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A Sunday On La Grande Jatte By Georges Seurat: Great Art Explained

this video is sponsored by Brilliant At the end of the 19th century, at the height of 
the Industrial Revolution, science was making major   breakthroughs in colour. New pigments were invented 
almost every day, and new colour theories were being   published in scientific journals. It was mainly 
thanks to the ever-growing textile industry and   the Public’s craving for the latest new thing. 
This all had a knock-on effect on fine art.   Georges Seurat spent most of his adult life thinking about
colour. Studying theories and working out systematically   how one colour placed in a series of dots next 
to those of another, creates a whole different   colour when it hits the retina of the human eye. 
How one colour can make another appear luminous   bright and vibrant. Georges Seurat believed in the 
scientific rules of painting and by the   time of a Sunday on La Grand Jatte, he made sure we 
saw colour exactly how he wanted us to. Georges Seurat died at the age of 31 but in his short
life, he changed the direction of Modern Art, invented    a movement, and became one of the icons of late 19th 
century painting. He was born in Paris in 1859 to   wealthy parents. His father was a retired civil 
servant who made a fortune in property speculation.   He was a distant man, emotionally and literally. He 
didn’t live with his family but rather in his own   home in the suburbs where he led a solitary and 
secretive life – apart from every Tuesday evening   when he would arrive at the family apartment, 
have dinner with them in silence, and then catch   the train back to the suburbs. Seurat inherited 
his father’s distant and secretive Behavior,   as well as his desire for isolation. Like his 
father, Georges would also lead a double life.   Even after he left the family home, 
he would arrive there every evening   and have supper with his mother, after which 
he too would leave and catch the train home.   To all intents and purposes, the painter 
Georges was a respectable Bourgeois gentleman.   But the day before he died at the family home 
it was revealed that he was living with a   working-class mistress, with whom he had a son. And 
nobody – not even his closest friends knew. Seurat had   a lifelong need to separate, contain, and divide. He 
was a silent, impenetrable man with a mathematical   precision of mind and an obsession with Order. 
Perfect qualities for the inventor of Pointillism. In 1878 at the age of 18, he was accepted to 
the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.   But found the teaching methods outdated. The 
impressionists meanwhile, were sending shock   waves around Paris, and a visit to the 
fourth impressionist exhibition of 1879   impressed the artist so greatly that 
he decided to quit the Beaux-Arts Academy.   For now he was determined to find his own way, and 
for him, that meant colour – which had been ignored   by his teachers. While still a student he briefly 
assisted Pierre Puvee de Chavannes, who was working on   this painting, which would be compared to La Grand Jatte
not only for its design – with a body of water   on the left, statute-like characters, a slanting 
foreground and a backdrop of trees, but also in the   way it points to classical art in its carefully 
balanced compositions stilted poses and style.   Seurat’s painting would update the sacred grove 
and show us what it might look like in 1884.   He embraced Modern Life as a subject but was not 
interested in painting outside, or even spontaneity,   and he would meticulously plan his pictures. He 
was more interested in his colour theories and   harmonious composition than he was in the subject 
matter. A striking contrast to the Impressionists. In a letter Seurat once revealed that he had 
been interested in finding an optical formula   for painting since he was just 17 years old. He 
studied the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, who   had developed his own theories of contrasting 
or complementary colours. I t was at the Beaux-Arts   library that Seurat discovered the theories of 
Michel Eugene Chevreul, a chemist who restored   tapestries. A theory that was to be crucial 
to the intellectual basis for Seurat’s painting.   when Chevreul investigated the apparent dullness 
of certain dyes, he discovered that the problem   was not with the dyes themselves, but with the 
colours placed alongside them. He realised that the   perception of a particular colour is influenced by 
the surrounding colours near it. To illustrate this   we can use this example. The small brown square is 
exactly the same colour but appears as different   shades, depending on the colours surrounding it. 
one of Chevreul’s achievements was “The colour   wheel” which shows complementary colours. These are 
two colours that are opposite to each other on the   wheel – like red and green. Chevreul realised that 
if you place two complementary colours next to one   another, then the red appears redder and the green 
appears Greener – more vibrant and luminous. Other artists, including van Gogh were investigating 
colour theory. Van Gogh also experimented with pointillism. And we see colour theory principles 
throughout La Grand Jatte. Seurat believed that colour,   seen as small adjacent dots of pure pigment, were 
more alive than traditional mixtures of tints   stirred together on the palette. This would be the 
basis for what Seurat called Divisionism and what   we call pointillism. The artist painted 
La Grand Jatte in three different periods:   He started in May 1884, when he used no dots, but 
rather painted with dashes – vertical for trees   and horizontal for the water. This took him a year. 
He then developed his colour theories further, came   back to the painting in 1885 and added hundreds 
of thousands of small dots of complementary colours,   on top of what he’d already done. Which appear as 
solid and luminous forms when seen from a distance   This stage took him another whole year. It was an 
incredible and laborious undertaking. The third   phase was when he re-stretched the canvas and 
added a colored border to complement the painting. Seurat was only 25 when he finished La Grand Jatte. He had 
meticulously planned the painting with at least   30 oil sketches, 28 Preparatory drawings, and 
three canvases (that we know of). He went to the   island every day for months, making sketches 
and then completed the painting in his Studio   over two years. The canvas is enormous, and at two 
meters by three meters, barely fit into his Studio.   At first he focused on the landscape of the park, 
which he saw as a stage ready for the placement of   his “actors”, and through x-rays we know he changed 
their position many times. He was more interested   in the people as shapes to be positioned 
and balanced rather than individuals.  This is reiterated by the almost complete lack of feet, 
as if the characters are floating – or on pedestals.   It is the ultimate construction – the grass is 
perfect, the people are not eating or drinking,   no picnic campers, and despite the island 
being full of cafes, boatyards, and private   residences, he has erased all the Clutter. 
