of such colors are close, they will tend to fuse as well as shimmer. Pure, unmixed, complementary blue and yellow dots will not fuse because the blue is too dark. In order for them to fuse, the value of the blue would have to be reduced to a very light, pale blue and then the result would be, not green, but rather a shimmering, light gray area, depending on the pigments used. Red and green when mixed as paint will make a brown color, but when juxtaposed as dots and balanced in value, will make a dull yellow. Matched green and violet, as dots, make a dull blue and blue and orange make a pink.

Seurat also apparently confused additive and subtractive complements when determining ‘simultaneous contrasts’. Although he claimed to have used purple as the complement of green, an optical complement, in the foreground of La Grande Jatte, he sometimes also used subtractive complements, for example, oranges against blues in the halos and the borders of the painting. But the optical complement of blue is yellow, not orange and the complement of orange is cyan, not blue. (Also, the optical complement of red is turquoise – not green as it is in paints.) Confusing the issue even more is the fact that there are only strokes of blue – but no complementary purple - in the foreground, green grass area.

New research also qualifies Feneon’s and Seurat’s statements about the technique he used in making the painting. It was found that before he applied his ‘theoretical’ colors, he first blocked in the major compositional dark areas in blues and greens. Interestingly, even though his ‘scientific’ colors do not work as science, they do work as art. His colors as reflected from paint do not work as sunlight, but they do harmonize with each other. They are repeated, contrasted and varied aesthetically as they would in traditional artworks and are, for most of us, beautiful. Also, in addition to his ‘theoretical’ colors, many of the colors he finally did use do not follow any theory. As a result, the effectiveness of the color in the painting is not only the incidental by-product of the application of a pseudo-scientific theory, but also of the artist’s skill and sensibility, just as it is in all great art.

Much that has been written about Seurat’s application of color theory is not true. It is apparent that, until recently, some, if not most, of the commentators on La Grande Jatte never looked closely at it. Many of these misconceptions seem to have taken on the character of myths, some of which were even promoted by Seurat and Feneon apparently to give the painting special significance. According to some writers, apparently misunderstanding what they read, reading what wasn’t true or, perhaps, imposing what they read onto what they saw, the painting was more luminous because he used pure, unmixed colors in optical mixtures to duplicate the effects of natural light. Pure blue and yellow dots were supposed to have been used to make green. He is supposed to have used only the primary colors - red, blue and yellow. He is not supposed to have used black or white and he is supposed to have used only colored dots placed side by side in the making of the painting.

But simple observation of the painting will show that the painting is not especially luminous. From a distance, compared to Van Gogh or Gauguin, or even the Impressionist paintings that surround it at the Art Institute, it has a relatively dull green, orangey and purplish, grainy look to it. Although this may partially be due to the fading of the paints, there simply are no major areas of bright color in the painting. Many of the colors that you do see are local colors, not optical mixtures. You can see that he used green paint in the grass, whites and orangey reds in some of the dresses and blacks in the hats, jackets and the dog. Although supposedly, on the advice of Signac, he had eliminated earth colors after exhibiting his Bathing Place, Asnieres in 1884, he, in fact, continued to use colors such as iron oxide yellow and burnt sienna in the first stage of the painting. During this stage, he also typically mixed four or five, sometimes up to eight colors, including traces of black, often painting such mixtures on top of each other, to get the effect he wanted. It is only in the later stages that he reduced his colors to the spectral hues. Even then, he mixed paints with analogous hues to get intermediate colors, with white to get tints and yellows and reds to increase intensity.

Seurat’s palette consisted of more than primaries. According to recent analysis, again correcting previous assumptions, he used vermilion, organic red lake, burnt sienna, iron oxide yellow, chrome yellow, chrome orange, zinc yellow, cadmium yellow, viridian, emerald green, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, lead white and charcoal or bone black. The dots of zinc yellow which he applied after he had originally completed the painting, have now faded to dull, ochre spots. Emerald green, when mixed with this yellow, have turned olive and vermilion, when mixed with this color to get orange, have turned brown. The chrome oranges have also turned brown.

