Cover image for Seurat Re-viewed Edited by Paul Smith

Seurat Re-viewed

Edited by Paul Smith

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$93.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03545-1

288 pages
9" × 9.5"
21 color/104 duotone/49 b&w illustrations
2010

Refiguring Modernism

Seurat Re-viewed

Edited by Paul Smith

“The book as a whole is eclectic and adventurous. There is a collective determination not to become mired in stale controversy. . . . Colour theory is not ignored, but there is far more here than Seurat’s palette and Chevreul’s colour disc. There is poetry and politics, ethics and edges, the family and the father, sensation, disenchantment, timelessness, irony and absence. It is by turns thrilling and demanding.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Georges Seurat is best known as the painter of A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884, one of the most recognizable and reproduced works of art in the world. In recent years the painting has been the subject of a highly successful exhibition, the inspiration for a Broadway musical (by Stephen Sondheim), and the subject of a television program. The Grande Jatte has achieved this iconic status for a number of reasons, but is unknown to most people except as a simulacrum. The Grande Jatte is also plagued by the long-standing cliché that it embodies a “scientific” way of painting. The painting is much more complex, however; so is Seurat’s body of work as a whole. In this collection of essays, Paul Smith has assembled a broader view of Seurat’s oeuvre. Seurat Re-viewed touches on its engagement with society, gender, politics, new artists’ materials, and developments in art theory.

Individual essays focus on the many facets of Seurat’s work and its context, including its use of color and its debt to color theory; its exploitation of different drawing media; its connection to the work of the artist’s contemporaries, including the poets Jules Laforgue and Stéphane Mallarmé; and its concern with nineteenth-century social issues. The contributions also show important links among the Grande Jatte, literary Symbolism, and the development of future Modernist practices. The book amounts to a major reevaluation of Seurat’s art in the culture of the late nineteenth century.

In addition to the editor, the contributors are Anthea Callen, S. Hollis Clayson, Jonathan Crary, Joan U. Halperin, Richard Hobbs, John House, Brendan Prendeville, Georges Roque, and Richard Shiff.

“The book as a whole is eclectic and adventurous. There is a collective determination not to become mired in stale controversy. . . . Colour theory is not ignored, but there is far more here than Seurat’s palette and Chevreul’s colour disc. There is poetry and politics, ethics and edges, the family and the father, sensation, disenchantment, timelessness, irony and absence. It is by turns thrilling and demanding.”

Paul Smith is Professor of History of Art at the University of Warwick. He is also the editor of Penn State Press’s edition of Marius Roux’s The Substance and the Shadow (2007)

Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction

Paul Smith

Technique and Theory

1. Hors-d’œuvre: Edges, Boundaries, and Marginality, with Particular Reference to Seurat’s Drawings

Anthea Callen

2. Seurat and Color Theory

Georges Roque

Society and the Subject

3. The Family and the Father: The Grande Jatte and Its Absences

S. Hollis Clayson

4. Illuminations of Disenchantment: Seurat’s Parade de Cirque

Jonathan Crary

Irony

5. Interpreting Seurat’s Figure Paintings

John House

6. The Ironic Eye/I in Jules Laforgue and Georges Seurat

Joan U. Halperin

Sensation

7. Seurat and the Act of Sensing: Perception as Artifact

Brendan Prendeville

8. Grave Seurat

Richard Shiff

Stillness and Symbolism

9. “Souls of Glass”: Seurat and the Ethics of “Timeless” Experience

Paul Smith

10. Seurat and Mallarmean Thought

Richard Hobbs

Selected Bibliography

List of Contributors

Index

Introduction

Paul Smith

What’s in a name? Seurat’s has enjoyed considerable prestige at least since Félix Fénéon eulogized his work in the celebrated pamphlet Les impressionnistes en 1886 (a compilation of articles published earlier in the year). “Seurat” commands conspicuously high prices on the market, and is a staple of the academic canon, the museum, and the blockbuster exhibition. “New” art history also recognizes the interest of Seurat’s work. And it has gained a broad appeal through being reproduced in prints and postcards. It would seem that there is something in Seurat for almost everyone.

