"Between the years 1884 and 1885 La Grande Jatte is conceived. From that moment [Seurat] has mastered and conquered himself. He owes nothing but to himself. He rises immediately as school leader; he is the one whose path will be followed" (E. Verhaeren, L'Art moderne, 1 April 1900, p. 104).
George Seurat realized his masterpiece Un Dimanche d'été à l'Ile de La Grande Jatte (Hauke, no. 162; fig. 1) between 1884 and 1886, while in his mid twenties. As Seurat himself explained in a letter to the critic Félix Fénéon dated 20 June 1890, he completed his first studies for this monumental composition at the same time that he began painting it. Paysage, homme assis is indeed part of a series of oils panels that were made on the site of La Grande Jatte, a small island in the Seine a short trip northwest of Paris, during a period of six months beginning in May 1884. The artist referred to these sketches--twenty-eight oil-on-wood panels, three larger paintings, and twenty-eight drawings total--while working in his studio on the larger composition, simultaneously completing these smaller works and continuing to perfect the larger painting.
If Un Dimanche d'été à l'Ile de La Grande Jatte was immediately considered to be a manifesto for Neo-impressionist theories on optical division of colors, the related studies, specifically the oil panels, played a crucial role in Seurat's exploration of the landscape, and the placement and illumination of his figures. He attached great importance to them, hanging them in his studio, according to the critic Gustave Coquiot: "We could still see on the walls of his new studio all the small painted studies that he loved so much" (quoted in, A. Michel, Seurat, Paris, 1924, p. 135). Seurat also chose to exhibit them in public, dating them to 1884, and placing them beside his larger painting, effectively assigning them the same status as independent works of art, rather than purely preparatory sketches. Even before showing his final painting, he sent nine panels, together with the larger oil study L'Ile de la Grande Jatte, étude (Hauke, no. 131; fig. 2) to the first Exposition de la Société des artistes indépendants at the Pavillon de la ville de Paris (December 1884--January 1885). In 1886, at the second exhibition of Independents (August--September), he showed one panel, Courbevoie (Hauke, no. 116) with La Grande Jatte, and the same year, he exhibited twelve panels, together in one frame, in the exhibition Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionnists of Paris organized by dealer Durand-Ruel in New York at the American Art Galleries (this same group of works was also sent to the third exhibition of Independents in March 1887 in Paris). Unfortunately, lack of documentation has prevented the exact identification of these twelve small studies.
Paysage, homme assis and La Grande Jatte were exhibited together at the first major posthumous Seurat exhibition, held in the offices of La Revue blanche from March to April 1900. It took more than a century for the two works to be reunited once more, this time for the project Seurat and the Making of la Grande Jatte organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. According to Robert L. Herbert, writing in that exhibition catalogue, this panel was not one of the earliest studies for the painting, but was probably made in parallel to the final composition, to assist the artist in defining the landscape. The colors in the earlier panels are not as luminous, as seen in Paysage et personnages au second plan (Hauke, no. 107), and their brushstrokes are less distinct, closer to those of the Impressionists, as in Groupe de personages (Hauke, no. 117; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the later panels, Seurat played with the figures, varying their numbers and placing them in different areas of the composition, as if directing them on a stage. Paysage, homme assis shares much with the painting Paysage, une voile sur l'eau (Hauke, no. 110; fig. 3), now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., including the same framing of the landscape, although the gap between the trunk in the foreground and the two parallel trees on the left is wider in Paysage. This most likely reflects Seurat's experimentation with the landscape arrangement. The handling of paint is also quite different in the two paintings, with brushstrokes appearing larger and more frenzied and with the brown of the wood panel left quite visible here. Such a result gives the sensation of immediacy and reinforces the idea that Seurat painted it rapidly, out of doors.
As relayed by Coquiot, the artist used to spend entire days at the Grande Jatte working on these small wood boards that he liked to call croquetons: "Sometimes, he stayed all day long at the Grande Jatte when the weather was nice. He didn't give a lot of importance to his lunch and then he liked to go back to Paris with a lot of these small painted panels, well-laid in this kind of box that we get easily from the color dealer" (G. Coquiot, 1924, p. 72). Made popular by the Impressionist painters, who opened the doors of their studios to place their easels outside, these small wood panels were commercially available to artists for use with portable painting kits. They were also logistically attractive, available in different sizes, usually made from walnut or mahogany, they could be slid inside the cover of the boxed kit and easily transported, even when still wet with fresh paint. As evident from old furniture catalogues, the panels were either sold with the kits, known as thumb boxes, or separately in packs of twelve, both pre-prepared for oil painting or left rough.
In Paysage, homme assis, the wood surface remained unvarnished, and its brown-orange surface is visible in the river and on the far side of its bank, functioning as another separated touch of color. The Neo-impressionist painting speaks to the color science that fascinated Seurat. Felix Fénéon, in his review of the 1886 Impressionist exhibition which included La Grande Jatte, published the first statement on Seurat's new theories. He explained that the artist first applied a local color to a specific space then inscribed the effects of sunlight, pure orange and yellow, as faithfully as possible. The second stage involved a reciprocal relationship between the complementary color, with the painter juxtaposing complementaries to exaggerate their differences and cause an optical echo. This vibration of color reactions could trigger an impression perceived convincingly as natural light. Seurat's method was largely influenced by the theories of French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), which he learned of while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Art. In his essay De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, published in 1839, Chevreul showed that one color affects an adjacent color through a complementary nuance in tone. Applied to painting, this meant that color pigments were no longer mixed either on the palette or directly on canvas, but instead placed as small dabs side by side; the color or lighting effect taking place, from a suitable distance, in the observer's eye. In the 1890 letter from Seurat to Fénéon, the artist explains that he also knew the book Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry, published by American physicist Odgen Rood in 1879, and translated into French two years later. Rood made the distinction between color as light and color as pigment; mixing pigments reduced their luminous effect. Around 1884, Seurat progressively assimilated these theories into his own vision of optical effects, beginning with his numerous oil panels. Paysage, homme assis clearly follows his organization of pure colors--if he used the color of the wood as the orange of sunlight, he also then juxtaposed complementary hues, like blue or purple. As he explained in a draft of a letter to journalist Maurice Beaubourg on 28 August 1890: "Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of opposites, the analogy of similarities of tone, of tint, of line."
Today, more than half of the oil studies for La Grande Jatte are in the collections of prestigious museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the National Gallery of Art, London, among others. This precious oil panel, one of the few in private hands, remained with Seurat's heirs after his death for more than a decade before it was acquired by the current owner. It is marked on the back with the inventory number 101 as well as the letter "L", inscribed by Maximilien Luce when, together with Seurat's friends Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon, he classified all works left in the studio after the artist's death in 1891.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Un Dimanche après-midi sur l'Ile de la Grande Jatte. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Barcode: 2800 1560_FIG
(fig. 2) Georges Seurat, La Grande Jatte, étude. Private collection, New York.
(fig. 3) Georges Seurat, Paysage, une voile sur l'eau. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Barcode: 2800 1584