Friday, August 20, 2004

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte 1884

How Seurat Worked Up to Sunday (NYTimes)

CHICAGO : George Seurat was from outer space. One day in the mid-19th
century, he was beamed, fully formed, down to Paris with a few
cryptically perfect paintings and some of the most beautiful drawings
you'll ever see. Later, age 31 in human years, he was beamed back up
to wherever he had come from, leaving behind a few letters, a new kind
of art and a big, spacey picture called "La Grand Jatte."

The painting (its full title is "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884")
has been in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1926.
So great is its fame that to some visitors it is the Art Institute,
the way "Las Meninas" is the Prado. They are, of course, mistaken. The
museum, one of this country's best, has other attractions. But it is
well aware of the unique and wonderful thing that its Seurat picture
is, and has spun a show around it, a wonderful one.

Called "Seurat and the Making of `La Grande Jatte,' " the exhibition
brings together 39 of the fewer than 60 surviving oil sketches and
drawings by the artist that are directly related to the painting. To
them it adds paintings by contemporaries Seurat admired, like
Pissarro, or had problems with, like Monet and Renoir, and others by
artists who admired him, among them Pissarro again, and Paul Signac.

Everything orbits around "La Grande Jatte," the jewel of Seurat's
brilliant but parsimonious output. The painting last left home in
1958, when it traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and
narrowly escaped a fire. Now it stays in Chicago, making the current
show a one-stop-only event, unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. This
circumstance naturally deepens the mystique of a painting that, more
than many others, needs firsthand scrutiny to come fully alive. Such
scrutiny is precisely what the exhibition is about, and the results
will surprise "Jatte" fans.

The common word on Seurat, formulated soon after the public debut of
"La Grande Jatte" at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, was
that he was an artist-scientist, a brain rather than an eye. He chose
his colors by exacting formulas; he observed strict methods in the
Pointillist way he applied his paint. (The term was not his.)

His art was not, like Impressionism, about pure sensation, or
self-expression, or improvisation. (Impressionism wasn't necessarily
about these things, either, but that's another story.) It was,
instead, an un-Romantic exercise in measurement, objectivity, logic,
control, with formal decisions made and conceptually resolved before
brush touched canvas. "La Grande Jatte," which exemplified all of
these qualities, was a masterpiece of applied mechanics. It was

The Chicago show sets out to change that perspective, calling on
science as one way do so. The Art Institute recently submitted "La
Grande Jatte" to intensive technical analysis. Some of the results are
presented here, and they give evidence of a working method far more
intuitive and second-guessing than is usually associated with this

The findings verify one thing we already knew. Seurat, ambitious and
compulsive, reworked the surface of the ready-to-exhibit picture in
1885, using a new zinc yellow that Pissarro swore by. The yellow
proved unstable and within a few years had darkened and dimmed the
picture's original colors.

The findings reveal other things, too. Several forms were changed
during the revision: figures were thickened, shadows extended, details
added or eliminated. And Pointillism, popularly linked to Seurat, was
a late addition. The painting was actually executed in strokes of
various lengths. Only later did he develop his distinctive color
theory and add dots to the surface.

So material examination yields a different image of Seurat from the
one we may have had. He wasn't a scientific prodigy who happened to
end up in art, but a prodigious artist learning on the job. That image
takes still deeper, personal, philosophical dimensions through
experiencing the work in the show, organized by Douglas W. Druick and
Gloria Groom, curators of European painting at the Art Institute,
along with Robert L. Herbert, guest curator and principal author of
the engrossing catalog

Sanjeev Narang


email: ask (at) eConsultant dot com

Today = Third Thursday = TAM Docents Coffee at 5:00pm

Hello Fellow Docents,

A gentle reminder that today is Third Thursday and we'll me meeting
for coffee at
the same place (UW Tacoma Starbucks), same time (5:00pm), with the
same "no agenda" and same "no RSVP required" policy as the last few
times !

Day: Third Thursday
Date : 8/19/04
Place : UW Tacoma Starbucks
Time: 5:00pm +

The museums will be open free and late; the galleries will be open; we
can take the train to the theater district. No agenda is good freedom.

Hope you are all enjoying the summer - the days are longer; the sun is
out; hope to see you there; bring a friend.

Sanjeev Narang


email: ask (at) eConsultant dot com