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Seurat's Sight



We do not need an artist to show us the intensity of a color, the grace of a line, or the vehement contrast between a light form and a dark form. There are powers that are inherent in color, line, and form--powers that we register immediately, almost unthinkingly, as we regard the world around us. Great painters and sculptors tap into these pre-artistic experiences of sight. And the work that they produce, whether more or less naturalistic or more or less abstract, becomes a wonderfully intricate re-enactment of the fundamentals of seeing. Artistic individuality is expressed through the complexities of the re- enactment--through its angles and eddies, its emphases and elaborations. An artist's sensibility suggests a series of reflections on the possibilities of sight. And an artist's style, when fully formed, is a reckoning with the possibilities of sight.

A style is a philosophy of seeing. The artist of a classical turn of mind is likely to assume that color and line and form have an existence that precedes any particular person's experience, so that seeing becomes a way of comprehending a fundamental pattern. The artists whom we think of as Romantics or Expressionists may be inclined to believe that form and space have no fixed identity and are therefore continuously re-created through the process of looking. For all artists, seeing involves not only seeing the world but also seeing the work of art through the stages of its evolution, and that evolution is often an exploration of the paradoxes of sight. Corot knew how to give an inevitability to the quotidian juxtapositions of trees and buildings and sky that he discovered when he worked out of doors. The surprise that awaits us in some of Poussin's and Mondrian's paintings is that their insistence on determining the underlying--indeed, the hidden--laws of the visual world provokes flights of speculative color and geometry that bring to the canvases a brave, unpredictable energy.

No artist has ever paid closer attention to the rival claims of a variety of ways of seeing than Georges Seurat. And there may be no more persuasive exposition of his restless pursuit of the essence of sight than is found in the dozens of preparatory oil studies and drawings that form the core of "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte," which is at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 19. In his shockingly brief life--he was thirty-one when he died in 1891--Seurat delved deeply into the wonderful unpredictability of sight and the dream of finding an overarching or underlying order that might finally explain the nature of seeing. And in the studies for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the roughly six-and-a-half-by-ten-foot canvas in which he immortalized the leisure-time experience of ordinary Parisians in the mid-1880s, he went in so many generally parallel but also somewhat divergent directions that museumgoers can become intimately acquainted with the man's vigorous explorations. In the oil studies he embraced voluptuous Impressionist brushwork and the fusion of forms in large areas of color, while emphasizing in some of the drawings a taste for absolutes of light and dark and vehemently distinctive profiles.

In La Grande Jatte, a young painter re-frames an old-fashioned, grandmanner style in contemporary terms. The scene is the banks of the Seine in the suburbs of Paris, and the cast of characters reflects a rapidly changing urban situation, for Seurat found many of his actors and actresses among the working people who were developing a taste for middle-class pleasures. They promenade in their fine clothes, they talk to their friends, they look out at the shimmering Seine. In the gorgeous formality of the completed composition Seurat's contemporaries saw echoes of Puvis de Chavannes's classicism and of the hieratic elegance of Old Kingdom Egyptian paintings and basrelief. Yet Seurat's painting, far from suggesting the consistent story or moral that many expect to find in traditional figure compositions, owes its meaning to an extended gathering of singular apprehensions and discoveries--the look of certain figures, the nature of the landscape, the relation of figures to spaces, of color to color, of dark to light.

The sense of melancholy or isolation that has often been observed in Seurat's painting is only a part of the story. His figures--who often stand or sit close together, so that some degree of intimacy is implied--are saturated in an atmosphere full of wit, elegance, mystery, and surprise. In Seurat's drawings and oil sketches, we observe a wide variety of meanings growing out of the very act of seeing. Sometimes the enigma of personality is lodged in the muffling of features that is an effect of distance. At other times the strong light behind and around a figure turns a person's profile into an image with a talismanic power. One feels that as Seurat worked on his drawings, wondering how dark to make the dark of a profile, he was also wondering, "Whose profile is this?" And, perhaps, "What does a profile tell us?" Here perception segues into metaphysics. The blues and greens that suffuse the scene suggest an idea of wholeness that Seurat's famous dots and dashes of paint confound, for this atomization of color in turn bespeaks division, breakdown, a perpetual principle of conflict.

