Over the past several decades, many scholars have attempted to explain the meaning of this great composition. For some, it shows the growing middle class at leisure. Others see it as a representation of social tensions between modern city dwellers of different social classes, all of whom gather in the same public space but do not communicate or interact.
His paintings are also intended to convey social commentary. The Grande Jatte makes use of symbols. A monkey in French (and female) is known as “singesse,” denoting a prostitute. The smartly dressed woman is fishing — but for what? Then, as now, spectators have questioned Seurat’s meaning. Whether Seurat intended the Bathers and this painting to be considered as pendants (a pair) is still debated; certainly he contrasts the natural world with the unpleasant artificiality of bourgeois life, as these artists saw it.
Let us look at the painting Un Dimanche a la Grande Jatte. The painting represents a Sunday on the island of the Grande Jatte. The work is often referred to as his “Manifesto Painting,” and is even noted as such by contemporary critics. It was large in size, the first painting to be executed entirely in the Pointillist technique and the first to include a great many people playing a major role….
But how did this painting get to where it ended up? In many ways, including some that are sheer cultural accidents, and we can never be sure.But with Seurat’s works one can arrive at a plausible explanation by glancing first at the man and his method and then at his subject matter.
Seurat had the bittersweet privilege of being young all his life. He was only twenty-four when he exhibited, in 1884 in the buffet bar of the first Salon des Artistes Indépendants, his great “Une Baignade” . The came “La Grande Jatte” , which , in spite of the hilarity it spawned, established him as the inventor of a new movement, labeled neo-impressionism by favorable critics, pointillism by the less favorable, divisionism by others, confettism or lentilism by Paris wits, and chromo-luminarism by Seurat himself. In 1888 he completed the large and small versions of “Les Poseuses” . He was allowed three more years to produce his other major canvases: “La Parade”, “Le Chahut”, and “Le Cirque” ; and then, after a brief illness, he was dead.
From accounts by his contemporaries a double portrait emerges. His devoted admirers were impressed by a poetic, almost holy appearance and a corresponding demeanor. He was tall, handsome, timid, deep-voiced, and slow-moving. He wore “an apostle’s beard” above which were “eyes of velvet” To a foreign visitor , he seemed to be a “cousin of the Leonardo’s, the Durer’s and the Poussin’s.” He even reminded one friend, who chose to ignore the beard, of Donatello’s statue of Saint George. Other observers were less inclined to idealize him. With his polka-dot cravat, his habitual top hat, his measured tread, and his humorless self-confidence,he looked, we are told, like a department store floorwalker. Degas had the unkind habit of referring to him as “le notaire”.
Everybody, admirer’s included, noticed that the young Saint George was addicted to spells of extraordinary uncommunicativeness; his recurring fear of divulging his method was “nearly a sickness” in the view of the usually mild Pissarro . The same reticence covered personal affairs; only after his death did his closest friends know that he had had a mistress, an ignorant, unappetizing girl totally unfit for him. Apparently, he had kept her as a convenience, with no intention of ever letting her share his life.
Although the elder Seurat, a prosperous Paris bailiff, appears to have been generous with allowances, the son displayed very early, and never abandoned, a fanatic belief in work. When he died his studio contained, according to the legal inventory,42 paint
, 163 oil sketches, and 527 drawings; and this material was only a part of the production of his short career. Each major canvas was preceded by careful preparatory studies, more than fifty of which have survived for “La Grande Jatte” alone. In this respect, as in others, he was an anti-impressionist who rightly rejected the “neo” tag.
He was also a dizzying instance of the rule that geniuses develop by looking at art rather than reality. Among the influences that have been discerned in his style are those of ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Piero del Francesca, Raphael, Holbein, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, Ingres, Delacroix, Millet, Corot, Daumier, Puvis de Chavannes, and the poster designer Jules Chévet, who was much admired by French collectors during the 1880′s.
All this hard work and earnest scrutiny however, might not have had its strange effect if Seurat had not been something relatively rare in the history of art-a painting bookworm. he was the first such of any importance since the mathematical perspective enthusiasts of fifteenth-century Tuscany, and like them, he was possessed by a naive ambition to render by strictly scientific means what earlier painters had achieved only by intuition and rule of thumb. He studied the optics of Helmholtz and Clerk Maxwell and the optical aesthetic treatises of some less reliable theorists who are now largely forgotten. He pondered, with a thirst close to Faustian, such dark matters as “the law of simultaneous contrast,” the nature of color, and the psychological and spiritual effects of geometry.
His dots, the “petits points” of pointilism, were the most spectacular result of his research. In “La grande Jatte” they made him a celebrity. After their systematization in “Les Poseuses” they became the symbols of his scientism, the aiming “points” of his enemies, and the rallying “points” of his followers. His most ardent foes, the slab-color group gathered around Gauguin in Brittany, composed a song in which painters were instructed to sit “planted for two days” before a landscape humming lugubriously: Un petit point, avec grand soin/ Deux petits points, trois petits points ( bis)
…Every detail is carefully planned. The work required sketches on panel, 25 drawings and three important preliminary studies. Look at the illustration to see the contrast in technique with the slightly earlier painting (1884). Instead of workers enjoying themselves, this is strangely formal; figures are mostly seen in profile or frontal position. They seem rather like toy soldiers, an artificiality noted at the time. One critic wrote that the painting showed, “The banal promenade that people in their Sunday best take… in the places where it is accepted that one should stroll on a Sunday.” …
“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.”