In the space of a fortnight in June, I had the opportunity to see both of Georges Seurat’s monumental masterpieces. In London, after visiting the Sorolla exhibition I battled through the National Gallery to the Post-Impressionist room and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. It was the wrong decision – the painting was besieged by a noisy, unruly mob, jostling for the most advantageous selfie-position. No space for contemplative response, no space for careful scrutiny. This wonderfully ambitious and experimental painting has taken on a new existence as a piece of scenery, something important enough to merit a casual glance but not important enough to be worthy of close study.
In Chicago, Seurat is a star – A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is one of the centrepieces of the collection and occupies a wall of its own in a place where it really can’t be missed. Once again, it was confronted by a crowd, but a more respectful audience than in London. Much easier to navigate through and reach the target. This left space to get a sense of its magnetic presence and appreciate what an extraordinary and baffling painting this is. There is no simple reading - curators and historians cannot agree on what the painting is about. Some see social significance in the depiction of petty bourgeoisie leisure activities as an extension of the artist’s earlier observation of the off-duty working class at Asnières. There are those who see a meditation on the contradictory world of high fashion in the meticulously observed outfits on display and the mannequin-like figures. In their isolation from one another, some see the figures as inhabiting a critique of capitalism and consumerist conformity. Others detect irony in Seurat’s apparent mockery and caricature of social pretension. A formalist evaluation is focused on Seurat’s further refinement of the pointillist technique and his methodical surface construction according to the scientific principles of Charles Blanc, Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood. Which induced some to view the painting as an endorsement of progressive republican ideals.
The existence of multiple interpretations is one of the things that makes Seurat such an intriguing artist. His interests include the science of optics, radical politics, contemporary fashion and popular print media, especially caricature. These are not easily reconciled into a comfortable description of an integrated personality. Given his reticence, there is no easy way to assess his character and motivations. Personal privacy was a major concern and he may have taken silent pleasure in confounding attempts to assign his work to a single point of view. Paradoxically, Seurat’s cool and unemotional paintings were a gateway for Van Gogh, enabling him to achieve greater intensity of feeling by adapting the pointillist technique to invigorate his paint surfaces and colour combinations. Pissarro assimilated pointillism into his painting vocabulary and re-energised his output in the latter part of his career. There was a large tribe of Seurat followers active in France, notably Signac, Luce, van Rysselberghe, Cross and Angrand. Derain, Braque and Matisse had a brief flirtation with pointillism in the early days of Fauvism. In Italy the pointillist technique was enthusiastically adopted by fin de siècle symbolists and bequeathed to the Futurists in whose dynamic paintings it would enjoy a final incandescence. Such lesser aftershocks may bear little comparison with the powerful influence of Cézanne but were not without significance.
We have only fragmentary glimpses of the inner Seurat. Some letters survive, plus some notes he wrote about his painting technique. An academic training in the manner of Ingres fed his preference for order and objectivity. Anecdotes are thin on the ground - he was seen at the Café d’Athènes and he spent time in the company of Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon. Friends and colleagues report a self contained individual for whom a Bohemian lifestyle held little appeal. Sober and deliberately unostentatious in appearance, he seemed comfortable with his bourgeois origins despite his anarchist sympathies. The existence of his mistress and mother of his child, Madeleine Knobloch, only became known after his death in 1891. Seurat is an artist who approached all his work with the utmost gravity in terms of planning and forethought without endorsing any particular estimation of its meaning and value. He had the gift of maintaining just enough distance between himself and the great weight of critical interpretation built upon his achievements. It’s an easy matter to summon up a mental picture of a grumpy Cezanne, an embittered Lautrec, a lascivious Gauguin or an anguished Van Gogh but Seurat is elusive. The only film portrayal came in Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956 Van Gogh biopic) in which Seurat, played by David Bond stands on a step-ladder dabbing away at the Grande Jatte while Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) declaims his admiration. Death came suddenly at the end of March 1891 when he took to his bed with a serious cough and died within three days leaving his admirers to speculate on what might have been.