Also, you can see that he used more than dots in the painting. There are at least five different kinds of brushstrokes in the painting: the grass area is crisscrossed; the figures and water areas are in orderly, elongated, parallel strokes; some figures are also surrounded by dashes (the halos) which follow their contours; the whites are pretty solid and during the last few months, when he had firmed up his theory, he added the dots.

III

To my mind, what is most important about the painting is not primarily its color, as interesting as that is, but rather its dynamic value patterns, its complex shape distributions and the rhythmic organization of its spatial intervals.

Seurat believed what Signac later wrote:

It seems that the first consideration of a painter who stands before a white canvas should be to decide what curves and arabesques should cut the surfaces, what colors and tones should cover it…Following the precepts of Delacroix, he would not begin a composition until he had first determined its organization. Guided by tradition and science, he would adjust the composition to his conception, that is to say, he would adapt the lines (direction and angles) the chiaroscuro (tones) the colors, to the features he wished to make dominant.

What is most obvious about the painting, even more than its colors, are its solemn, hieratic character, its geometric quality and dark and light patterns. Almost all the 48 figures are rigid, almost flat, with shallow modeling, like silhouettes. They are almost all perpendicular, in profile or front or back to the picture plane, reminding one of ancient Egyptian, Assyrian or Classical Greek processional reliefs. They have the simplicity of Giotto and Uccello, the monumentality of Piero Della Francesca. The flat patterns even suggest Japanese prints and contemporary fashion illustrations. This resemblance is not coincidental in that he had studied all these different kinds of art, some at the Louvre and some in black and white engraved reproductions. Each figure, even the running child, seems to be deliberately frozen in its particular spot, almost as chessmen on a board. (Remember the making of La Grande Jatte in the Sondheim musical.) The figures are either single or grouped in units of twos and threes. Each unit has its own formally stylized shape, showing no obvious spatial relationship to the other units, thus creating a sense of remoteness between each. In preparing for this painting, Seurat made many Conte’ crayon and pencil drawings and small, spontaneous oil sketches, which he then used to establish their groupings, sizes and locations, revising and shifting the figures like cutouts as he determined the painting’s final composition. Although there is an obvious sense of depth, there is no single point of view unifying all the elements. Each unit has its own point of view, graded in size as seen from the right of the picture. The largest, the closest, is the two standing figures on the right, but the three figures and dog on the left, which are in the same plane are smaller, thus creating a discontinuous space and emphasizing their isolation. Each unit or group of units is tied into its own horizontal (or diagonal on the left) tonal band of dark shadow creating planes that alternates with bands of sunlit spaces. The same values, shapes and colors as well as poses are repeated in different planes. These bands are arranged one above the other in rhythmically diminishing sizes to create a sense of depth, all relating to the basic horizontal of the embankment on the opposite shore. As they recede in depth, their saturation and contrast decreases, also suggesting distance. More important, a rhythm is created by the way single figures and groups of twos and occasional threes are placed at almost stated intervals in a receding, slow, zigzag movement. There is even a rhythm created by the way in which the figures alternate between those sitting and standing.

Seurat composed the rectangle of the painting according to a system of geometric divisions. The shadows, the shoreline and the boats create horizontal axes; the trees, the figures, the way in which the standing figures, the trees and water reflections line up create vertical axes. As these axes are perpendicular to each other and parallel to the edges of the painting, they form a grid that is determined by geometric considerations. Following these axes, the painting can be divided in half and in quarters. (In fact, underlying the paint is an enlarging grid in which the halves are divided in thirds. Whether these divisions in any way determined the compositional grid is debatable)

The woman and the little girl are in the exact center. The two large figures on the right form a vertical column that is symmetrically balanced by the vertical arrangement of the group of three figures, the smaller figures and tree above them on the left. The foliage of the trees above forms an arch over their heads. There is, also, a connecting arabesque of curves created the way the edges of objects - fans, figures, animals and their tails, umbrellas, bustles and tree limbs - line up. These curves, which often turn into verticals, are broken and interrupted, fading as they reach the edge of the composition. The more you look at the painting, the more you can find such complex, formal relationships.

