In his great masterpiece, Seurat depicted people relaxing in a suburban park on an island in the Seine called La Grande Jatte. Seurat work on the painting in several campaigns, beginning in 1884 with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colors. He later adds small dots, also in complementary colors, that when seen from a distance appears as solid and luminous forms. Thos technique was subsequently called "pointillism".
Seurat's use of this highly systematic and "scientific" technique distinguished his art from the more intuitive approach to painting used by the Impressionists. Although Seurat embraced the subject matter of modern life preferred by artists such as Monet and Renoir, he went beyond their concerns of capturing the accidental and instantaneous qualities of light in nature. Seurat sought to époque permanence by recalling the art of the past, especially Egyptian and Greek sculpture and early Italian Renaissance frescoes. As he explained to the French poet Gustave Kahn, ""The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make a modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color". Some contemporary critics, however, found his figures to be less a nod to earlier art history than a commentary on the posturing and artificially of modern Parisian society.
Seurat made the final changes to "La Grande Jatte" in 1889, when he restretched the canvas in order to add a painter border of red, orange, and blue dots that provides a visual transition between the interior of the painting and Seurat's specially designed all-white frame, which we have reproduced here.
Text from "Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces" :
"Seurat's Grande Jatte is one of those rare works of art that stand alone; its transcendence is instinctively recognized by everyone. What makes this transcendence so mysterious is that the theme of the work is not some profound emotion or momentous event, but the most banal of workaday scenes: Parisians enjoying an afternoon in a local park. Yet we never seem to fathom its elusive power. Stranger still, when he painted it, Seurat was a mere 25 (with only seven more years to live), a young man with a scientific theory to prove; this is hardly the recipe for success. His theory was optical: the conviction that painting in dots, known as pointillism or divisionism, would produce a brighter color than painting in strokes.
"Seurat spent two years painting this picture, concentrating painstakingly on the landscape of the park before focusing on the people; always their shapes, never their personalities. Individuals did not interest him, only their formal elegance. There is no untidiness in Seurat; all is beautifully balanced. The park was quite a noisy place: a man blows his bugle, children run around, there are dogs. Yet the impression we receive is of silence, of control, of nothing disordered. I think it is this that makes La Grande Jatte so moving to us who live in such a disordered world: Seurat's control. There is an intellectual clarity here that sets him free to paint this small park with an astonishing poetry. Even if the people in the park are pairs or groups, they still seem alone in their concision of form - alone but not lonely. No figure encroaches on another's space: all coexist in peace.
"This is a world both real and unreal - a sacred world. We are often harried by life's pressures and its speed, and many of us think at times: Stop the world, I want to get off! In this painting, Seurat has "stopped the world," and it reveals itself as beautiful, sunlit, and silent - it is Seurat's world, from which we would never want to get off."
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