Georges Seurat, a painter of astonishing ambition, began to create his masterpiece at age 26. He had studied art in a traditional way but there was nothing traditional about what he had in mind. It was 1884 and in Paris the exciting style was Impressionism, but Seurat's talent did not flow in that direction.
Impressionist artists painted an impression of things seen, usually in a spontaneous, free-floating way. Seurat was not spontaneous. He planned every detail.
Over two years he sketched versions of his dream about 60 times, some in oil. He designed a huge canvas, two metres high and three metres across, crowded with human figures of many ages and several classes, enjoying a Seine River park on the edge of Paris.
This was La Grande Jatte-1884, sometimes called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It's now an image embedded in our culture -- praised, imitated and endlessly parodied, a picture that unites high and low tastes. It has appeared in a Looney Tunes cartoon and on a Playboy cover. It has inspired poetry and a musical comedy. Scholars have honoured it with a long shelf of books, the latest being Georges Seurat: The Art of Vision (Yale University Press) by Michelle Foa of Tulane University, published this month.
In his mid-20s, Seurat was developing a style that would be called Pointillism. Having absorbed the colour theories of scientists, he was covering his paintings with carefully positioned dabs of pure colour that would take form only through the eyes of viewers. Up close the dots could be seen separately, but from a distance they merged into solid shapes. He was following the way the human eye gathers colours together while transmitting them to the brain. Unintentionally, he invented the pixel, the basis of television.
Foa, a shrewd analyst, surveys all of Seurat's work, particularly his seascapes, but inevitably La Grande Jatte gets star treatment. She explains that Seurat was deeply influenced by Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) and his work on the physiology of vision.
Seurat died at age 31 and left a relatively small body of work. Even so, Foa argues that his paintings and drawings are a far-reaching investigation into the mental states produced by visual experiences. She shows him reworking the same harbour areas, comparing different angles, like the Cubists who would appear three decades later. In Foa's hands he turns into an even more adventurous painter than other critics have noticed. She leaves him a larger figure than she found him.
For many years La Grande Jatte-1884 has been the crown jewel of the Chicago Institute of Art, the favourite of visitors, rather like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
It came to Chicago through Frederic Clay Bartlett and his second wife, Helen Birch Bartlett, part of the city's cultural elite. Frederic was a wide-ranging collector before marriage, but when he and Helen chose art together they emphasized her main interest, modern painting. They collected CÚzanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Modigliani. In 1923 they acquired a major Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. In 1924 they purchased La Grande Jatte. The following year, Helen died. Frederic gave the Institute, in Helen's memory, the 25 paintings they had purchased. That gift made Chicago a leader in modernism. Neither the Museum of Modern Art nor the Guggenheim yet existed.
And while the Art Institute has cherished it, others have appreciated it in their own ways. There's a lovely poem by Delmore Schwartz, a pioneer figure in Jewish American literature and the model for the central figure in a major Saul Bellow novel, Humboldt's Gift.
In 1959, under the title Seurat's Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine, Schwartz depicts the painting's subjects with great affection. He sees the scene Seurat painted as "a devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude." Surprisingly, he praises bourgeois life, saluting "the bourgeois wife who holds her husband's arm" in the picture, noting they are "suave and grave, dressed quietly and impeccably." He believes the painting shows Seurat's devotion to the "the love of life and the love of light."
Schwartz dedicated that poem to his friends Meyer and Lillian Schapiro. An eminent critic, Meyer was among the first who saw A Sunday on La Grande Jatte as a demonstration of the processes of perception. The most spectacular work of art inspired by the painting is Sunday in the Park with George, a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. It appeared on Broadway in 1984 and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was later produced in London and Paris and in 2008 revived in New York.
George (Mandy Patinkin), an imagined version of Seurat, has a troubled relationship with his mistress (Bernadette Peters), who is named Dot after his painting technique. George is so obsessed with getting his work done that he neglects Dot. We meet many characters dressed like the people in the painting and in a wonderful first-act curtain they come together under George's direction and the audience is confronted by a tableau of the masterpiece. I found the music disappointing but the whole idea was so wonderfully audacious that it charmed the audience and ran for 604 performances. The sets and costumes remain a happy memory to me but recollection fades when I try to recall the second-act appearance of another George, the fictional great-grandson of Dot and Seurat. A century has passed, it is 1984 and the great-grandson turns out to be an artist who works in electric light.
A less expansive tribute is the topiary sculpture created by James T. Mason for a park in Columbus, Ohio. In 1988 he began coaxing the yew trees in a waterside park into the shapes of the figures in La Grande Jatte-1884. Four years later his vision was realized. A huge reproduction of the painting hangs beside the park, so that everyone can judge how close Mason came to the original. Photos make his work look rather awkward but no one complains about this eccentric contribution to a long and distinguished tradition.