What Seurat left out of 'La Grande Jatte'

Think you know this painting? A new exhibition bids everyone to look again.

The pink-skirted woman was changed from a single woman to a mother; the bustle on the strolling woman's costume was exaggerated, and the monkey was a last-minute addition.

These are just a few of the surprises visitors take away from the Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition, "Seurat and the Making of 'La Grande Jatte.' "

The title, of course, refers to one of the museum's most beloved paintings: the enormous, heavily populated tableau of Sunday loungers on a Paris isle that has captivated viewers from Stephen Sondheim to Ferris Bueller.

But if nearly all the museum's 1.5 million annual visitors make a stop in front of the Neoimpressionist masterpiece at some point, this exhibition forces visitors to slow down and take another look - both from a distance, examining the Impressionist works that influenced Georges Seurat before he broke away, and up close, literally, with scientific research that breaks down the painting's colors and sheds light on the picture's creation.

"Sometimes familiarity is a bit numbing. You think you know the picture, but there's a plot to discover," says Douglas Druick, cocurator of the exhibit. "We tried to construct a process whereby visitors would come to the realization and appreciation of a picture we're told is great, and we know is great, but in a way that turns the head back into heart."

The result is a stunningly complete examination and celebration of one work that, in the end, has a lot to say about artists' influence on one another, the years of work that build up to a masterpiece, and the legacy of Impressionism, in addition to the information specifically about "La Grande Jatte."

Seurat, for many art historians, is the anti-Impressionist. When "La Grande Jatte" was first exhibited at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, everything about the painting - its size, the extensive preparation that went into it, the almost frozen effect of the scene - was viewed as a repudiation of Impressionist ideals such as spontaneity and movement.

But Seurat once told an interviewer, "I found myself while studying others," and the Art Institute's exhibit elegantly demonstrates that claim. Works by precursors like Francisco José de Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-François Millet, contemporaries such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir - along with Seurat's own black-and-white drawings and early paintings - show the gradual evolution of Seurat's style, emulating the Impressionists before he ultimately broke from them when he began "La Grande Jatte" at the age of 24.

"It's not just an explanation of this particular painting, but how Seurat gets here, how he has the chutzpah to embark on something this much a slap in the face to his predecessors," says Gloria Groom, a cocurator of the exhibit.

One of the striking evolutions in Seurat's own style is his use of color. He dropped out of art school after just a year and a half - long before he'd studied color at all - and his early works are nearly all crayon sketches. Even in those drawings, Seurat was less interested in details than forms, and he strove to achieve a heightened contrast by placing light and dark areas next to each other.

It was a strategy that he soon carried over into his color experiments, learning how complementary colors - blue and orange, or red and green - can intensify each other, how dabs of primary colors can mix in the eye of the beholder, and how the light and dark contrasts he'd worked with in black and white could translate.

Many of his early works are Impressionist, though he was more drawn to working-class subjects than his contemporaries were. And in some of his landscapes, which clearly borrowed Impressionist subjects and composition, he was already starting to develop his distinctive pointillist style (a term that, the exhibition explains, comes from the French word for "stitch" and refers to the accumulation of paint daubs - many of them horizontal or vertical strokes - not just a flurry of dots).

The climax of the show, of course, is the room devoted to the final work, whose full title is "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884)."

The enormous painting, reframed and reglazed, hangs alone, while curved walls display some 40 sketches, studies, and preparatory paintings. The collection illustrates how Seurat obsessively worked over every detail of the scene he'd created, devoting numerous studies to the landscape, or to individual characters.

For example, an early version of the woman in the pink skirt is childless. Instead, a man approaches her, flirting with her in a manner she may or may not welcome. Even in that sketch, there's room for myriad interpretations, Mr. Druick points out.

In the final painting, the man is gone, and the pink-skirted woman leads a small girl by the hand.

"She and the child are a family unit, and the child with the white costume - the most brilliant of all the costumes - stands as a pillar of innocence amidst adults," notes Druick. Looking at the painting together with all the studies, he adds, is "like seeing a film, and then seeing the outtakes on DVD - the shot ending this way, or that way."

Various theories have been put forward - especially in the late 20th century - about what Seurat was saying.

Some critics contend that he was poking fun at the stiff, fashionable, upwardly mobile Parisians of his day, or perhaps he was commenting on other artists who worshiped fashion.

The woman with the monkey, whose oversize bustle creates an almost absurd profile, has been described as a "kept woman," although only one commentator in Seurat's day called her that. Her outfit is very proper and would have been worn by middle-class women. The speculation is based on the fact that, in paintings, the appearance of a monkey can symbolize profligacy.

Seurat could also have been commenting on the mixing of the classes in Paris society, or mocking the parade of bourgeois wannabes who flocked in their best clothes to the island in the Seine to see and be seen.

This exhibit dances around such theories, choosing instead to celebrate the scene's ambiguity. In the end, it's remarkable as much for its timelessness - the solid, motionless forms that evoke Greek friezes - as its specificity of time and place.

"It's like a great canvas of the history of social rituals," says Druick. "It's lifeless and frozen, and yet of the moment at the same time. It invites you to get involved with so many figures."

The Art Institute also worked with scientists and X-ray equipment to learn the order in which the figures were painted, how they were changed along the way, and how some of the pigments have changed over the years.

A re-creation shows how "La Grande Jatte" most likely looked when Seurat first showed it - considerably lighter and with fewer contrasts in the grassy areas.

Learning the process of Seurat's painting is a fascinating lesson in technique. But the real stars of this show are the paintings and sketches, not the science. "La Grande Jatte" has graced coffee mugs and T-shirts, and served as inspiration for quite a few New Yorker covers, a musical, and a topiary garden, but it has lost none of its magic.

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