This cozy view is not without its problems, however. Not the least of these is that the bulk of writing on Seurat has been devoted to only seven figure paintings (his largest), even though he produced more than six hundred drawings, around twenty significant landscapes, a quantity of other independent canvases, significantly more than a hundred small panels, and several large canvas studies for his figure paintings. Seurat, moreover, is known best of all as the painter of A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884 of 1884–86 (fig. 1 and color plate 1), which in recent years has been the subject of a highly successful exhibition, a Broadway musical (by Sondheim), and a television program. (It has also featured in numerous comic reproductions, and a Hollywood film.) The painting has this iconic status for a number of reasons, but since it is effectively confined to the Art Institute of Chicago, it is unknown to most people except as a simulacrum. The Grande Jatte is also plagued by the cliché, which has accompanied it from the outset of its public life, that it embodies a “scientific” way of painting. The painting is much more enigmatic, however; and so is Seurat’s work as a whole.

Much of the best writing on “Seurat” has acknowledged this quality, accepting that his works can support diverse and conflicting interpretations. So, despite the authority of the tradition of scientific interpretation, more recent studies have created other, richer “Seurats.” Several of these are presented here. This book aims, in other words, to exhibit Seurat in its hermeneutic variety.

1886 and All That

The Grande Jatte of the popular imagination is very different from the painting first shown at the eighth impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which was more than anything a succès de scandale. One reason for its notoriety was that, at three by two meters, it was very large in comparison to most of the works alongside which it was hung. (Its size led Degas, who had seen the painting before the exhibition, to dismiss Pissarro’s suggestion that it was “extremely interesting” with the quip: “I would have noticed that myself . . . it’s so big!”) The Grande Jatte was also scandalous, enough at least to prompt Alfred Stevens to spend the opening day of the exhibition conducting his friends to snigger at the “monkey held on a leash by the woman in blue.” This woman was identified a little later by George Moore, in his Confessions of a Young Man of 1888, as a “cocotte”—by which time her familiar’s tail had grown to “three yards long.”

By contrast, when it came to being serious about the Grande Jatte’s qualities or significance, there was little unanimity among the painting’s first critics. Several were struck by the stasis and stiffness of its figures, whom they compared to wooden dolls or (more charitably) to Egyptian statues; but only a certain Alfred Paulet saw a serious purpose (idealization) in Seurat’s synthetic line. And although several critics noticed how the social class of its population varied from figure to figure, only Jules Christophe saw this feature as an allusion to the issue of class. So too, while the Grande Jatte was the first painting of Seurat’s to use the “dot,” many commentators simply failed to remark upon this fact, although several of them did draw attention to its refined treatment of light and atmosphere. Fénéon was in fact alone in drawing a systematic link between the two features of the painting, which he explained with reference to Seurat’s “deliberate” and “scientific” reform of earlier, more intuitive impressionism.

Fénéon’s early commentaries on the Grande Jatte effectively placed the painting at the forefront of “avant-garde” impressionist painting, and in Les impressionnistes en 1886 he went one step further and dubbed it an exemplar of the radically new style of “Neo-,” or “New-Impressionism.” This judgment may seem validated by subsequent events, but in fact it involved a form of hindsight (known as “historicism”) that retrospectively regards changes in style as obedient to a logic of linear development. Fénéon’s view was nevertheless congenial to later formalist and modernist commentators on this very account. None of this means that the Grande Jatte was insignificant, or that it lacks aesthetic merit; but it does mean that Fénéon’s view of it should be treated with circumspection.

A further reason to query Fénéon’s account of the Grande Jatte is that its explanation of the painting’s “scientific” technique is itself far from reliable. Put simply, Fénéon’s argument was that Seurat’s technique made it possible to re-create natural appearances with greater accuracy to their variety, and more especially their luminosity, than traditional painting because it used small, separate touches of spectral color that fused in the eye (in the place of pigments mixed on the palette). The idea stuck largely because Fénéon seemed to write authoritatively, as Seurat’s mouthpiece. But he was not. Instead, as Pissarro’s more recently published letters put beyond doubt, it was he (and possibly Paul Signac and/or Albert Dubois-Pillet) who supplied Fénéon with all his information about the neo-impressionist technique. Seurat simply did not communicate with Fénéon about it at all in 1886. (Seurat’s sole surviving letter to Fénéon, of June 1890, is also distinctly overpolite, to the point of being cold and ironic about his criticism.) Pissarro’s letters show, for example, that it was his own interest in maximizing the luminosity of painting (to the point where it might simulate a sunlit scene) that Fénéon described. It is far from clear, though, that Seurat ever had a comparable aim—perhaps because he was aware that optical mixture in fact produces only a small gain in luminosity over pigment mixture. In any case, Fénéon attributed Pissarro’s scientific intentions to Seurat because, although the older painter had been developing an optical manner of painting for some time prior to 1886, he modestly insisted that his younger colleague should get the credit for inventing the “new” technique. Seurat did of course read scientific explanations of color, including the text Fénéon cited as one of his sources: Ogden Rood’s Théorie scientifique des couleurs of 1881. But his technique is equally consistent with advice on color contained in Charles Blanc’s Neoplatonic treatise Grammaire des arts du dessin of 1867, which he is known to have admired, and which recommended the use of spectral color, optical mixture produced by small dabs of color, and other devices that Fénéon described as scientific, for their ability to create an ideal “harmony.” The depth of Seurat’s commitment to Blanc is reflected in the categorical statement “Art is harmony,” which he made in the letter of August 1890 to Maurice Beaubourg, known as his “aesthetic” (although it is true too that scientific, and quasi-scientific, theories of color advocated harmony as well).

