Seurat: "Optical Truth" or "Science seen through a Personality"?

I've included some examples of Seurat's paintings before "Sunday Afternoon," just to give you a sense of how his style changed, moving from a more impressionist style of brushwork to the more controlled brushwork of "Sunday." [Artstor has other examples if you want to see more.]
Seurat: The Mower, 1881 Seurat: The Gardener, 1882-3
Seurat: Woman Seated on the Grass, 1883 Seurat: A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86

Although we tend to think of Seurat in terms of his innovative treatment of color, his approach to drawing was quite radical.  The drawing technique shares a great deal with the painting and influenced his use of color.  Essentially, Seurat  did away with lines, at least in the sense of actually drawing them.  The linearity we see in  his paintings is the result of geometric patterns and directions, rather than the use of outlining.

drawing/study for the Bathers, 1884 (conte crayon) The Nanny, 1884 (conte crayon) The Black Bow, 1883 (conte crayon)

Space in Seurat's paintings tends to have a classicizing quality, resulting from Seurat's use of the golden section to form his composition and his interest in classical models such as the Parthenon frieze.  But he wants to present the classical frieze of the Parthenon in contemporary colors and dress.  This interest in uniting the classical with the look of science and the look of the modern is central to Seurat's overall project as an artist.

He begins to look to scientific theories of colors and lines for principles of arriving at "true" equivalents of the perception of natural colors and in order to elicit certain emotions and moods from the viewer.  We should note that Seurat's interest in science and color theory was not unique; the impressionists shared it but few pursued it as far as Seurat did.

Seurat's Theory--a synthesis of the ideas of Chevreul and Sutter (from a letter written by Seurat in 1890):

Color Theory and Seurat

From Chevreul, Seurat learns about the effect of the density or thickness of the paint, the distance between colors, and the location of colors and how such factors moderate the effects of the complementaries.  From  his observations of the differences and similarities between Delacroix, a romantic painter, and Renoir, an impressionist, he learns about the use of hue contrasts in order to increase color intensity as well as to create some spatial illusionism.  Both Delacroix and Renoir used small brushstrokes to record the numerous colored elements; and both painters enriched the surfaces with gradations in the colors.
Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830 Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party,  1881 (detail)

La Grande Jatte: the neo-impressionist "manifesto"

A Sunday on the Island of Grande Jatte, 1884-86 

details from Sunday:

These details show us several things: that the brush strokes follow the forms of the figures; that certain colors tend to be expressed in strokes of certain sizes, and overall, there is a range of touch which can be seen to follow the actions of the figures.  In addition, the mixture of colors and pigments is not, strictly speaking, scientific: Camille Pissarro may have put it more succinctly when he described the impressionists as “romantic impressionists” and Seurat and his friends as “scientific impressionists”–using the word "science," as it were, as an adjective or tendency.


(1) Is this Seurat's reinterpretation of Utopia or is it a negative statement about the modern condition?
If the second, the social commentary--that modern life is a condition of boredom, alienation, and a loss of the sense of self-- is encoded in the technique and structure of the painting.  Or perhaps Seurat is simply dressing the utopian figures of Puvis de Chavannes in contemporary dress and saying that Utopia is possible in the present.  Yet, the act of placing the figures and setting in a specific moment in time would appear to be an act which is intended to produce discomfort between the present, presumably unsatisfactory, life style and the lack of a more satisfying and transcendent vision, such as we see in The Sacred Grove.
Puvis de Chavannes: The Sacred Grove, 1884

To support an anti-utopian meaning, we might look at the responses of critics at the time.  The sense of dehumanization given to the characters was given to the canvas as a whole, largely through the technique which led one critic to describe the canvas as a "monotonous tapestry."  Other reviewers thought they found in the painting a "parody of the banality and pretensions of contemporary leisure" and urban life.  Yet, despite the anti-utopianism of this painting, historians such as Linda Nochlin have suggested that there are two explicit utopian statements made by the painting. One lies in the automatic or mechanical quality of the technique.  The use of science, and the method which approximates the modern, reproductive technology of the time, that of the chromotypogravure, deliberately challenges romantic conceptions of the artist as a genius, a uniquely capable person expressing himself in an inimitable way.  The method of Seurat's painting can almost be taken for an embodiment of painting by numbers, a method which could be used by anyone to achieve the same results.  Seurat is not making a formulaic painting, yet he may be proposing an image of the artist as “every man” and artistic creation as a democratic process which can be available to anyone and everyone.  The second utopian feature of the painting is found in one figure -- the child, a little girl with a hoop who is running.  She is the only figure in motion and as such, she becomes the antithesis of the statement made by the rest of the painting.  She signifies the possibility of change, she embodies hope–or, as I think likely, she provides the antithesis to stability because the painting may more truly be about dialectical thinking, and following from that, about dialectical vision.

2) moral commentary: The painting has been rather extensively analyzed as a painting about prostitution and moral decadence.  It is possible to do this on several levels, one of which lies in the relationship to Watteau's painting, and one of which lies in Seurat's use of visual puns and verbal puns.

