Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2005
Robert L. Herbert Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte Exh. cat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 288 pp.; 307 color ills.; 64 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (0520242114)
Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, June 19–September 19, 2004
Art Institute of Chicago, June 19–September 19, 2004

Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, a book that accompanied an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, combines extensive art-historical analysis of the painting with detailed study by conservators. The most dramatic contribution is the “rejuvenated” image of La Grande Jatte, a full-scale reproduction created by Roy S. Berns using digital technology to replace Georges Seurat’s now-darkened zinc yellow with something close to the original color. An essay by Frank Zuccari and Allison Langley traces the compositional evolution of the picture by studying it with a variety of imaging techniques. Inge Fiedler analyzes Seurat’s materials and painting techniques. These contributions are all illustrated with spectacular color details. Finally, two essays—by Douglas W. Druick and Gloria Groom and by Neil Harris—describe the history of the picture as one of the treasures of the Art Institute’s collection and as an icon of modern art.

The book’s major text is by Robert L. Herbert, whose work has been seminal for the study of nineteenth-century French art. Herbert has consistently focused on two areas in his writings: visual evidence of the process of making, a project for which he has devised a descriptive language of extraordinary precision; and the social and political dimensions of the subjects depicted. His article “Method and Meaning in Monet”(Art in America 67 [September 1979]: 90–108) is still unrivaled in its analysis of the way Claude Monet painted and the implications this has for our conception of Impressionism. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) is a treasure trove of sociohistorical information used to support original readings of many famous pictures of the period.

Herbert’s first major publication was Seurat’s Drawings (New York: Shorewood, 1962). His most recent study of La Grande Jatte appeared in the authoritative exhibition catalogue Georges Seurat, 1859–1891 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), which located the painting—not included in that show—in the context of Seurat’s entire production. In the book under review, Herbert has the luxury of concentrating entirely on La Grande Jatte. The format allows him to develop his arguments carefully, taking account of extensive examinations of the painting by conservators as well as the considerable scholarship of the past decades. The care with which Herbert constructs his analysis is suggested by a remark he makes about Seurat: “A painter’s experience is a compound of many encounters with people and places that cannot be recapitulated easily” (54).

In the introduction and first chapter, Herbert outlines Seurat’s career before La Grande Jatte. He examines drawings and paintings to discover an individual style within an oeuvre that reflects the French system of artistic education and to trace the influence of mid-nineteenth-century naturalism and Impressionism. As always, Herbert makes us feel the physical movement of the artist’s hand. About the haunting drawings made with a black conté crayon, he writes:

Seurat’s crayon rubbed the projecting fibers across the heavily textured paper he habitually used, leaving the tiny valleys untouched. The white sparkles through the web of crayon marks to achieve a dotted effect that has been likened erroneously to his later brushwork. (28)

In Seurat’s first exhibited painting, Bathing Place, Asnières, shown in 1884, Herbert finds the same fundamentally academic working methods used to create La Grande Jatte. The two pictures are related in other ways as well. Neither is a celebration of leisure in the spirit of an eighteenth-century fête champêtre or its Impressionist variant (50). Rather, like the work of Jean-François Millet or Camille Pissarro (artists of great importance to Seurat), the paintings celebrate summer with a tone of “moral seriousness” (51). The choice of a Parisian suburb as subject had been anticipated in naturalist novels by authors such as the Goncourt brothers and Joris-Karl Huysmans (50). Paintings by Puvis de Chavannes offer some of the few contemporary comparisons for a picture of such ambitious size and considered compositional structure, filled with solemn figures arranged in “broad planes of simple geometry” (48).

Chapters 2–5 cover La Grande Jatte from its genesis to its exhibition in the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886 to its reputation at the time of Seurat’s untimely death in 1891. Twenty-eight drawings, twenty-eight oil studies, and three canvases directly relating to the painting are known. Herbert does not attempt to order them sequentially, explaining that Seurat’s “process was an empirical one in which he rejected as much as he retained” (68). That said, the author discovers changes in shadows and figural groups which explain some of the otherwise inexplicable details of La Grande Jatte. For example, the double shadow cast by the single tree along the shore in the left middle ground clearly comes from two trees in an early study (70), and the small orange arc that juts into the picture on the middle right side was once the edge of a parasol (88).

One has the sense, Herbert writes, that Seurat “developed his composition hesitantly, as though he were a theater director moving figures about on a stage” (75). Some studies of the landscape without figures show the artist carefully arranging the picture’s details. Others convey the liveliness and bustle of human activity the island actually might have had on a Sunday afternoon, when the park was filled with Parisian pleasure-seekers. These drawings and oils make us realize how hard Seurat worked to create a sense of stillness in a highly populated public space. They also show the effort that went into the refinement of the figures and their gestures. In fact, some of the most famous details—the sinuous curves and scalloped outlines of the skirts, the cigar in the hand of the man on the right—were added when Seurat extensively reworked La Grande Jatte between March 1885 (the date he first expected to show it) and its actual exhibition in May–June 1886 (82).