At the very least, Fénéon’s scientific argument oversimplified Seurat’s aims. But it also contradicted itself by acknowledging how, for Seurat and some of his colleagues, “objective reality [was] no more than a pretext for creating a higher, sublimated reality.” Here, Fénéon was voicing an opinion shared by his symbolist colleagues, whose idealism, based in large part on Schopenhauer, happened to coincide broadly with Blanc’s. Fénéon also betrayed Seurat’s close involvement with symbolism in a footnote to one of his articles that cites Paul Adam’s 1886 novel Soi, which places the painter’s work firmly within an idealist context. Fénéon had a central place in the development of symbolism, and his reticence over Seurat’s idealism is very curious. Equally puzzling is the fact that several of Fénéon’s associates—the “impressionist” poet Jean Ajalbert and the outright symbolists Rudolphe Darzens and Paul Adam—cited his analysis of the Grande Jatte in their own reviews of his work. It is a mistake therefore to take contemporary criticism at face value. A more productive approach to Fénéon’s insistence on Seurat’s scientism is to see it as part of a deliberate attempt to evade discussing the painting’s contentious subject matter.

Clearly, one of the more important aspects of the Grande Jatte is that it could be seen either as a scientific (and broadly realist) or an idealist painting. (Earlier, in 1884, Paul Alexis had encountered a similar problem with Bathers at Asnières of 1883–84 [fig. 2 and color plate 2], finding it “full of conviction,” like the impressionist paintings he admired, even though it was a “fake Puvis de Chavannes.”) On the one hand, if its color was scientific, then the Grande Jatte’s synthetic line could make sense as a vehicle of the kind of typification used in earlier realist painting to exemplify the condition of a particular social class (rather than an individual). If, on the other hand, its color was seen as ideal, so could be its line, which greatly complicates the painting’s political stance. Yet none of the Grande Jatte’s critics acknowledged its ambiguity, preferring instead to categorize it either one way or the other. Signac later remarked that it was a critic’s own prejudices that decided what he saw: naturalist critics admired “the woman on the right, out walking with her young man and a monkey,” while the “young Symbolos” admired its “hieratic stiffness.” For the symbolist Adam, the Grande Jatte was indeed remarkable for its “primitive” and “synthetic” qualities; and in the years to come he would cast Seurat as a Wagnerian “evocator” of a quasi-musical higher realm, independent of the material world. Socialist critics like Alexis and Jules Christophe, by contrast, regarded the painting as a sincere expression of the painter’s radical convictions. (Similarly, when Signac was at his most political, he regarded Seurat’s entertainment paintings this way, describing their “synthetic representation of the pleasures of decadence” as one that would bear “testimony to the great social trial that is underway between the workers and capital.”)

The decisiveness of individual responses to the Grande Jatte had its roots in the widespread belief that a painting’s way of representing reality expressed a political stance on the part of the artist. Many critics with political persuasions of their own thus felt compelled to nail a painting’s colors to some mast or another, for better or worse. Consequently, it could be unwise for an artist to make public statements that decisively arbitrated the character of his work, since doing so might alienate as many supporters as it attracted. For the first year or so following the exhibition of the Grande Jatte, Seurat maintained what Alexis, in 1888, called “dumbness,” in an attempt to garner the broadest possible support for his painting. But Seurat’s withdrawal of his authorial voice from the work was not simply cynical. While the political incompatibility between realism and idealism may appear clear-cut now, it was not so obvious then. Blanc, for instance, viewed idealism as entirely consistent with his own ambitions for social reform, and many symbolists were sympathetic to the anarchist cause. And even though Seurat’s later, Wagnerian paintings suggest that music can provide spiritual consolation for the unhappiness of everyday existence, they are not without critical purchase on the inequities of the real world.