Watteau: Embarcation to Cythera, 1717

verbal puns:
La singesse: monkey, prostitute
peche: to be fishing, to sin
brasseries de femmes = cafes where prostitutes worked

The most apparent visual pun is that between the monkey and the bustle on the tall woman's dress in the right foreground.  Three of the women in Seurat's painting were prostitutes: the woman fishing, her companion, and the cocotte.  This apparently is known by reference to other illustrations of the time which deliberately encoded prostitutes in the figures of presumably innocent women, such as a fisherwoman.  Fishing was a ploy for being in public areas without being arrested while they plied their trade.  There seems to be a language code related to this since the word for to fish in French is also the word for to sin.   Women were not known to fish nor were thought to have the patience for fishing, so doing it was enough to raise suspicion.  The presence of the wet nurse does not imply respectability, either, since she is not there with a child and the role of nursing was somewhat ambiguous at this point in time.  It was not uncommon to show the wet nurse with a soldier near-by, but Seurat does not include the soldier, making the presence of the wet nurse somewhat ambiguous.

At the same time that we look at these figures as puns on prostitution, we can also look at them as Seurat's transformations of the classical.  The woman on the right in the detail above has been compared to Egyptian statuary and all the figures in their processional behavior evoke the Parthenon processional frieze (fragment below).

3) Seurat's painting as a dream-state:  This interpretation requires some explanation of dream language.
a) visual condensation–one figure may be a composite of several others so each figure in a dream has multiple values;
b) displacement–elements with high intensity may appear in a dream in a neutral, under-charged state, whereas other elements, which do not seem to be emotionally charged in life, may be more threatening in the dream;
c) the form of the dream may be part of the representation.
Is the dream in this painting a personal wish-fulfillment/statement about the triumph of order in a world of disordered families and social life?  Or is it more than the desire for an ordered family: is the wish-fulfillment fantasy in this painting the dream of his triumph over his “competitors”–the impressionists?

Is the girl in white a symbol for his younger brother who died as a child?  is the older woman sitting with the nurse meant to be his aged mother, needing care at this point in her life?
There is no camaraderie shown in the painting but there is no confrontation; the stillness of the painting suggests an almost religious state, a state of meditation and contemplation; is this the visual equivalent of a solitary and contemplative person?  Although we do not see whole families in the dream, we do see a world of order.  Perhaps the painting is a statement about the triumph of order in a world of disordered families, such as his own family had been.

Finally, another recent way of looking at Seurat returns to the idea of optical models and their relationship to modernism.

The true sense of the painting as an autonomous object (in other words, it does not exist as a representation of reality) begins with a post-impressionist shift from the interest in the act of looking itself to an interest in the space of representation with space becoming the autonomous element.  In this shift, the painting functions as a space for the investigation of seeing rather than as a space for the representation of modern life.

Seurat may therefore be less interested in the process of representing than in the process of seeing, as an independent scientific activity which occurs within the field of the painting. This means that when Seurat depicts images on his canvas, he is not depicting them because of an interest in depiction or representation but because of an interest in the nature of visual truth.

The form of the painting is derived from “laws” of chromatics and graphic schemes; it is therefore only within the context of the frame, of the painting, that the image makes any sense.  This type of sense-making is controlled by Seurat who, more than most artists, tries to equate seeing with perception.  The painting as a stimulus for seeing will be the same as the effect–the perception; and it will be identical for all viewers; it is as a result of this equation that the painting becomes for Seurat an abstract and autonomous space, not because he has eliminated subject matter but because his subject is the reduction of discrepancies between seeing and perceiving.

Finally, there is one more quality to Seurat’s best work which may be its most powerful quality, and the one which gives his paintings relevance to artists a century later: the ability to capture something of the moment but to present it as though it is universal and there is no other way it could possibly have been said.  In this respect, Seurat achieved what he set out to do and he did more, because his “contingent universality” may have become a model for a comparable re-formation of the classical in the 21st century (although by now, Seurat is the epitome of classical).

Lorenzo Mattotti, "On the Prowl," cover of the New Yorker magazine, Jan. 21, 2008

No matter which interpretation we choose, Seurat's painting did accomplish something unique for that time: Seurat produced a painting which becomes an independent object (independent of the goals of representing the real world or a narrative).  Instead, it represents a version of optical truth which exists only in the painting. Perhaps the last thing to note is the fact that these alternative interpretations are not based on aesthetic judgments or different readings of historical or literary narratives. They all appear to be an attempt to connect the art work to something which exists outside of it -- but as art becomes truly autonomous, this goal begins to fail. The symbolistis believed that art could be a different form of knowing. Altough Seurat is not a symbolist, this belief, that art comes as valid as science as a way of knowing the world, plays an important role in the increasing abstraction of the visual arts.

The optical truth or reality of a painting by Seurat is part of what makes it an autonomous painting but not all.  Seurat uses  scientific theory to guide his representation–the forms and colors of the painting come from “laws” of optics.  For that reasons, the painting does not make sense as a representation of reality; it only makes sense within the context of the painting. The painting is NOT a truthful rendering of Grande Jatte and it is not intended as the rendering of the artist’s idea of Grande Jatte. It is intended as the optical reality of Grande Jatte.  The painting is also a type of performance: it is a performance of emotions, in that the angles and colors are intended to elicit emotional responses from the viewer; and the colors and shapes “act” a language of movement.  Recall that the excerpt from his letter discussed directions and lines, as well as color. Because of the misleading term "pointillism," we tend to forget that Seurat believed that lines and angles were as important to communication as the colors. Ultimately, if the painting is a performance, it is a type of performance in that Seurat does not clearly give a political or ethical statement in his painting so much as he attempts to elicit one from the viewer (it COULD be about prostitution; it COULD be about the bourgeois and their instability as a social class; but we have no absolute way of knowing).  That indeterminacy is probably the most important part of this painting’s autonomy.  The idea of the painting as a dream state makes sense in this respect: dreams are ambiguous, and their meanings are speculative.