Although La Grande Jatte appeared in the last Impressionist exhibition, the painting differs in crucial ways from Impressionist practice. These departures were deliberate. Seurat “was determined to make himself a painter of modern life, but also to set himself apart from the older painters” (101). The large size of the canvas (92), the modeling of forms in light and dark to form the substructure of the painting (90), and the opposition of light and dark and warm and cool colors throughout the composition (110) all set it apart. Then, of course, there is Seurat’s distinctive application of paint. As always, Herbert’s description of technique is splendid. The painting, created in three different phases, has strokes that vary from “small dabs to long streaks” (111). Directional modeling is used so that, for example, “[t]he upraised parasols display streaks that appear to pour outward and down from the tip, as rain itself would fall” (112). Examination of the painting without its frame or glass in February 2003 revealed that “[p]ortions of the silhouettes of most of the figures are outlined in extremely fine and continuous lines” (113).

Noting “those who disliked his work and those who admired it all agreed that it was scientific,” Herbert is careful to stress that Seurat’s “process grew slowly out of his practice and was predominantly a feature of his craft” (130). Despite the artist’s “own references to color theory and [Félix] Fénéon’s published explications” (130), theory never actually determined Seurat’s methods, even when his art seemed to display “scientific” color and technique (114). For example, contrary to the common idea that he only used mixtures of the three primary pigments, Seurat’s most reduced palette consisted of eleven pigments from tubes, each of which could be mixed with another or blended with white. La Grande Jatte surely incorporates many more (116).

Chapters 6–8 trace the reputation and interpretation of La Grande Jatte from its appearance in the retrospective staged in 1892 until the present. In chapter 7, Herbert summarizes and assesses the opinions of John House, T. J. Clark, Richard Thomson, Martha Ward, Hollis Clayson, Linda Nochlin, Michael Zimmermann, and Paul Smith. In chapter 8, “Fashion and Irony,” Herbert explains his own understanding in greater detail than he has elsewhere. La Grande Jatte has been connected to contemporary fashion from the time of its first exhibition (170), and the author describes this relationship as a profound one: “Seurat illustrated the very meaning of fashion: the mingling of individuality with conformity” (170). Irony, on the other hand, “has been the missing feature of most interpretations of La Grande Jatte” (171). The only major exception he cites is an unpublished essay by Joan Halperin. The concept usefully distinguishes Seurat from his contemporaries, since figure paintings by Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Puvis seem to be devoid of it. La Grande Jatte is a “mocking commentary” on both Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, “in which modern people assume the poses of Renaissance gods,” and Monet’s own Déjeuner sur l’herbe, in which “bourgeois people are seriously, not ironically, observed” (173). Herbert concludes: “La Grande Jatte is not an unthinking utopia, but a peaceful realm that allows for witty insights into human foibles, into oppositions between aspirations and their imperfect realizations” (173).

The second part of the book, “Technical Investigations of La Grande Jatte,” is difficult to summarize because the conclusions lie in the accumulation of fascinating details. Using contour drawings, overlays, X-rays, photomicrographs, and microscopic details of paint, among other techniques, the conservators reconstruct the creation of the painting. These images are simply breathtaking. In addition to providing insights into Seurat’s working methods, they allow us to see aspects of the paint surface that no amount of careful looking would reveal. One of the discoveries made by Frank Zuccari and Allison Langley is physical evidence that Seurat used a grid, probably created with strings that guided the outlining of twenty-four squares with red lines. The grid, a small section of which is visible with magnification, allowed the artist to enlarge and transfer the design from his many studies, as well as, perhaps, to position significant compositional features (179–80). Among Inge Fiedler’s many findings is that an unstable zinc yellow was the primary cause of discoloration (208–10). Her discovery enabled Roy S. Berns to create something like the original appearance of the painting with high-resolution digital images (214–27).

The nineteenth-century collection at the Art Institute suggests one comparison Herbert does not discuss: between La Grande Jatte and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris: A Rainy Day. Shown at the Impressionist exhibition in 1877, Caillebotte’s painting also looked very different from the works displayed with it. As Kirk Varnedoe pointed out in Gustave Caillebotte: A Retrospective Exhibition (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1976), Caillebotte’s Paris: A Rainy Day seems more like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte than anything from the 1870s (112). Describing modern Paris on the scale of history paintings, both Caillebotte and Seurat worked in ways that revealed mastery of academic drawing and studied arrangement of the compositional elements. Both used carefully structured space as the setting for figures that range from life-size in the foreground (most notably, a couple with an umbrella) to very small in the back. Finally, they both used the same late Renaissance method of describing the figures in their surroundings. Each person appears as if seen from a separate viewpoint rather than adjusted to conform to the perspectival unity of the space. This mixed perspective system emphasizes the surface design of each picture and stills any illusion of movement (Varnedoe, 68–69). Behind these choices lay the fiercely competitive desire to seize critical attention with a distinctive and distinctively modern style. Just as the artists intended, their pictures still seem unlike any others. And they still capture the attention of viewers, now admiring museumgoers of the twenty-first century.     

Marjorie Munsterberg
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Art, The City College of New York