The critical impasse could not persist indefinitely, nevertheless. And by 1888 Seurat had made his allegiances clear by joining a symbolist social group, and by declaring to Gustave Kahn that, in the Grande Jatte, he had wanted to show his contemporary Parisians “in their essential aspect.” By coming clean about the meanings he intended, Seurat did indeed estrange those supporters who had seen things differently: in particular, Pissarro, a “scientific” and radical impressionist, wrote to Signac in 1888 to tell him he was now opposed to his erstwhile collaborator. “For the future of our ‘Impressionist’ art,” he admonished his young friend, “it is absolutely necessary to remain outside Seurat’s influence. . . . So apply the science that belongs to everyone, but keep for yourself the gift you have of feeling as an artist of a free race.” To judge from later letters, Pissarro seems to have regarded Seurat’s “academic,” and thus idealist and implicitly reactionary work, as the antithesis of his own anarchist, scientific, but “free” art “based on sensation” (rather as, in 1891, he saw Gauguin’s painting as the repository of “superstitious beliefs” with which the “bourgeoisie were seeking to subdue the “disinherited masses”). Pissarro was on to something; but his judgmental analysis did scant justice to the complexity and sophistication of Seurat’s intentions.

Afterlife

The scientific Seurat became a fixture of art writing shortly after the painter’s death in 1891. As early as 1893, George Moore’s Modern Painting pigeonholed his work in terms of its application with “the point of the brush,” its use of “prismatic colors,” “the division of the tones,” and “complementary color.” And in Richard Muther’s History of Modern Painting (1896), Seurat was said to have introduced the “New-Impressionists” to optical “science,” and to have produced “pictures entirely composed of flaming, glowing and shining patches.” Three years later, in 1899, Signac published his De Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, in which he suggested that Seurat shared his aim of achieving brilliance (“éclat”) in painting. The publication of Signac’s journal in the late 1940s and 1950s later compounded this impression by describing the Grande Jatte’s “grey” appearance from a distance as the result of Seurat’s failure to compensate for how it looked in a “small studio without room to move back in.”

It makes more sense, however, to think that Seurat deliberately calculated this effect. He certainly did not share Signac’s taste for brash colors. In a letter of June 1886, for example, Seurat told his colleague, who was enraptured with the “colorful” aspect of Les Andelys, that his own liking was for the “almost indefinably grey sea” of Honfleur. Many of Seurat’s paintings are less luminous now than they were to begin with, especially the Grande Jatte, which used several unstable pigments that began to darken shortly after it was completed; but this does not mean they were ever meant to be brilliant. So for all that Seurat’s color was, and is, manifestly nuanced (even impressing Muther with its “delicate, pale atmosphere”), it was Signac’s account that won out.

The luminous, scientific Seurat became firmly enshrined within the art historical orthodoxy with the publication of John Rewald’s monograph Georges Seurat in 1948. This book was undoubtedly affected by its author’s close association with Fénéon, and by prejudices Rewald had internalized while editing Pissarro’s letters and Signac’s journal. But Rewald had a deeper reason for assimilating Seurat to a naturalistic paradigm: he regarded good art (such as impressionism) as the product of fidelity to visual experience, just as he regarded good history as an accurate record of the “facts.” Despite the numerous intractable problems with these views, Rewald evidently discerned a kindred spirit in the scientific Seurat, so much so that he construed the artist’s use (in his late paintings) of Charles Henry’s spurious and idealist theories about the expressive values of colors and lines as broadly scientific. Rewald’s was nonetheless a conscientious and important book in its time that set the research agenda on Seurat for many years. It led, among other things, to William I. Homer’s classic Seurat and the Science of Painting (1964)—a work that greatly deepened our knowledge of how Seurat employed theories of color and line in his work.

