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Points to consider

Dot by dot, layer by layer, conservators have deconstructed Georges Seurat's 'A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.' Now, a Chicago exhibition meticulously reveals the trial-and-error evolution that led to a masterpiece.

June 06, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Chicago — It's Friday morning at the Art Institute of Chicago's most popular gallery. A white-haired docent stationed in front of Georges Seurat's masterpiece, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884," tells a group of elementary school students that a little girl in the painting is looking straight at them. The kids' eyes dart around the 7-by-10-foot canvas as they search for other figures depicted from the same viewpoint.

As the youngsters depart, other visitors move in to gaze at Seurat's vision of Parisians taking their leisure on an island in the Seine. These folks know the painting through everything from art history books to reproductions on T-shirts and Christmas tree ornaments; Stephen Sondheim's 1984 Broadway musical, "Sunday in the Park with George"; and a tableau vivant at Laguna Beach's 1996 Pageant of the Masters. But this is the real thing.

More than an image of 48 people, eight boats, three dogs and a monkey, the tapestry-like composition of thousands of dots, dashes and blobs of pigment is the quintessential Pointillist painting. And it never loses its fascination for the public. But what meets the eye is merely the surface of a multilayered artwork created over a five-year period. The full story of its gestation and realization may never be known, but a major new chapter is about to be revealed.

"Seurat and the Making of 'La Grande Jatte' " -- an exhibition with a hefty scholarly and technical catalog, opening June 19 at the institute -- is the result of an ambitious research project conducted by a team of curators, conservators and scientists. Excavating the painting with X-rays, infrared imagery, microphotography, color analysis and computer technology, they have dispelled myths about the artist and shed new light on his creative process.


It might seem that nothing new could be said about Seurat's scene of idyllic stillness where the sun always shines, the wind only blows on sailboats and the people are perfectly groomed statues. In the limelight since 1886, when the artist first exhibited it in Paris, "La Grande Jatte" has been a major attraction in Chicago since its arrival in 1924. It was a gift to the institute by trustee Frederic Clay Bartlett, who bought it in Paris for $20,000 (about $215,000 in today's dollars).

Seurat painted "La Grande Jatte" in three stages, known as "campaigns." In the initial session, from May 1884 to the following spring, he made dozens of sketches and small paintings, worked out the composition and executed it in an Impressionistic style -- with short brush strokes, not dots or "points" of color. He planned to show the painting with the Societe des Artistes Independants in 1885, but the exhibition was canceled, and Seurat set his ambitious project aside.

Returning to it a few months later, he left the horizontally brushed water intact but covered much of the remaining composition with dots and dashes of pigment in a system inspired by his readings of color theory. As he transformed "La Grande Jatte" into what would be called a Pointillist work, Seurat placed contrasting hues side by side to heighten optical vibration and created a stylized tableau of shimmering light and bourgeois contentment.

He introduced the painting to the Parisian public in 1886, in the eighth and last exhibition organized by the Impressionists -- and set off a controversy. Some critics denounced Seurat's "primitive" figures and strange technique, while others praised his innovative approach. A review by George Moore, a friend of Impressionist Edouard Manet, singled out Seurat as the most talented artist in the show and likened his large picture to "a modernised version of ancient Egypt."

Around 1888-89 Seurat undertook the third campaign, creating a border of colored dashes and dots from the canvas that had been folded around the stretcher bars. The idea, he said, was to provide a visual transition between the painting and its frame.

None of this is news to Seurat scholars. Neither is that some colors in the painting have shifted. An 1892 review of Seurat's memorial exhibition noted that greens had turned olive and oranges had gone dark. Twenty-two years ago, institute conservator Inge Fiedler determined that the culprit was zinc yellow, applied during Seurat's second campaign. All the places where he had added pure yellow or mixed it with other colors had darkened.

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