Back in August 1993, I was lucky enough to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see Seurat’s famous painting close up. When I realised I had to write about a painting for my next challenge, I began to imagine what the artist might have been thinking as he worked on his masterpiece.
L’Après-Midi sur la Grande Jatte
The painter regarded the scene before him carefully, wanting to capture modern Paris in all its infinite variations.
Paris in the summer of 1885 was suffocating under a stifling heat and the island in the middle of the Seine was a perfect place to escape the sultriness of the city and take refuge under the shade of the trees, enjoying the cool breeze that came from the river. Fashionable couples strolled along, taking their Sunday constitutional. This was the place to be seen and admired: Paris had never worked harder at appearing relaxed. Shafts of sunlight dappled the grass with interesting shades – could he recreate this with his new technique? he wondered. He had decided to layer his painting this time, beginning with sombre tones of ochre and sepia, to represent the murky undertones that hid beneath the respectability of city life, but he would add spots of bright yellow zinc and emerald green to achieve a suggestion of light on grass. He couldn’t possibly know at the time that the brilliant yellow would fade over the years to a muddy brown; but, had he been aware of it, he would have interpreted it as a foreshadowing of the capital’s fading gaiety.
As the summer continued to melt away, the flowers in the public gardens only a short distance from the riverbank were a blaze of riotous colour – scarlet peonies, fiery orange lilies and sunshine yellow marigolds jostled for attention in their ordered rows – but he chose more muted shades for the grey top hat, the pastel pink skirt, the burnt umber umbrella. Mixing his palette carefully, he dotted the paint with almost mathematical precision, letting the light blue of the river darken into the cobalt shadows of sailboats here and there on the water. He had a whole collection of sketches by now – he’d faithfully recorded every angle of the park, each possible permutation of light and shade – and would refer to these constantly, ensuring that the vivid emerald green of the grass closest to the river was thrown into contrast by the darker tones representing its colour beneath the trees. Adding blobs of chartreuse here and there served to break up the emerald in a way reminiscent of sunlight falling on the verdant greenery.
He supposed he should let some of the others see his work at some point, but he was reluctant to expose himself to any further criticism after the Grand Salon’s rejection of Une Baignade, Asnières the previous year. Even now, his contemporaries claimed to be, at best, puzzled by his work and, at worst, dismissive. Not that he cared: Impressionism might be all the rage in Paris at the moment but, personally, he’d always found Renoir too sentimental – the way the older man had used his current lover, Aline, as a model for his Le déjeuner des canotiers, for example, centring the painting on her as if to draw attention to the fact that he had a beautiful mistress. Even his Les parapluies, despite being set in the rain, failed to capture the misery of the wet Parisian streets and instead gave a romanticised view of fresh-faced women and rosy-cheeked children, as if the city were actually full of such delectable creatures!
People were still milling around: he needed to capture them all before the light began to fade. When he had painted the swimmers on the opposite bank of the Seine, the year before, he had concentrated on light, trying to create an almost ethereal effect, as if the bathers were beckoning to the observer to join them in their strange, modern world. Now, however, he focussed on shadow, attempting to hint at the less salubrious activities that were whispered to take place along the Right Bank. The woman with a fishing rod, for example, was an allusion to the rumoured trade of prostitutes, advertising their availability through their handling of the symbolic pole. The small man beside her, with a black hat and thin cane, was a potential customer. Elsewhere, a much more respectable lady sat with her knitting, her needles flashing in and out as she fashioned wool into some kind of garment for an absent child. Two soldiers stood to attention as a third man played a horn – how would he capture the sounds of a Sunday afternoon? he mused. Was it possible to evoke an impression of music and conversation simply with the strokes of his brush?
Gazing about him, he realised that the whole microcosm of Parisian life was spread before him. The man with a pipe represented old age and wisdom; the couple admiring their infant child were a symbol of new life, new beginnings. On the river, a woman with a parasol lounged in a boat, surrounded by rowers: were they would-be suitors? brothers? complete strangers? He deftly added the curious sight of a woman with a pet monkey, its wizened face not unlike that of the pipe-smoking man. Turning his gaze to ascertain whether he had missed anyone, his eye fell on a young girl in a white dress: a perfect allegory of light and innocence. He would place her in the centre of his painting; that way, he would suggest that there was still hope, despite the rest of the figures in the shadows, cloaked by a suspicion of sin.
The hum of distant conversation flowed past him like the river as he focussed once again on the elusive light, working almost mechanically to replicate the shifting colours by means of his multitudinous dots. In years to come, he would be known as a neo-Impressionist; but for now, he was just a young artist, struggling to make a name for himself amidst the snobbish coterie of established names. Squeezing a little vermilion onto his palette and mixing it carefully with enough lead white to achieve a decent flesh tone, he carefully painted the blobs that would represent faces. They would remain featureless to represent the timelessness of Paris and of art.
He regarded his painting once more, satisfied that he had recorded ‘L’Après-Midi sur la Grande Jatte’ for posterity.