The scientific narrative was in fact so successful in distracting attention from Seurat’s subject matter that it reduced the interest of his work almost to its form alone. Social history of art set itself in opposition to formalism, but rather than reducing Seurat’s work to its imagery, it managed to take account of its aestheticism when presenting the artist as a critical painter of modern life. An early and distinguished example of this strain of scholarship is Meyer Schapiro’s 1958 essay “Seurat,” which acknowledged the artist’s debt to “science” yet emphasized how his work represented the “mechanization of the human” under “modernity.” More significant still is the series of articles, books, and catalogues produced by Robert Herbert in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, Seurat’s Drawings (1962), which drew attention to the difference between Seurat’s relatively optimistic treatment of rural labor and his critical engagement with the anonymity produced by the encroachment of industry into modern urban life, likened the melancholic mood of Seurat’s urban landscapes to passages in naturalist literature. Here and elsewhere, Herbert also demonstrated the extent to which Seurat’s work not only took the popular culture of the café concert and the circus as their subject matter but made stylistic reference to popular representations of such scenes. Herbert also produced a groundbreaking analysis of the ways in which Seurat’s pointed representation of class might be consistent with anarchism. Unsurprisingly, the impact of Herbert’s approach is evident in later writings. Among these, Richard Thomson’s 1985 Seurat significantly advanced our understanding of the artist’s treatment of anxieties about class, and of the issue of prostitution. Like John Hutton more recently, Thomson also furthered research into the consistencies between Seurat’s art and anarchism, connecting his work with the critical spirit in which many of his circle regarded the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

It fell to Herbert, however, to explain the significance of the formal qualities that give Seurat’s work its unreal look. He did this by demonstrating that its stylized drawing was related to Blanc’s Neoplatonic theory, and more particularly to his demand that painting should represent ideas and “essences” rather than copy mundane reality. Herbert also linked the symbolists’ recognition of “primitive” qualities in Seurat’s drawing to their own brand of idealism, thus establishing significant similarities between Seurat’s intentions and the reception of his work. Albert Boime subsequently demonstrated Seurat’s debt to Piero della Francesa, explaining his borrowings with reference to Blanc’s use of Piero as an instance of morally elevating art. More recently, Michael Zimmermann has established the depth and pervasiveness of Seurat’s indebtedness to Blanc’s work (and simultaneously to a whole gamut of scientific and pseudoscientific thinking). In their wake, I have examined how Seurat’s emphatic aestheticization of appearances, its musical subject matter, and its “musical” harmonies of color (and line), can be traced to symbolist and Wagnerian demands that art should attempt to transcend mundane reality by providing an ideal—or, better still, “musical”—alternative.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the symbolist dimension of Seurat’s work suffered art historical oblivion for such a long time, but it is not difficult to explain. For one thing, although the first book devoted to the artist, Georges Seurat (1895), was strongly symbolist in tone (comprising, among other things, obituaries by Kahn and Teodor de Wyzewa, as well as letters of condolence to Seurat’s mother from Adam, Ajalbert, and Henri de Régnier), it was printed in only a small edition (distributed among Seurat’s friends) that fell victim to its rarity. The strain of symbolism with which Seurat was most closely associated can also be off-putting, since its recherché vocabulary and elliptical grammar mean that it often borders on opacity. The sense of this kind of language is embedded, moreover, within a complex and counterintuitive theory of reality approximating the Schopenhauerean notion that the world consists of a transcendental substance (“Will”), of which appearances (“Representation”) are merely the illusory phenomena—although capable nonetheless of exercising a fatal hold on the perceiving subject. To the symbolists, then, Seurat’s idealizing line and “musical” harmony could seem to capture the deeper essence of reality, respectively as Idea (an ontological “grade” intermediate between Representation and Will), or as Will itself. The symbolist account of Seurat also lapsed into obscurity because its formal emphasis was all the more readily annexed by formalist and modernist criticism when stripped of its theoretical complexity. André Lhote, Roger Fry, and Robert Rey thus all produced their own Seurat in the 1920s and early ‘30s, although for Rey this meant interpreting the painter’s idiom eccentrically—as an emblem of political “order.”

