Each phenomenon in art is a natural outcome of the previous heritage combined with contemporary challenges and dictated by the necessity of permanent artistic evolution. George Seurat’s painting is no exception but rather a convincing illustration of how art transforms to meet the standards of the epoch, or rather to go ahead of it to boost development in other domains of human activity. George Seurat seemed to understand his place in history of art perfectly, as he felt how impressionist heritage needed to be absorbed, drawn to perfection and transformed completely into a totally new style and vision. The current paper focuses on artistic and philosophical influences that made Seurat use dots in his painting.
According to the painter, his manner of pointillism was a form of science, and he wanted to excel in making calculated effect on the viewer by means of optical mixture, a special innovative technique which consisted in placing colors next to each other instead of mixing them and letting the viewer’s eye do the rest of the job in this optical effect. “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is an example of how this technique helps achieve the effect of luminosity by using primary colors that would be not possible by means of mixing. At the time Impressionism was considered to be the most progressive and modern school of painting that was gradually becoming mainstream, so it was time to give birth to something new without rejecting impressionism totally. It would be true to state that it was Seurat’s mission to do that because he thoroughly studied this movement and their technique. It should be stressed that maybe it is for this reason that the painter himself labeled himself a Neo-Impressionist, even though there is significant difference in both form and approach of what he did compared to Impressionist painting.
Seurat believed that unique use of light and color was the main achievement of Impressionism, so he tried to do that in his own painting. Yet, he wanted to go further than that by creating a new technique. He was making almost scientific research and experience with colors until he worked out pointillist technique. He was puzzled and wanted to solve the mystery of natural bright shades colors, which were impossible to achieve by mere blend of several primary colors. Hence, he chose a different approach in contrast to a typical impressionist brushstroke. In “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” the viewer’s attention is drawn to the canvas and how the effect of such luminosity was achieved. In fact, if we look closely at a figure of the lying man, for example, we can easily notice that the lower layer is painted in a common technique of brushstrokes and mixing colors but the upper layer is painted in dots of primary colors that eventually blur and optically create a new bright color. In fact, the painting demonstrates that the subject matter is close to Impressionism but its realization is absolutely different. So, first of all, his scientific research of color made his use dots, yet it was not the only reason.
If we look at “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, its subject matter of leisure time of the upper class in the nature should not lead us in delusion. It is historically known that Seurat wanted to move away from catching fleeting moments, as Impressionist did. On the contrary, he desired to create something more monumental and everlasting. It can be arguably suggested that one of the reason for creating no special individuality in face expressions for people in the painting is that he wanted to refer them to eternity. Despite his innovative technique, the painter aimed to make the impression of stability and solemnity that is typical for classical painting. Even though the costumes of the depicted people disclose their epoch and class, Seurat took some efforts to change original landscape of the island to make it somewhat out of time. For example, as Duchtig points out, there were cafes, restaurants and houses there at the time it was painted, but Seurat removed them on purpose to remove the signs of the epoch. Besides, it is remarkable that almost all characters are still, as if their sculpture-like shapes were to be fixated. No one is swimming; there are no half-naked people, which suggests that the painter’s aim was to make the plot classical and respectable. As a researcher remarks, “Seurat’s figures…are strolling as if in a “sacred grove”, removed from time and space. The painter tells no anecdotes; his protagonists have neither a face nor body language, neither a history nor individuality” (Duchtig)
As researchers point out, the painting was not spontaneous but it took almost two years to be carried out. Seurat related to his work as to science indeed, and unlike Impressionists, he worked in his studio at this final canvas, not in the open air, while he made numerous preliminary sketches and drafts. On his way to the masterpiece he contemplated on every detail, including composition, colors, light, and the very technique of painting. He painted individual figures and landscapes directly outdoors, but it took him efforts of a research to create the final version in his mind. More about color theory should be mentioned in order to understand the roots of his art. As Moffet mentions, “Seurat’s ideas about color were indebted to the technical treatises of M.E. Chevreul( La Loi di contraste simultant des couleurs, 1839) and O.N. Rood ( Modern Chromatics, 1879)…If his concepts were to work successfully, Seurat had to weigh each color relationship precisely ( Moffet, 1985).
The formal elements of the painting tell stories in a metaphoric way, and can have several philosophic interpretations. Of course, the technique of pointillism is an important factor in the painter’s message but the use of form and composition should not be underestimated. It is true that there is some isolation about the silhouettes of people on the canvas. The researchers mention that certain subtext can be revealed from how they are positioned. Thus, for instance, Roskill believes that there are influences of ancient art in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”: “Hieratic frozen are used to imply, by fairly explicit association, a ritual quality to the proceedings of the kind found in Egyptian or Assyrian art or in frescos of Piero della Francesca”( Roskill, 1983). He also mentions that they are psychologically alienated from one another, as no interaction between them can be found, which can be food for thought and for finding philosophical messages. Linda Nochin, in her turn, claims that the painting by Seurat is a break-up with the whole Western tradition of painting with its expressive element. There is no sentiment or between people depicted on the canvas. Their emotionless is ambiguous and refers the story rather to modern times: “ the dominant language is anti-expressive…Rather in these machine-turned profiles, these regularized dots we may discover coded references to modern science and to modern industry with its mass production; to the department store with its cheap and multiple copies” ( Nochin, n.d.). The researcher believes that both the painter and the protagonists are psychologically absent from the painting, which is represented in the pointillism and absence of facial expressions. It is remarkable that this interpretation evokes associations with a much later movement linked to the society of consumerism – Pop Art. The fact that Andy Warhol used dot technique invented by Seurat make the researcher’s suggestions sound quite reasonable. Thus, there are contradictory interpretations between critics as far as historical, philosophical and aesthetic implications of the painting are concerned.
Overall, it should be noted that there are several important influences that made Seurat develop his art in the way it is represented in “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. First of all, by calling himself a Neo-Impressionist, the painter both appealed to and distanced himself from Impressionist heritage. His works are definitely less fleeting and more monumental, in a classical way. This is largely achieved through using the technique of dots and optical mixture, which is an outcome of his thorough research of color. Because he believed that his approach is scientific rather than purely artistic, he experimented with color to the extent that a new visual method was created. This became possible due to his study of theory of color and optic illusion, which he applied in his art successfully. The researchers do not have consensus about the painting’s interpretation: some believe it has references to ancient art, while others claim it to be truly modernist. Anyway, these debates and the place that Seurat possesses in art evolution ( or revolution) prove that his efforts were not in vain.