Essay | The Meaning of La Grande Jatte by Jeffrey Meyers

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'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' (1884)

Jeffrey Meyers


The Meaning of La Grande Jatte

 

Georges Seurat (l859-91) was a mysterious and elusive personality. Reserved in character and manner, extremely reticent about his private affairs, he kept no diaries and his rare letters were factual and impersonal. Born in Paris, the son of a retired court bailiff, he learned what he called the routine and dead practices of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, did his military service in Brest, painted in Paris and, in summers, on the Normandy coast. Like Caravaggio, Watteau, Van Gogh, Lautrec and Modigliani, he died in his thirties. The obscure cause of death has variously been described as meningitis, angina and diphtheria. Only after his death did his friends discover that Seurat had a longtime secret mistress, Marie Knoblach, the hefty model with the high hair-do and formidable shelf of breasts in Young Woman Powdering Herself (1889-90), and a little son who died less than a fortnight after he did.

Seurat’s masterpiece, and one of the iconic images of modern art, is A Sunday on La Grand Jatte—1884 (1886, Art Institute: Chicago). La Grande Jatte is an island shaped like a kayak, pointed at both ends, bisected by a boulevard and floating in the Seine on the western edge of Paris. It had restaurants, a dance pavilion and several docks for boating and fishing. The massive painting, 6 1/2 by 10 feet, is complex and enigmatic. It portrays 48 people, three dogs and eight craft: three sailboats, a racing shell, a ferry, a fishing dinghy and two steamboats.

Several of the figures and details are difficult to discern. What seems to be a trapezoidal slab of stone, topped by a round ball draped in red and placed in the left middle-ground (next to an old lady with the profile of a witch), is actually an attendant nurse. The woman seated between the athlete and the dandy in the left foreground has put her books aside and is either sewing or reading a newspaper. She ignores and is ignored by both men who, absorbed with pipe and cane, stare straight ahead as if she didn’t exist. The coxswain, under an umbrella in the racing shell is, surprisingly, a woman. The brown square object, half hidden by the backs of the tall promenaders in the right foreground, turns out to be a high, three-wheeled baby carriage. The protruding object above the male promenader’s cigar is the knob of his straight cane, which sticks out and narrows the space above the heads of the two women and child seated behind him on the grass. The jagged orange object jutting out from the right side behind the seated women is (we know from a drawing) the curved edge of a parasol. All the parasols in the picture are variously colored, held at different heights and tilted at diverse angles. The sharp triangular object, low off the ground and below the severed parasol remains, despite 135 years of close scrutiny, obscure.

The monkey held on a leash by the female promenader was a brilliant late addition. It must be—along with the grinning monkey in the seventeenth-century portrait of the Earl of Rochester, attributed to Jacob Huysmans—the most interesting simian in art. Its crouching posture and curving tail wittily echo the prominent bulges of its mistress’ bosom and bustle, set against the strict verticals of the seven trees behind her. The monkey and beribboned pug dog are heliotropically heading for the strange patch of light in the shaded near foreground. The children—swaddled, sitting, standing and running—are charming. The running child represents, with the leaping pug and straining rowers, the only movement in this static and solemn tableau.

The ambience of the painting is as puzzling as the details. Still in both senses of the word, it fastidiously excludes what a contemporary critic called the tumult, rowdiness, disorder, bawdry and physical exertion that took place amidst the long four o’clock shadows on the midsummer Sabbath. Though the puffing motorboats, blaring horn player, rowers’ splashing oars, yapping dog and running child suggest plenty of noise, the atmosphere is as silent as the butterfly’s wings. In this respect, it is very different from the wild, even manic merriment of Seurat’s Circus (1890-91), in which an acrobat turns upside down, a ringmaster cracks his whip and a balletic rider balances herself, with only one foot, on a galloping white horse.

Meyer Schapiro wrote that ‘La Grande Jatte adopted Impressionist themes: bathers, the Sunday vacation world of spectacle and amusements, the landscape of beaches, harbors and sunny fields.’ But Seurat’s stiff, immobile people, isolated within themselves, don’t talk to or even look at one another. The effect is rather chilly. None of the frozen figures—in striking contrast to the riverine hedonists of Monet or the unbuttoned pleasure-seekers of Renoir—seems to be having a good time. The flat, cut-out pharaonic procession, in which everyone is seen in strict profile or full front, could well be called A Sunday Afternoon on the Nile During the IVth Dynasty.