Critical Revisions

Much of the debate over the meanings of Seurat’s works stems from differences between art historians over the importance to be attached to the painter’s intentions. In many accounts, the unspoken and unexamined assumption is that Seurat’s conscious intentions—construed as thoughts about his work that find expression in his statements or derive from his reading—are what arbitrate or fix the meaning of his work. But this is a narrow view, because intentions of this sort merely express what an artist like Seurat tells himself he does when painting (i.e., they only describe the rules he knows he obeys), whereas subliminal intentions formed and executed as the painting comes along, which are less amenable to verbalization, often make a much more decisive contribution to the work’s progress and final appearance. Intentions of this sort require methodologies like psychoanalysis or phenomenology to explain the meanings and aesthetic effects they create. A positive consequence of this situation is that Seurat’s work can make sense even when the language he used to explain it fails to do so. Similarly, it becomes possible to salvage some sort of sense from symbolist descriptions of Seurat’s pictures, since these too can be regarded as rhetorical, or elliptical, descriptions of effects generated by works that are sui generis or irreducible to language.

Some recent writing on Seurat has tended to disregard intention almost entirely on the grounds that meaning is not anchored in any thoughts inside the artist’s head but is made possible by the communicative conventions of the sponsoring community or culture, which preexist and determine an individual’s intentions. (Meaning is therefore public, not “private,” since it is an effect of transactions that take place out in the open.) Such accounts clearly make it possible to show how work such as Seurat’s reproduces, or resists, the ideology (in the sense of the un-self-critical and fictive beliefs) of the class, or gender group, to which he belonged. A more radical way still of analyzing Seurat’s work has been to consider it as a component of a wider network of discourses that produce their meanings irrespective of medium or genre. On this view, the meanings of Seurat’s work can be analyzed in terms of the position it occupied within a range of discourses on, for example, aesthetics, politics, or sexuality, each embodied in a range of media including printed texts and popular imagery as well as paintings. By corollary, many art historians no longer regard an individual artist as a natural unity that must prescribe the interpretation of “his” work, but instead regard “Seurat” as a designation that falsifies the diversity of his output and oversimplifies its manifold significations.

Because complex permutations of these methodologies inform many more recent writings on Seurat, it is simplistic to label individual texts “Marxist,” “feminist,” or suchlike. But it is possible to show how theory has had effects on our ways of seeing Seurat’s work. T. J. Clark, for example, has argued that part of the significance of the Grande Jatte lies in how it addressed the issue of social class with a subtle specificity, and a subversive ambiguity, uncharacteristic of the broad run of representations. In a similar vein, Hollis Clayson suggested in her 1989 essay “The Family and the Father: The Grande Jatte and Its Absences” (reprinted in this volume) that the Grande Jatte engaged critically with constructions of gender as well as class, particularly through its avoidance of representing the family as a unit. And Linda Nochlin has explored the more specific issue of how Seurat’s representations of women, especially Models of 1886–88 (fig. 3 and color plate 3), resist—as well as reinforce—the convention according to which women were regarded as the ahistorical objects of an empowered male gaze. Drawing on psychoanalytical theory, Tamar Garb has argued to the contrary, contending that Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself of 1888–90 (fig. 4 and color plate 4) is concerned to sanction a demeaning image of woman as sex object. Thus Seurat’s painting stages the activity of its sitter as a narcissistic and regressive exercise in self-fabrication that can only parody the act of painting as undertaken by men—but in such a way as to allow the male spectator ample room for scopophilic pleasure, and sadistic phantasy, too. But perhaps the most complex example of this broad strain of scholarship is the analysis of Seurat offered by Jonathan Crary in his essay, “Illuminations of Disenchantment” (published here in revised form). Crary argues that Seurat’s painting (fig. 5 and color plate 5) holds out the promise of a rich and immediate experience, only to present such experience (like that of the expectant spectators depicted within it) as finally unrealizable. Seurat’s painting thus gestures toward a utopia wherein social and individual experience has plenitude, but it undercuts this gesture with a scientism that recalls the “rational” processes of capitalism responsible for the alienation and emptiness of life. In doing so, it remains consistent with the state’s manipulation of attention—in all aspects of public life—into passive subjection through spectacle.

