Saturday, June 29, 2013

                        Idling on La Grand Jatte

Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece...A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-86) feels like a Fourth of July painting in its expression 
of communal relaxation and enjoyment...almost a complete suspension of motion and purposeful activity.

Seurat was experimenting with a new technique based on modern scientific color theories that would "mix the colors" in the viewer's eye rather than on his palette.He depicts literally dozens of Parisians and their dogs, and even one fashionably dressed woman with her Capuchin monkey on a leash.Some have suggested the monkey was symbolic of licentiousness...and the woman was,in fact, a prostitute.In any case, Seurat gives us multiple figures,mostly in profile,from various classes,genders,ages and presumably "occupations" on a day of rest.

There are,speculatively, several prostitutes,who were frequent visitors on La Grand Jatte looking for male customers,in Seurat's painting...most strikingly,and rather oddly,the woman fishing on the bank of the Seine...presumably "fishing" for a customer among the various and sundry men gathered along the bank of the Seine.

Influenced by ancient Egyptian art which he sketched in the Louvre, Seurat uses mainly profiles of figures to create a sense of motionless one seems to be talking or interacting with one another...they are,as it were,"frozen" in time and young girl in the center of the painting is contemplating a small bouquet of flowers,while to the left of her is a bizarre  tableau of a hulking oarsman in a sleeveless shirt smoking a pipe surrounded by a  properly attired woman working on needlework,and a dandy in a top hat with a spindly-looking walking stick.

Overall, La Grand Jatte is in suspended animation...a very static, frozen moment in time...but, in contrast to this feeling of suspension, is Seurat's minor-key counterpoint of time moving on and exuberant motion in the figure of the little running girl in the background, and the small running dog in the foreground of the painting.Moreover,to create a sense of fresh reawakening...Seurat painted in six delicate, fluttering butterflies.

And his artistic "sidebar" in La Grande Jatte is, of course, the river Seine itself.Like the social milieu on the bank of river,the river reflects the changing modernist Parisian society.There are not only the pastimes of the wealthy...rowing and sailboating...on the river,but also the encroaching modern world of the steamboat.And since Seurat depicts a Sunday on La Grande Jatte,the steamboats going up and down the Seine were most likely the sights-seeing steamers or Bateau Mouche which were a great success.

To enhance the sense of a moment frozen in time on La Grande Jatte...Seurat,quite unusally, painted his own pointillist "freeze frame" around his painting to heighten its chromatic effectiveness.The painting was then conventionally framed in a simple white wooden frame for exhibition in the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886.That's also how the painting is exhibited today at The Art Institute of Chicago. 

All in all... La Grand Jatte is not only a beautiful depiction of a carefree summer day  or holiday...but also a highly individualistic and unique contribution to the oeuvre of the late 19th century in Paris.Seurat remarked that "I painted like that because I wanted to get through to something new - a kind of painting that was my own"...although only 29,with only two more years to live,Seurat succeeded so beautifully with his La Grande Jatte.