Georges Seurat used the pointillism approach and the use of color to make his painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, be as lifelike as possible. Seurat worked two years on this painting, preparing it woth at least twenty drawings and forty color sketched. In these preliminary drawings he analyzed, in detail every color relationship and every aspect of pictorial space. La Grande Jatte was like an experiment that involved perspective depth, the broad landscape planes of color and light, and the way shadows were used. Everything tends to come back to the surface of the picture, to emphasize and reiterate the two dimensional plane of which it was painted on. Also important worth mentioning is the way Seurat used and created the figures in the painting.
The famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was painted between 1885-1886. The subject is an island newly adopted by the Parisian middle class as a place for quiet Sunday gatherings. The painting looks very realistic. The figures and the way they are dressed look lifelike as does the beautiful landscape in the background. The colors and the painting style, pointillism, make this painting very realistic. The question is, how does Seurat go about making the painting look so lifelike?
Pointillism was a major reason in why Seurats painting looks so lifelike. During the painting of La Grande Jatte, Seurat simplified his brushwork to such an extent that his painting seems to be composed of nothing but tiny, more or less circular dots. Seurat s experiments with color led him to paint in small dots of color which are arranged in such combinations that they seem to vibrate. Individual colors tend to interact with those around them and fuse in the eye of the viewer. This approach is not unlike the dots or pixels in a computer image. If you magnify any computer image sufficently, you will see individual colors that, when set together, produce an image. Seurat was interested in the way colors came about. With the enhancement of the luminousity of colors made possible by the investigation of scientific optics, he saw positive merit in a method in which the movement of the brush no longer demanded the slightest skill: Here the hand is, in effect, useless, deceit impossible; no room for bravura items; let the hand be awkward, but let the eye be agile, perspective and skilled.
Seurat used earth colors in many of his previous works, prior to La Grande Jatte. Seurat used burnt sienna and light ochre in his previous painting entitled, Une Baignade. However, during his first phrase of work on La Grande Jatte, he abandoned only the ochre, not the burnt sienna. Seurat seemed to have given up these pigments quite gradually, just as increasingly renounced underpainting, ulimately allowing the white canvus to show through between the dots of color.
There is a mysterious vibration when one views La Grande Jatte. There is an effect of the paintings surface when ones eye glides inevitably from dot to dot. This lets the eyes carry from the people located in the foreground to the beautiful landscape in the background. However, J.C Webster rightly sees the actual charm of Pointillism in the awareness with which the colors can be seen, precisely because they do not merge unconciously on the retina, Finally, as regards to the overall effect of color in a given area, it seems to me that what takes place when touches one color are introduced into an area of another color, or when touches of two colors are set side by side, is not retinal fusion, but rather a kind of mental(not visual) averaging, for the area involved, of the colors or their values. That is, if some touches of ultramarine are introduced into an area of yellow, we see both sets of touches, but we apprehend the area as having so much blue in it, or being so much darker in this case. This is a process of the mind rather than of the retina . That is why La Grande Jatte, seen at close range, appears more interesting in color than from a distance. Paul Signic noticed this when the picture was exhibited in Brussels in the spring of 1887 and than wrote to Pisarro: In my opinion La Grande Jatte loses a little in this large hall. There is a certain amount of needless work which disappears at the distance. Once feels where it was impossible to stand back. Of course this minute division, exquisite in canvases of about 8 to 50, become too mean for a large canvas of several meters.
Clearly Seurat was particularly concerned with the coloring of the painting. The landscape was something that Seurat concentrated hardly on. Before the final painting, he made a large canvas painting of the landscape without people, which Seurat exhibited in December 1884. The shadow zones are dark, blue-green, almost turqoise. Originally this picture was executed in small strokes, laid over each other in cross hatchings. Later, however. It was reworked in many places in the pointillist techniques. Contemporary ctitics, who certainly recognized a certain distance from Impressionism in the dwork, hardly noticed how highly composed the landscape was. Seurat had, so to speak, passed the general inspection. However, an Impressionist would have avoided certain freedoms with perspective which on crtic did notice the foreground is not stable. On the left of the painting the water is not supported; the trees are placed against a green which, from this angle, rises above the water only with great difficulty. The resulting evocation of the movement of the water and the falling away of the ground is well understood by the painter, but far less clearly understood by the spectator who has nothing either in front of him or around him to help him understand that there is humus beneath these trees and this grass and under this river .
Seurat reduced this landscape again to the broader format of the oil sketches. It was therefore made after the landscape painting . At the back on the Seine we see a streamer that was later retained, but which is not yet to be seen in the landscape painting. Seurat had thought long and hard about how to make the relation in sizes clear by introducing a dog previously drawn from nature. The dog will remain the only creature in the painting, apart from the pug and the monkey which were there for spatial depth.
Once the landscape was finally fixed Seurat had great difficulty filling it with people. This was more important in the painting than the depth or surface pattern. He wanted to create a magical atmosphere that the artist was able to create from the abstract patterns of contemporary bourgeois Parisians. Seurat s figures are like ones of a mystery and of isolation one from another. However, he was meticulous with them in trying to make them as lifelike as possible. In several drawings Seurat worked at details of the fashionable woman s costume. Having drawn many drawings, he tried to make them more lifelike as the drawings went on. Each of the drawings is different in their own way. For example in a preliminary drawing, a couple is shown and a women is wearing a skirt with no frills. In the previous drawings, there were frills in that dress. Seurat constantly changes the drawings to make them appear realistic. In the last of the preliminary drawings (The New York Study) all the figures appear to be in places where they will later be painted. Some figures appear for the first time: the man standing behind the old couple with a horn, the little girl skipping along in a red dress and above all the two men in the left extreme foreground . The canotier half lying in the grass in the foreground, leaning on one elbow and holding a pipe in his other hand, still wears a straw hat and not a jockey cap, and the man sitting behind him in black clothes wears a felt hat, which will be replaced by a top hat. The monkey is still its original size; but the little funny dog jumping all around in not yet in the picture.
Only in the final version are the figures given a plasticity that is no longer Impressionist and would have pleased the Cubists. In the big preliminary study for the overall concept they appear rather as abstract patterns. The shadows of the figures were very carefully modeled. The light- dark contrasts of the shadows make them seem actually real. The spatial quality is only established through the relations between the sizes of the objects. The painting is not based on a geometrical, box like space. The perspective centre is on the right, despite the fact that the composition is laid in rows parallel to the picture frame. At the same time a paradoxical foreshortening from right to left is evident. The girl fishing with the orange dress and her mother are on the same level, that is, actually at equal distance. In its spatial contruction, the painting is also a successful construction, the groups of people sitting in the shade, and who should really be seen from above, are all shown directly from the side. The ideal eye level would actually be on different horizontal lines; first at head height of the standing figures, then of those seated. Seurats methods of combing observations which he collected over two years, corresponds, in its self invented techniques, to a modern lifelike painting rather than an academic history painting.