Some critics have claimed that Seurat used the ‘golden ratio’ as described by Charles Henry, a friend and mentor, in determining his composition. They point out that the painting is in the form of what is known as a ‘golden rectangle’. (A/b=b/a+b). It can also be divided horizontally according to the ‘golden section’. The edge of the foreground shadow divides the right edge of the painting exactly 3/8s of its height. The ratios 1:2 and 3:8, numbers in the Fibonacci Series, were considered by Henry to be harmonious. To what extent the appearance of these proportions was deliberate, however, is debatable. Even Henry complained that contemporary artists paid no attention to his ideas about ‘golden ratios’.

IV

Seurat’s Divisionism, or “Chromo-luminairism” as he preferred to call it, is bad science. His color theory is confused and he can’t be describing what he actually saw. Rather, in so far as he applied this theory, he is imposing a logical, visual system based on what he assumed to be there. Although he manipulated some colors that he expected to fuse, he apparently hoped that the colored strokes, described by Feneon as representing various physical phenomena, would naturally be seen as mixed by the eye. But even though the painted surface of the canvas may appear to shimmer and vibrate when seen from the appropriate distance, none of these strokes fuse into a single cohesive, purely optical representation of a scene. They remain a texture - a ‘petit-point’- a fabric or tapestry of separate strokes. In that the painting also emphasizes grids, arabesques and repetitions, as well as beautiful color, what is happening on the canvas is more important than what is happening in the world it represents. We do not experience a more objective space than those created by the Impressionists or their predecessors, but, rather, a structured sense of depth on a complexly patterned, two dimensional surface.

It is more than poetic license to say that great paintings transform our perception of the world. It is literally true that our environment looks different to us after studying the works of certain artists. We cannot interpret the character of a human being, the space or a figure in a room lit by window light or a landscape by changing sunlight the same after knowing the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Monet. In a sense, the world is revealed through their art. We learn to see through their eyes and the world starts looking like their paintings. Each of these artists studied nature to learn how to see it. Seurat’s ultimate approach is something quite different. Although many of his studies for La Grande Jatte, in which the figures appear more natural and in less formal positions, were based on his direct observations, La Grande Jatte was painted entirely by gaslight in the his studio. There, he imposed his theories on the painting. There he worked out his composition, the contours of its figures, his patterns of dark and light and his colors. Although people in Grant Park on a sunny, summer afternoon may come to look to us like those on the island of Grande Jatte, La Grande Jatte is not primarily a revelation of a new way of seeing the world. By emphasizing the microstructure of light and abstract, formal qualities in the painting, the painting does not lead to greater realism, but to a dematerialization of reality. It becomes associated with the mysticism of the Symbolists and the decorativeness of Art Nouveau. We can even see in Seurat’s drawings premonitions of Picasso’s Cubism and, in his late theories, Kandinsky’s ‘abstract-expressionism’. In fact, it is because he is the first 19th century French artist to make form more important than subject that he can be called the first avant-garde artist.

If Seurat was serious when he said to his friend, Charles Angrand -“They see poetry in what I have done. No, I just apply my method and that is all there is to it” - he was a poet in spite of himself. La Grande Jatte demonstrates a distinctive personal sensibility and leaves, for most of us, an undeniably fascinating impression. It is, in spite of his unsound theoretical intentions, a unique work of art, less calculated than his later work and the work of his followers in which his ideas are more fully developed. He created a poetic reality rather than describe one, but even more important, I believe that it is in La Grande Jatte’s presentation of a new way of looking at painting, in its sense of linear rhythms, spatial intervals, shape repetitions and variety, alternations between tones and ‘unscientific’ color that makes the painting significant. It is more in its relation to an abstract art like music than to an observed social or natural environment that makes La Grande Jatte a masterpiece.

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