La Grande Jatte complements Seurat’s more colorful and enticing earlier work, Bathing Place, Asnières (1883-84), set in a village just down river on the north bank of the Seine. In this painting five of the seven men look across the river to the Grande Jatte and to the passengers who are being rowed there in a small boat. Both pictures portray several figures in silhouette on the banks of the glistening water, which narrows as it drifts away into the distance. Both scenes have boats on the river, trees on the distant shore and bare-shouldered men or boys. The boy in Bathing Place, wearing a red helmet-shaped hat and hooting through his clasped hands, echoes the horn blower. He and his companion, having left their straw hats and clothing scattered on the grass, are immersed, though not swimming, in the water. The smoke from the chimneys on the far side of the bridge in Bathing Place is matched by the puff of smoke from the motorboats in La Grande Jatte. The former is naturalistic and relaxed; the latter magisterial and hieratic. In both paintings, wrote Félix Fénéon, a rare contemporary supporter of Seurat, ‘the atmosphere is transparent and has a peculiar vibration: the surface of the picture seems to move to and fro before our eyes.’

La Grande Jatte was painted in three ‘campaigns’ over a two-year period, from 1884 to 1886. The fifty-nine studies and drawings directly related to the painting reveal, as Robert Herbert writes, that ‘as Seurat returned repeatedly to the island, he attempted to study his colors and organize his veritable cast of characters by scattering them in various locations and positions throughout the panels.’ In 1888, after completing the work, Seurat added the vividly effective red-and-blue border, which provided ‘a visual transition between the interior of the painting and its frame.’

La Grande Jatte was shown in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886. But in contrast to the improvisation and spontaneity of the Impressionists, Seurat’s work was meticulously planned. In this respect he was like Degas, the odd man out among the Impressionists, who said: ‘No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament . . . I know nothing.’ In 1920 the poet and critic André Salmon, an early enthusiast, described the structural qualities that are now greatly admired in Seurat: ‘Seurat was the first to construct and compose. . . . In truth, Cézanne would not have sufficed to preside at the great task which engages the strongest and most spontaneous energies of today. . . . From Seurat comes the aristocratic feeling and the austerity without the sterility of modern creations.’

Like all great painters Seurat worked within the historical tradition and La Grande Jatte is filled with allusions to past art. The Egyptian influence, as we have seen, is strong. Seurat saw himself as a modern Phidias and compared his picture to classical Greek sculpture. He sought ‘the beauty of forms in their primitive essence’ and told a friend: ‘I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organised by harmonies of colour, by directions of the tones in harmony with the lines, and by the directions of the lines.’ Other sources include Poussin’s classical figures in classical landscapes; Watteau’s Garden of Love and fête champêtre; Puvis de Chavannes’ rather stilted neo-classical scenes and parklike settings; and, for the costumes, contemporary fashion plates.

Though La Grande Jatte had a few brave supporters when it was first exhibited, it was, like many innovative works, ignored or condemned by the critics. J. K. Huysmans’ description of Seurat’s later work also illuminated his tranquil masterpiece: ‘I find in them a fullness of expansive air, a siesta of a quiet soul, a distinction of wan indolence, a caressing lullaby of the sea that soothes and dissipates my uneasy cares.’

What, then, is the meaning of A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884? Some academics, obsessed with whoreticulture, insist, without a particle of evidence, that the female promenader and even the woman fishing (for clients?) are prostitutes. In Seurat and the Art Theory of His Time (1991) Michael Zimmerman states that the picture is a naturalist allegory of social harmony. Robert Herbert rightly sees irony in the painting, but anticlimactically concludes, as Zimmerman does, that ‘Seurat created an allegory of modern summertime.’ Herbert says that Bathing Place, Asnières, which has a similar setting but very different mood, is also ‘an allegory of summertime.’ Since neither painting (unlike, for example, Tiepolo’s Time Unveiling Truth) is an allegory, his interpretations are not entirely convincing.

La Grande Jatte certainly suggests, as Baudelaire wrote in ‘Invitation to the Voyage’: ‘there is nothing else but grace and measure, / Richness, quietness, and pleasure.’ Delmore Schwartz’s prosaic poem, ‘Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine’, described the same tranquil mood as ‘the luxury and nothingness of consciousness. . .  A devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude.’ But there is surely something else in the expressionless, uncommunicative, cut-out mannequins on Seurat’s stage: the alienation of modern man in the crowd (vividly described by Poe and Baudelaire, Gustave Le Bon and Elias Canetti). The city dwellers, taking their leisure in semi-rural surroundings, hemmed in by the low trees and long shadows, and clearly out of their natural element, experience a certain uneasiness, even angst.

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          Jeffrey Meyers is the author of Painting and the Novel, a biography of Wyndham Lewis, Impressionist Quartet and Modigliani: A Life.


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