We have to remind ourselves constantly that La Grande Jatte, which Seurat began in 1884 and first exhibited in 1886, is the work of a man in his mid-twenties. Perhaps if Seurat had not died suddenly of diphtheria a few years later, we would accept the painting, with all its originality of conception and seamless realization, as a dazzling opening statement, like Michelangelo's David. As it is, La Grande Jatte, along with the masterworks that Seurat created in his last few years--including Circus Sideshow, Cahut, Circus, and a series of landscapes--have to carry within their relatively small compass the weight of an entire life's experience. As with Mozart and Keats, so with Seurat: the density of the achievement confounds the short span of the years. It is as if these artists had been born with the knowledge that they had no time to indulge in the messy explorations that longer-lived artists could afford. There is something Mozartean in the way that the precision of Seurat's technique enables him to embrace a range of emotions with superhuman speed.


La Grande Jatte has been in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago for about eighty years, and there may be no European painting in an American museum that has come to be regarded as so essential a part of the cultural institution that is its home. Chicago's enthusiastic embrace of Seurat's masterwork reflects something more than the pride of Americans in a trophy that was snatched from an Old World still reluctant to embrace the new, for although this legendary painting and this great cultural institution are products of two different continents, the forces that produced them were not entirely unrelated. Seurat was working on La Grande Jatte in the very years that Chicago's great museum was established, and if the Art Institute was one of those late nineteenth-century American enterprises that were meant to give civilization's highest artistic achievements a place in a democratic society, so Seurat's La Grande Jatte is a painting in which the worldview of the middle class is presented as a theme with some of the grandeur and complexity that we know from the masterpieces of earlier ages.

Like the museum that has been its home for two-thirds of its life, La Grande Jatte was born at a time when many people believed that art's oldest aristocratic aspirations could be re-imagined in the context of a vibrant democratic civilization. In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, the cultural historian Neil Harris lays out some of this social history in rich detail. He observes that the Midwestern public at times regarded Seurat's work with less than complete enthusiasm, and points to a contest in 1934, co-sponsored by the Chicago Daily News and the Art Institute, which found that the most popular painting in America was the Art Institute's saccharine The Song of the Lark, by Jules Breton, with Seurat's great picture not even in the running. Harris suggests that the museum let it be known that the French government had offered more than $400,000 to buy back Seurat's work as part of a campaign to encourage Chicagoans to recognize what they had in their midst. And yet whatever the bumpy moments in Chicago's love affair with La Grande Jatte, this is a story of democratic culture triumphant. For the Chicago muralist Frederic Clay Bartlett, the son of a local millionaire, who bought the painting, and for the museum staff who gave it so central a place at the Art Institute, the issue was never whether Seurat's was the most famous or the most popular painting, but that it was a profoundly complicated work--a challenge to which the Chicago public could rise, a modern monument that could make people recognize what great art was all about.

"Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" is the latest salute to the museum's crown jewel, and while the show's strengths do honor to the painting and to the city, the exhibition is very, very far from being an unadulterated success. Its failures speak volumes about what the people who run today's museums think the public wants--and how, perhaps, in the eighty years since La Grande Jatte came into the museum's collection, the people in charge at the Art Institute have shrunk their assumptions about what the public can absorb. A transcendent medium-sized exhibition has been nearly ruined by the museum's insistence on producing a multimedia extravaganza.

This is one of the strangest shows that I have ever seen. Each time Seurat pulled me into his miraculously nuanced world, I was yanked out of it by some museological horror. Near the beginning there is a darkened video gallery, where nineteenth-century color theory is summarized with graphic techniques reminiscent of a moderately hip 1960s ad campaign. There is a poorly shaped presentation of Impressionist crowd-pleasers by Renoir and Monet. There are two more video galleries, where museumgoers are invited to watch as the camera glides over the surface of La Grande Jatte or zooms in for close-ups. There is a mural-sized photo reproduction of Seurat's Bathing Place, Asnires, and another photo mural, a montage of Seurat's sources in high art and low art, all overlapped as if on a website. There is a computer simulation of what the colors in La Grand Jatte looked like before an unstable yellow pigment that Seurat used had changed color.