There are noisy elements in the painting:   A man plays the bugle, dogs bark, and a lone 
child plays, but the overall feeling is “silence”.   It is a frozen moment, as if the world has stopped. 
Nobody is communicating, even those in pairs. At first glance La Grand Jatte is a conventional image. 
The accepted 20th century view of La Grand Jatte, is   that it is a hotbed of prostitution, and 
not a summer Promenade of the bourgeoisie.   It’s one interpretation of many. This woman 
here for example, is often referred to by   modern writers as a “Coquette” or a kept woman, 
promenading with her lover. It’s possible but   nobody – including Seurat or his friends wrote 
about it – even in private letters at the time.   In fact, in earlier studies she is shown 
alone. Her pet monkey has been interpreted   as a symbol of lust, but again no evidence. 
And x-rays show us it was a late addition.   This figure is often said to be a prostitute, as 
she is fishing, due to the French term for fishing   (Pêcher) sounding similar to the French word for 
sin (Pecher), but again not discussed at the time.   There is absolutely no hint of sexuality that you’d
expect in an image of a prostitute, and Seurat didn’t shy   away from sex. Both figures are dressed
like respectable middle class women. This little girl  here, is the only character looking out
to the viewer. She is the embodiment of innocence, and   makes one doubt that this is a place of salacious 
encounters. She is the only part of the painting   that doesn’t have any dots, which makes her glow. 
And her placement at the dead centre, reflects   the white at the centre of the recently created 
colour wheel possibly referencing colour theory.   It’s an image you can read in so many ways, 
extremely familiar but equally elusive.   Another way to look at it, is as a parody of the 
rise of the Petit Bourgeoisie, the upwardly mobile   class of white collar workers, who for the first 
time in history could afford Leisure Time.   The Petit Bourgeoisie was created by the Industrial 
Revolution, and the size, wealth, and political   dominance of this group was growing steadily. 
The lower middle classes had more disposable   income, and could afford ready-made High Fashions 
to compete with (and blend in with) Society women.   The Press was full of caricatures of this class 
promenading in their “silly” fashions, like the   bustle, the top hat, the monocle, and pet monkeys. And 
Seurat does seem to be mocking the pretentiousness   of their stiff and uniform Fashions. Class is on 
display here – this woman is working-class. A Nurse   with her patient, and wears the traditional 
uniform of a hat and attached red ribbon.   Friends called this working-class character 
a canoeist or a Boatman, and his features are   more rugged than the others. All of these are valid 
interpretations but I would say meaning is not so   important in this work. It is an open-ended image 
of the kind we see in other paintings by Seurat.   The lack of narrative means we really should look 
to the artist’s obsession with form, technique and   Theory – which is practically all he wrote about. 
And not to meaning or subject matter – which he   didn’t write about at all. The painting is really 
his Manifesto. His protagonists don’t have faces or   body language, neither a history nor individuality. 
They are reduced to a hat, a corset, or a pet.   They are just characters in his frieze. They exist 
only to give Perfect Balance to the composition.   Some paintings are designed for the viewer to 
“empathise with” but Seurat keeps us at arm’s length.   We are not invited to “participate” in the Promenade, 
and their psychological distance is clear.   Both with their neighbours, and with us. It was ancient 
art that Seurat looked to – of Egypt and Greece.   He once said that he “Wanted to make modern people 
move about as they do on the Parthenon Frieze,   and place them on canvases organized by harmonies 
of colour”. It is what makes the painting So intriguing.   On the one hand, it is modern – a representation of 
1884 – and on the other, it is an image of classical art. Seurat’s work reflects science and research.
and celebrates Harmony, an obsession   with the artist – not just in colour, but also there 
is geometric Harmony and unity in the painting.   The tranquil, calming effect of the painting 
is down to its austere linear structure.    The verticals of the trees, and the figures. The use of 
rhythm in the repetition of parasols and postures,   and the horizontals of the reclining 
figures, the canoes and the Shadows.  Take these two women. One wears a hat and holds 
a parasol, the other woman’s hat and parasol are   on the floor. One figure looks up and one 
looks down. Her top is red, and her dress   is blue. The other’s top is blue and her dress 
is red. These two soldiers mirror this couple.   The subtlety of this man’s cane, at the same angle 
as the rower’s oars. It is carefully considered,   it is scientific, and it is analytical, but step 
back and everything is measured and harmonious. The eighth and final impressionist 
group show took place in 1886   and despite La Grand Jatte being the star of the show, 
it did not sell. Within five years Seurat was dead.   Probably from diphtheria, and two weeks 
later his son died from the same disease.   Then in 1900, his friends sold the painting
for the paltry sum of 800 Francs.   Frederick Clay Bartlett of Chicago, bought the work in
1924, and donated it to the Art Institute of Chicago.   Where it is housed today, as a key work of European 
modernism. This painting is sometimes seen as   too rational, pessimistic, cynical or even lifeless. 
But I disagree. I think it is a joyous painting,    a celebration of ideas, and essentially optimistic.
I like to think of Seurat, and the excitement of seeing   his painting emerge from hundreds of thousands of 
dots and dashes. How thrilled he would have been   to see his discoveries, concepts, and systems, 
appreciated by generations of art lovers.   All thanks, to science and the glorious power of colour. 
Georges Seurat will be remembered as the artist who took accepted ideas and conventions about colour, and
turned them on their head. Then he rebuilt them. Dot by Dot. Talking of science. Now for a quick ad from – a great method to learn science   in a whole new way. It’s important to me, that I 
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