How George Seurat used divisionism to raise awareness of division
This essay will examine the way George Seurat separated two paintings for the awareness of division in classes, and then used his divisionism style to support characteristics for the paintings. For this examination I will use George Surat’s paintings; ‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte, 1884’ and ‘Bathers at Asnières, 1884’. Charles Henry Seurat was born in 1859 but only had an active career of 10 years from 1881 to his unfortunate death in 1891, aged 31 (Broude, 1978, p. 1). According to John Russell (1965)
“when the Grande Jatte was first shown, in May 1886, it was regarded as a divisionist manifesto and Fénéon, for one, took it as a pretext for the elucidation of the new technique” “what we see in the Grande Jatte is a further instance of multiple technique, with divisionist passages alternating with passages of pure Impressionists brushwork” (p. 141)
This new technique was a new movement called pointillism/divisionism which was developed by Seurat, this consisted of small dots of pure colours which allowed them to be blended by the viewer’s eye, this made colours appear vibrant and luminous. I will be researching a variety of books to study Seurat and the history of these paintings regarding division and divisionism.
‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte’ (1884)
‘Bathers at Asnières’ (1884)
‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte’ (1884) consists of forty-eight people, eight boats, three dogs and one monkey. The canvas size was two meters by three meters, Seurat must have intended for this painting to be big as this size had to be made to order at the time. It’s also an extraordinary size for his specialized pointillism technique which would have been very time consuming. Surprisingly the painting is currently installed at the Art institute of Chicago rather than in France where the post-impressionism painting was produced. ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (1884), is two meters by three meters which is the same size as ‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte’ (1884). It consists of six males relaxing on the bank of a river but not interacting with one another, In the distance we can see the factories and polluting smoke. The painting is currently at The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London since 1924.
After exploring Seurat’s paintings most of his subjects tend to be what he could have seen day to day, his concerns could have been raised in these two paintings for the awareness of division that was in that era, Seurat spent months studying these locations and must have become quite attached to the characters he would come across who were separated by the River Seine.
“From his surroundings in Paris he drew a whole cast of everyday characters, from street urchins to the fashionably dressed bourgeoisie. In the suburbs and in the country side he observed gardeners, rural labourers and stone breakers. He drew cityscapes and landscapes, sometimes populated but often empty and even desolate in mood. In his figure studies he concentrated on the type rather than the individual, identifying his subjects with a caricaturist’s eye for a distinctive trait, pose or costume;” (Richard and John, 1997, P.26)
Richard and john (1997) P. 129 also suggested that Asnières was a mixed neighbourhood, although the Bathers represented the clerical staff and skilled workers of the lower middle class, we should remember that boundaries between this social group and the working classes were in constant fluctuation. These two paintings could have been his beginning to merge the huge indifference of the classes, Seurat came from the middle class which could be the reason why he found the lower class fascinating. Russell (1965) p. 143 suggests that there were new social alignments to be studied, and new deformations of the social instinct to be set down as a warning, perhaps, to future generations. Seurat could achieve this, especially with his new pointillism technique which would draw attention to his work, he was determined to finish these painting in time for the Salon exhibition.
‘Salon is the name given to the official exhibition of members’ work of the French Academy, the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. The Academy was founded in 1648, and its statues of 1663 also required academicians to submit work for an annual public exhibition of painting and sculpture’ The Dictionary of art London: Macmillan, 1996.
There has been a lot of research regarding Seurat’s colour theory and his revolutionised pointillism technique for the world of art because of how they are proven to portray greater luminosity in work, but in regards to ‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte, 1884’ and ‘Bathers at Asnières, 1884’ it could be argued that they were developed for the characteristics in these paintings for Seurat’s concern regarding division of classes. Pointillism is proven in both paintings but it isn’t not as visible in ‘Bathers at Asnières, 1884’
Richard and john (1997) p. 75 ‘Yet, although there is no direct evidence that he planned the Grande Jatte as a pendent to the bathers, he may have contemplated a link between them both in technique and subject matter. It is well known that Seurat started to repaint parts of the bathers with the pointillist technique that he used in the final stages of Grande Jatte. Perhaps the ferry with its conspicuously middle-class passengers heading across the river to the pleasures of La Grande Jatte, was added as part of an attempt to impose closer link between the two large compositions.’
Seurat’s pointillism technique has been applied densely for ‘A Sunday on the La Grande Jatte, 1884’ which creates a static atmosphere, it could be argued this was intentional for the characteristics of his subjects, from their clothing to their posture we can see they were higher class. They could have been known for their autocratic and boggart manner which would disapprove others including Seurat, this relationship could be represented through the passive brush strokes. Richard and john (1997) p. ‘Although not a pair to the Bathers, the Grande Jatte was of course a second representation of the reach of the Seine between Courbevoie and Asniéres’ (136) In connection to this theory Richard and john (1997) P.137 suggests that Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières, 1884’ masterpiece lacked his famous pointillism technique so this would be his most humanist painting, arguably to represent the majority of Asnières during that era.
In conclusion, there is very clear evidence that Seurat was very observant of his surroundings and these were key elements in which he based his work. Both painting have a very strong relationship, some research suggest they could have belonged a pair all though of their indifferences which represents the division which was a concern during that era. Seurat supported this theory by developing his divisionism technique to characterise his subjects and raise new audience for his work. In the future I would like to study Seurat’s colour theory in depth to explore how I could use this to benefit my work and raise my own concerns.
Seurat in perspective, edited by Norma Broude 1978, Spectrum book, The Artist in Perspective Series S-456
Seurat, John Russell 1965, World of Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London reprinted 1997
Seurat and the Bathers, John Leighton 1959- Richard Thomson 1953-; David Bomford; Jo Kirby; Ashok Roy, London: National Gallery 1997
‘Salon is the name given to the official exhibition of members’ work of the French Academy, the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. The Academy was founded in 1648, and its statues of 1663 also required academicians to submit work for an annual public exhibition of painting and sculpture’ The Dictionary of art London: Macmillan, 1996