And the studies for La Grande Jatte, along with the painting itself, are presented in a room decked out with curvilinear walls, a sort of postmodern merry-go-round that nobody in their right mind would inflict on Seurat's supreme study in the possibilities of frontality and rectilinearity. How things went so wrong is not easy to say. The catalogue is basically the work of Robert L. Herbert, a commanding figure in the study of Seurat, and the great exhibition at the core of this shambles of a show seems to reflect Herbert's exacting vision. The exhibition ought to have been arranged in four galleries: a first room, with pre-La Grand Jatte work by Seurat and a few paintings by Renoir and Monet to indicate how his technique built on theirs; a gallery of oil studies and drawings for La Grand Jatte; another gallery devoted to more studies as well as to the painting itself; and a final room with later drawings and paintings by Seurat plus a few works by Pissarro and Signac to suggest the influence of the Pointillist technique. But in place of such a show--which would have been sparkling,  revelatory, precise--we are given sprawl and confusion.

As I understand it, Herbert was not actually involved with the installation of the show. Gloria Groom and Douglas W. Druick--the curators of nineteenth- century painting at the Art Institute who, while they wrote little in the catalogue, actually made the exhibition a reality--are serious and highly respected figures who clearly love Seurat. But they were unable or unwilling to say no to the kind of hucksterism that museum administrators now mistake for a respect for the public--even in Chicago, a city that can boast one of the most astute museumgoing audiences in the country. In today's museums, the heartfelt desire of curators and scholars to make it possible for the public to see what they have seen is almost invariably pitted against the deeply irresponsible and often entirely inaccurate assessments of marketing know-it-alls, who for some reason imagine that museumgoers fear the kind of direct, unmediated experience of art that draws them to a great collection in the first place.

The video screens, the digitalized rehashings of the painting, the photo murals, the jazzed-up gallery architecture, and the inclusion of what are believed to be easy-looking interludes of Renoir and Monet: all this is meant to make visitors feel at home. You go to the museum and discover that you could just as well have booted up your Mac, played around in Photoshop, browsed through the Masterpieces of Impressionism book on the coffee table, and gone out for lunch at that cool restaurant with the curvy walls. Doesn't it ever occur to the men and women who run museums that when people who come to a museum to see paintings and drawings by Seurat are confronted by all these videoed and digitalized versions and analyses of Seurats, they may ultimately conclude that they could just as well have stayed at home and gazed at reproductions?

A great chance to educate the public has been botched in Chicago. For Seurat's studies for La Grande Jatte, seen in such dazzling profusion, tell a story of the workings of the imagination that anybody can understand without audio-visual assistance. The one thing that the Art Institute has been wise to include is an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper, a handout that is available as you enter the crucial phase of the show, which contains a reproduction of La Grande Jatte and a brief explanation of the way that the studies for the painting have been grouped in order to reflect, as best we can understand, the stages of Seurat's thinking. Walking around with this information sheet, people can begin to grasp Seurat's strenuous process of trial and error, and his arrival at the riveting vision of the final painting. One morning, I saw a woman and what I expect was her second- or third-grade daughter making their way around the room. The girl was picking out the changes, the shifts that Seurat made as he developed and honed his ideas. All it took were her eyes and her native intelligence. She didn't need a movie to help her compare a study of a figure to the figure in the painting, and she didn't need a simulated zoom-in to enable her to look at the texture of Seurat's paint strokes. By looking directly, by seeing things for herself, this girl was taking possession of the painting. The magic of creation is there for all to see, for all to embrace, if only the museum would let people get on with it.; "Herbert brings reserves of experience to the immensely difficult questions of exactly how the preparations for La Grande Jatte unfolded and what the painting means..."


