Seeing beyond the dots


For centuries, we have been analysing great paintings, trying to understand the stories they narrate and the secrets they conceal. Understanding these great masterpieces is enlightening. They open a new perspective on life and society, and broaden our understanding of art, science, maths, religion, culture, history, philosophy, and spirituality.

Therefore, Ceylon Today will take you on a vibrant journey to explore the world of art, explaining great masterpieces of the world.

To begin with, we chose a great masterpiece that has fascinated and awestruck the world for decades.

A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte (1886)

This masterpiece is known as ‘A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte’ and was created by the French post-impressionist artist George Seurat.

Explaining this fascinating masterpiece, veteran artist and art teacher, Paul Priestley takes us into an interesting world and widens our perspective on paintings, and makes us understand the vision behind these great artists’ minds.

Seurat was born in 1859 to a comfortable bourgeoisie family in Paris and trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts which he entered at the age of 19. Tragically, Seurat died of meningitis aged just 31 in 1891.

This large oil on canvas painting is 2.08m by 3.08m in size. Seurat began this painting in 1884 at the age of 26 completing it two years later. He made many visits to the Grande Jatte completing 38 oil sketches and 23 preparatory drawings. Seurat was attracted especially to the art of ancient Egypt and Italian Renaissance frescoes which he was studying when he painted this masterpiece.

“Seurat laboured over it extensively with his own painstaking method of applying paint in small dots and dashes which is known as ‘Divisionism’ or ‘Pointillism’,” said Priestley.

As Priestley explained, Seurat was driven by the love of theories which resulted in him creating the style of ‘Divisionism’.

Divisionism is a way of painting in which colour effects are created by applying small areas of pure colour onto the canvas side by side so that from a distance the eye mixes the colours. Simply by placing dots of yellow and blue close together the eye will not see yellow and blue but will mix them and see green.

“Unfortunately, Seurat made extensive use of Zinc yellow which was a very bright and pure yellow in this painting, but within 15 years the colour started to change from a bright yellow to a dull ochre brown,” explained Priestley.

So, the picture we see today is much duller than original.

Seurat’s completed painting was first exhibited in May 1886 at the Maison Doree in Paris and later that year was included in the Salon des Independents, in Paris. Later that year his painting was sold for 800 francs. It was sold again in 1924 to Frederic Clay of Chicago and was given to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926 where it remains today.

It is not what you see

The painting was not well-received by the critics of that time.

“Bedlam, scandal, and hilarity were just a few of the terms used to describe it.”

Priestley said that, “The painting is more a reflection of his own personality and approach to painting, especially the importance of technique, colour theory, and compositional qualities.”

Many of the figures are seen in profile, reflecting his study of ancient Egyptian bas relief sculptures that he has seen in the Louvre.

The figures look static and timeless. No one is moving, perhaps reflecting the boredom of the hot Sunday afternoon with silted conversations.

“But if you look carefully, there is movement. The young girl is running, her hair flowing in the wind. The small dog is bounding towards the larger dog and, the fluttering butterflies provide a little chaos to the apparent static tranquillity.”

In the bottom left of the painting, we see the Grande Jette was not just for the well-off middle classes.

“There is a rough-looking oarsman smoking his pipe, lounging on the grass alongside the middle-class lady with her fan. The Toff with his top hat and cane also sits nearby. Above him, there are two women fishing which was not a pastime of middle-class ladies of the time. These women have been identified as sex workers. Fishing is merely a metaphor for their real objective,” Priestley enlightened us.

He also said that the majority of men and women are dressed in the height of fashion for the 1880s.

“But not all is what it seems”, he said.

“We see a capuchin monkey, which unfortunately was regarded as a fashionable pet among the wealthy Parisians in the 1880s. Some critics point out that the monkey also represents something quite different. The woman holding the leash of the monkey, it is suggested, is a sex worker successfully feigning middle-class respectability and standing with her companion. This is likely a veiled comment about the hypocrisy of the French society of the 19th century,” furthered Priestley.

A Master of colour theory and optical illusion

Seurat’s meticulous approach to painting can also be seen in the painted frame created to produce the correct optical effect from the viewer’s point of view.

“Notice how the colour of the painted frame varies as it moves around the painting. It has been designed so the frame contains the exact complementary colours to those colours next to the frame in the painting.

“Have you noticed that the couple on the right of the painting looks far too big and that there is slight oddness to the perspective?” asked Priestley.

As he explained, this is deliberate and a result of Seurat’s preoccupation with geometric perspective.

The numerous sketches he completed for this painting created a very interesting idea.

“Seurat has worked out of perspective so that the painting should be viewed, not from the front as you would expect, but from an angle. If you stand to the right of the painting at around 45 degrees, all the distortions disappear, and the figures look in the right proportions to one another. This is the result of a very clever mind indeed,” Priestley concluded.

Isn’t this surely a great masterpiece?

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy