The career of the nineteenth-century French painter Georges Seurat was lamentably short; he died in 1891 at the age of thirty-one, five years after completing his most celebrated achievement—A Sunday on the Grande Jatte (1884–1886). Yet he undoubtedly changed the course of Western art. For that remarkable feat, he wasn’t always praised, however. Even for those of us who have long been inured to the idiocies that were heaped upon the heads of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters in the heyday of their achievements, some of the criticisms directed at Seurat’s masterwork are still astounding.

Here is Joris-Karl Huysmans, writing in La Revue indépendante in 1887:

Strip his figures of the colored fleas with which they are covered, and underneath there is nothing, no soul, no thought, nothing. Nothingness in a body of which only the contour exists. Thus in his pictures of the Grande Jatte the human armature becomes rigid and hard; everything is immobilized and congealed.

To which he added: “I am decidedly afraid that there is only too much process, too many systems here, and not enough of the flame that ignites, not enough life!”

A younger, now forgotten critic, Emile Hennequin, while praising some of Seurat’s seascapes, came down pretty hard, too, on Grande Jatte:

When Monsieur Seurat uses his method to paint Norman seascapes, especially as in that marvelous canvas entitled Grandcamp, when he describes the grey arrival of evening, he is excellent. But if, as in the Grande Jatte, he attacks the problem of sunlight and the fading figure, he is glaringly unsuccessful, not only because of the absence of light but because of the absence of life in these figures whose outlines have painstakingly filled in with colored dots as in a tapestry. They are painted Gobelin tapestries, as unpleasant as the originals.

Yet, fortunately for Seurat, he found in a much more perceptive critic—Félix Fénéon—a champion who instantly understood and admired both the radicalism of his technique and the significance of his subject in the Grande Jatte when the painting was first shown to the public in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1886. This is how Fénéon described it on that occasion:

It is four o’clock on Sunday afternoon in the dog-days. On the river the swift barks dart to and fro. On the island itself, a Sunday population has come together at random, and from a delight in the fresh air, among the trees, Seurat has treated his forty or so figures in summary and hieratic style, setting them up frontally or with their backs to us or in profile, seated at right-angles, stretched out horizontally, or bolt upright: like a Puvis de Chavannes gone modern.

It was Pissarro, however, who secured a place for Seurat’s shocking work in this fateful exhibition, and then underscored his admiration for the younger Seurat by adopting his controversial pointillist technique in his own painting, thus setting in motion a pictorial influence that has rarely been absent from modern painting ever since.

We have lately been reminded of all this in the splendid exhibition called Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago,[1] where Seurat’s masterpiece has been a prized feature of the permanent collection since 1926. The exhibition itself is a virtual cornucopia of drawings and oil studies related to the Grande Jatte, and its weighty catalogue, with lengthy texts by Robert L. Herbert and others, is encyclopedic in the detail it devotes to Seurat and the emergence of the Neo-Impressionist movement. So much so, indeed, that some of the longueurs lavished upon Paul Signac and sundry other secondary figures are likely to try the patience of readers who are not specialists in the subject.

About what has often struck me as an important feature of the Grande Jatte—the deadpan humor to be seen in the depiction of so many of the painting’s figures—there is curiously little serious discussion. I’ve seen people actually laugh out loud on their first encounter with the Grande Jatte, and among the visitors I observed in the Art Institute there were many with wide smiles on their faces. Yet, the only reference to comedy that I can recall in Mr. Herbert’s text occurs in a quotation from Meyer Shapiro’s well-known essay on Seurat in which Seurat is said to have been “drawn to the comic as a mechanization of the human (or perhaps as a relief from the mechanical).” The most Mr. Herbert will grant Seurat in this matter is an “irony and bemused wit,” which doesn’t really account for Seurat’s spirited comedy.

At the same time, far too much is made of Seurat as a social critic. Owing to the influence of two Marxist art historians, Linda Nochlin and T. J. Clark, Seurat has in recent years been transformed, if only in academic circles, into some sort of political radical, and many students are now taught to regard the Grande Jatte, The Circus, and other major paintings as political allegories. I have written about this subject once before in these pages; I will cite here one brief reference to Professor Nochlin from that earlier essay:

Taking her cue from some remarks by the German Marxist writer Ernst Bloch, who described the scene depicted in La Grande Jatte as an example of what he called “landscapes of painted suicide”—Bloch even characterized the boats on the river in this painting as “belong[ing] more to Hades than to a Sunday”—Professor Nochlin says of Seurat that “he is the only one [of the Post-Impressionists] to inscribe the modern condition itself—with its alienation, anomie, the experience of living in a society of the spectacle, of making a living in a market economy,” etc.[2]

Now the only thing we actually know about Seurat and politics is that some of his friends—Fénéon and Pissarro, among them —were anarchists. That a vaguely anarchist sentiment may have influenced Seurat’s satirical treatment of the bourgeois figures in the Grande Jatte is certainly plausible. But this is hardly sufficient reason to define the Grande Jatte as an “anti-utopian allegory.” But then, Professor Nochlin doesn’t hesitate to tell us that Seurat’s Circus reminds her of “Hitler and the crowd at Nuremberg, or, more recently, the American electorate and performer-candidates who mouthed slogans and gesticulated with practiced artistry on television.” I think the smiles on the faces of the visitors to the exhibition in Chicago are more to be trusted than the critics who see red in everything they look at.

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  1. Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 16–September 19). Go back to the text.
  2. “Seurat, One Hundred Years Later” (The New Criterion, June 1991). See also “T. J. Clark & the Marxist Critique of Modern Painting” (The New Criterion, March 1984). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 1, on page 46
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