Robert Herbert has been studying Seurat for half a century, and to the extent that this exhibition is an unforgettable experience, I suspect it is because the curators who were working with him at the Art Institute respected his wishes. The centrality of drawings all through the show reflects Herbert's lifelong fascination with Seurat's graphic work, beginning with his research in the 1950s, and including an essay in the catalogue of the Seurat retrospective that originated in Chicago in 1958 and went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a book on the drawings that he published in 1962. Herbert is one of a line of art historians, including John Rewald, Robert Goldwater, and Meyer Schapiro, who have brought a literary clarity, a reverence for empirical evidence, and an elegance of mind to the study of this beguilingly enigmatic artist.

In his writing in the catalogue, as well as in the collection of his studies titled simply Seurat: Drawings and Paintings (Yale University Press), Herbert evokes the power of the work with a restraint that feels exactly right for Seurat. He is a writer whose words deserve to be savored, as when he observes of a drawing of a woman seen in profile that "her dark silhouette, modulated only by the light that nibbles at the left side of her form, rises from the paper like a premonition of the sculpture of Brancusi." And when Herbert remarks, about a drawing of a man with a top hat, that "his wispy features lack substance, as though his reality is to be found only in his expansive body," he begins to suggest the psychological and even the existential dimensions of Seurat's formal decisions. Herbert brings reserves of experience to the immensely difficult questions of exactly how the preparations for La Grande Jatte unfolded and what the painting means, and his speculations about the order in which Seurat did his studies and the way the artist's ideas evolved are incisive without being prescriptive. He leaves Seurat's imagination intact; he allows viewers room to speculate.

The place of science in Seurat's art has long been a matter of dispute, and it has been the argument of Schapiro and, more recently, of Herbert that there is more that is intuitive and spontaneous in Seurat's art than the painter himself may at times have cared for his admirers to know. While Seurat embraced the ideas of Chevreul and others about the powerful impact that primary and complementary colors could have, they were constantly modified by considerations that were formal and poetic. The difference in approach between Seurat and the first generation of Impressionists in the 1870s was immense but not absolute. Renoir and Monet were more selfconscious than has sometimes been imagined in their methods of using closely adjacent colors in strong hues to create optical mixes; and Seurat was surely willing to bend or break theory under the pressure of visual experience.

It is well to remember, of course, that the essence of the scientific method is not a rigid faith in theory, but an insistence on the discovery of truth through experimentation. The young artist who emerges in Chicago is above all an experimentalist. When we consider that in his preparations for La Grande Jatte Seurat pursued simultaneously an art of pure color in oil studies and an art of black-and-white absolutism in his drawings, we realize that he had the audacity to see the value of both sides of the great European controversy between the values of disegno, the art of Florence and Michelangelo and classicism, and colorito, the art of Venice and Titian and the Romantics. In the preparations for La Grande Jatte, Seurat labored to reconcile the rival claims of color and chiaroscuro. This may not have been what Seurat was thinking about when he wrote, in a sketch for an aesthetic, that "Art is Harmony" and that "Harmony is the analogy of opposites," but few artists have worked so hard to harmonize the opposing visions of Florence and Venice, of classicism and romanticism.

More than a dozen small oil studies related to La Grande Jatte, a significant proportion of those that exist, are included in the Art Institute show. These, together with studies for Bathing Place, Asnires, Seurat's earlier scene of Parisians at leisure, as well as yet earlier studies, reveal wide variations in chromatic orchestrations and painterly touch. While it is not clear that all these studies were done out-of-doors, they are almost invariably done on panels of a roughly six-by-nine-inch horizontal format that evoke the endless excursions that nineteenth-century painters took to paint directly from nature. Through the flickering animation of his renderings of foliage and water and sky, Seurat recapitulates the immediacy of nature painting from Boudin though the early Renoir and Monet. Looking at these studies, with their tiny figures and light-drenched vistas, we begin to feel that what is timeless and hieratic in La Grande Jatte is drawn not so much from art history as from the immediacy of perception.

Herbert wonders whether certain figures, such as a tiny cadet with bright red pants, were done from life or were invented, and perhaps the closest that anybody will ever come to answering this question is that at certain points in the process perception and invention were very closely related. In the three larger oils related to La Grande Jatte--one of the landscape, one of the central couple, and the full compositional study now in the Metropolitan in New York--we watch as the notation of ephemeral naturalistic experience is transformed into the stroke that constructs the wall of color that is the very essence of Seurat's pictorial vision. There is a fascinating variety in these larger oil studies. The Couple, which focuses on the slim, elegant man and woman at the center of La Grande Jatte, is done with a rather dry brush in broad, angled strokes that allow the canvas to show through; it has a boldness of attack that is not quite like anything else in Seurat's work. In the Metropolitan's compositional study, the smaller-scaled brushstrokes still have an Impressionist air of ease, although now it is the spirits of classicism that are being summoned with Seurat's understated painterly magic.

While Seurat surely aimed to construct in La Grande Jatte the kind of stand- alone masterpiece that would eclipse all the artist's preparatory studies, it is known that he did exhibit some of the studies during his lifetime, and both those done in oil and the drawings in cont crayon often have the authority of autonomous works. One feels that the tiny figures in the oil sketches, no matter how telescoped, are imbued by Seurat with specific qualities and meanings. Even in Seurat's smallest works, the everyman of Impressionist painting becomes something of a mythological being. The man or woman who stands in the green shade or sits looking out at the water can strike the viewer with the force of an archetypal wanderer or a sphinx whose magical knowledge is locked away behind an immobile profile. A large drawing for the whole landscape of La Grande Jatte is bereft of figures, but contains, in the foreground, a dog sniffing at the ground, and the animal complicates the image, gives it a whispering narrative power. When Seurat studies the landscape that is the stage for his grand figure composition, one feels that he is also fascinated by the idea of the empty stage as having a dramatic value in and of itself. And in the dozens of studies of individual men and women, mostly in cont crayon, Seurat creates a portrait gallery in which each subject is granted a particular iconographical mystery.

It has often been observed that Seurat's interest in the lives of the lower classes and in Parisian entertainments parallels the writing of naturalists such as the Goncourt brothers. In his cont crayon studies, Seurat seems to be drawing certain figures into being with an eye for the revelatory detail that recalls the way that many great nineteenth-century novelists developed their supporting casts. There are interludes in which Seurat uses the knife-edge of shameless comedy as he points up the petty vanities and illusions of the Parisian crowd dressed in its Sunday best. This is not surprising, for the austerity of his graphic style was in part derived from the down-and-dirty satirical work of Daumier and Goya, much as Proust--who is also sometimes presented with excessive piety, as an idol to set upon the altar of art--drew some of his view of the human comedy from Dickens.

Seurat's drawings are a climactic achievement in Western art, and taken together the studies for La Grande Jatte are perhaps even more miraculous than the painting itself. Working the soft, oily cont crayon against thick, textured paper so that his darks take on a variegated, mottled luxuriance, Seurat found a way to create, almost from the beginning of his career, arrangements of velvety forms that have unforgettably distinct shapes but no precise edges. The result is a re-imagining of graphic art that is at once deeply eccentric and radically apposite, for if drawing is the art of the line, it is confounded by these studies that are almost all tone. The simplifications of fashion illustrations and the stylizations of Old Kingdom Egyptian tombs, all recognized as sources of Seurat's graphic experimentation, are never evoked directly in these drawings, but rather are rediscovered, amid the quivering animation of direct experience, as imperatives that inform convention.

Seurat was a great admirer of Vermeer, who found his truth in the particulars. Such a model might seem a danger for a Classicist, except that for Seurat the only truth that was worth discovering was the one that you discovered for yourself. Seurat uncovered the lucidity at the core of modern life's confusions--and it always involved a slightly uneasy or insecure kind of balance, a delicate balance. In Seurat's drawings classicism becomes a modern speculative process. His studies of a woman's hat or of the bustle on her dress, in which he seeks the few silvery shapes that will forever define the form, are a search for absolutes of beauty amid fashion's most ephemeral effects. As Seurat lingers over a Parisian's ready-to-wear costume, he is pushing his grays into combinations that come as close as anything in the graphic arts to suggesting celestial harmonies.


Large figure compositions cry out for interpretation, and surely La Grande Jatte is one of the most analyzed works in the modern canon. It has been said to reflect the impersonality of modern life, an anti-utopia; the large woman in profile has been described as a prostitute; and there have been disagreements about exactly who some of the male figures are. Robert Herbert is skeptical of many of these interpretations, and suggests that perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from all of them is that the painting's implications are multitudinous. Responding to the theories of some of his colleagues, he lets them down easy, wisely ruling that each has recognized some small part of the truth. Herbert understands that the multiplication of incident in La Grande Jatte--the many figures, each caught in his or her own daydream--keeps things complex, and he sees here an atmosphere pervaded by a kind of irony, not an acidic or nihilistic irony, but a constant play or questioning of possibilities. This is the kind of irony that Adam Zagajewski describes, in his essay "A Defense of Ardor," as "like the windows and doors without which our buildings would be solid monuments, not habitable spaces." This irony gives Seurat's rigorous formal design its openness, its liveliness, its wit.

While there is, as is invariably pointed out, something mechanical and impersonal about Seurat's figures, their geometric simplicity also speaks to an aspect of our pleasure in being in the world-- to the blunt physical authority that we experience as we walk down the street, to the sense that each of us has of being a relatively uncomplicated able-bodied structure that holds a place in the world. Seurat's figures are not just cogs in a machine; they command their space, they make their space. And if their relationship to the world is anything but simple, it finally suggests the complexities and the ambiguities of a modern pastoral, the renewal of an ancient and fluid theme that embraces the hard work of Hesiod's Works and Days, the tragic recognitions of Poussin's Et In Arcadia Ego, as well as the yearning for an almost unthinking sense of unity with the natural world.

La Grande Jatte is an essay in the grand manner and its discontents. I believe that there are paintings by Seurat that are greater; the much smaller Circus Sideshow, his vision of the entrance to a small circus seen at dusk, is as heroically inevitable a composition and one that feels, at least to me, more deeply knit together, more profoundly felt. But La Grande Jatte, especially when seen surrounded by all the studies, has a boldness of ambition and an internal complexity that plunges us deep into the hopes and the anxieties of the fin-desicle that was the anteroom of the world as we know it. This is an essential avowal of the modern imagination, the work of a man who wanted to unite art and society, tradition and modernity, and aimed to do so with an audacity that maybe only a young man could really muster. So it is no surprise that often, when artists have dreamed of making something enduring of the world around them, they have turned to La Grande Jatte--from Nadelman in his wooden sculptures of New Yorkers of the 1920s to Balthus in his Passage du Commerce Saint-Andr, the vision of Left Bank life in the 1950s that builds so persuasively on Seurat's view of urban experience.

This exhibition will not be seen anywhere but in Chicago, since La Grande Jatte, which is in delicate condition, has not traveled since 1958. I do wish that a smaller show, including all the studies for La Grande Jatte, could have moved from Chicago to New York: taken together, even without the crowning canvas in their midst, these studies constitute an exhibition that would have emboldened the best artists working on the East Coast. Contemporary artists, in their desire to make sense at once of the past and the present, are sometimes all too quick to imagine that tradition has a logic that they can penetrate in an orderly way--that there is some simple equation that will enable them to unite the old and the new. The young man who worked at all those studies for La Grande Jatte may have claimed that he was looking for a logical method, but in fact he eschewed predictable equations and understood that it was only through a profoundly empirical process that tradition and modernity would ultimately be joined. He appreciated the sparkle of light on water as well as the formality of ancient art; he understood the importance of a full blast of color as well as the austerity of black and white. And there is a lesson to be discovered in his insistence on going in several directions--sometimes almost simultaneously.

The union of tradition and modernity was not a program that Seurat laid out in La Grande Jatte so much as it was an effect of the imagination that quite simply had to be seen to be believed. Robert Herbert has observed that Seurat is "one of those rare artists who make conservatism into a vehicle for revolutionary change." Those words land with a particular force right now, for a revolutionary conservative--a conservative who is open-minded and forthright and unafraid of new experiences--is probably the only kind of artist who can any longer make a difference.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.