None of these approaches disregards intention altogether, whether they acknowledge this or not, since in effect they appeal to the artist’s intention as a criterion of interpretive correctness simply by identifying his subject matter. The point is that to identify a particular motif in a painting involves attributing an intention to the artist to represent that motif and according her or him the competence to discharge that intention. If we could not do this—because, for instance, the artist could not be relied on to represent what she or he wanted to, rather than something else—a painting could represent anything at all. But when it comes to Seurat’s work, this is not a merely theoretical, or hypothetical, issue. The artist not only took great care to paint things exactly as he meant to—for example, types and not individuals—but he was punctilious in ensuring that the titles of his paintings did not misrepresent their contents. Thus in January 1887 Seurat told Émile Verhaeren that the painting he was about to exhibit with Les XX must appear in the catalogue as “Corner of a Dock (Honfleur) . . . or The Corner of a Dock, but not any old corner or dock.” With A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884, the issue of what the painting was intended to represent is especially significant because the identities of many of its figures remain tantalizingly uncertain. For example, it is hotly debated whether the woman fishing (pêcheuse) in the left background is also an illicit prostitute or “sinner” (pécheresse). Similarly, the smartly dressed man in the left corner could equally well be a toff or a draper’s assistant (calicot). But the issue here is not simply what these people are, since Seurat probably intended to represent socially ambiguous types. Intention is also significant to the content of Seurat’s figure paintings in general, and thus manifestly part of their content, since it gives these works a particular tone. In his 1980 essay “Meaning in Seurat’s Figure Paintings” (a revised and retitled version of which appears in this volume), for example, John House has demonstrated how vital an appreciation of irony is to seeing Seurat’s work in its full complexity.

Outline of This Book

It is not the ambition of this book to arbitrate between competing conceptions of Seurat’s work, but to allow a number of different opinions to speak for themselves. What follows is therefore arranged in five sections, each containing two essays on the same broad topic, which in some cases come close to consensus but in others diverge significantly.

The first section, “Technique and Theory,” comprises “Hors-d’œuvre: Edges, Boundaries, and Marginality, with Particular Reference to Seurat’s Drawings,” by Anthea Callen, and “Seurat and Color Theory,” by Georges Roque. In her essay, which takes its cue from deconstruction, Callen argues that visual effects normally considered peripheral to Seurat’s procedures, and extraneous to the visual experience of his drawings, did in fact contribute significantly to his technique and play a central part in the visual interest of his drawings. Along the way, she also adduces much illuminating new evidence about the nature of Seurat’s materials and the uses to which he put them. For his part, Roque is concerned to illuminate what he characterizes as a misconception about Seurat’s theory. Arguing that Seurat’s interest in the optics of color was not strictly scientific, he suggests that the painter is better seen as making use of color theory, which he characterizes as less rigorous than science but better suited to the practical purposes of the painter.

“Society and the Subject” comprises essays on how Seurat addressed contemporary social and political issues. Both deal more particularly with how his work engages the social and ideological construction of subjectivity and with practice. Hollis Clayson’s essay on the Grande Jatte examines how Seurat’s painting thematizes the absence of the father from the ritual Sunday excursion, which is marked by the presence of figures engaged in exclusively adult forms of recreation, including venal sexual practices. And Jonathan Crary’s “Illuminations of Disenchantment: Seurat’s Parade de Cirque,” is a revised version of the essay that originally appeared in 1999.

Subsequent sections are concerned with how Seurat’s technique and imagery work to produce meanings and effects in his work’s representational content, which includes the way it treats its represented content (or what it depicts). “Irony” focuses on the tone of Seurat’s work. A revised version of John House’s essay “Interpreting Seurat’s Figure Paintings” explores the themes and forms of Seurat’s figure paintings for consistencies between them, arguing that the emphatic artifice of these works serves to characterize, and sometimes to caricature, the artificiality of the social behavior they represent. In “The Ironic Eye/I in Jules Laforgue and Georges Seurat,” Joan Halperin establishes how Seurat’s work breaks apart, but also recombines, its own elements so as to restructure the way the world appears in them, in a manner strongly reminiscent of Laforgue’s poetic technique. It suggests more especially that Seurat and Laforgue harnessed discontinuity in order to ironize sexual desire, and that by distancing their respective authorial voices in this way from the emotions normally evoked by their subject matter, they achieved control of their craft.

“Sensation” concentrates on the aesthetic effects produced by Seurat’s technique, especially as these pertain to the spectator’s experience of what could be seen negatively as its lack of fluency. In “Seurat and the Act of Sensing” (a revision of a recently published essay), Brendan Prendeville likens Seurat’s treatment of perception to a Bergsonian conception, suggesting that his work established a measure of freedom for perception by positioning the painting in an undecidable phenomenal space that is neither the “inner” subjective world nor the objective world located outside the body. And while accepting the “frozen” and mechanistic qualities of Seurat’s painting, Prendeville argues that these are also made to engage in a dialectic with optical phenomena exemplifying somatic life. In a related spirit, “Grave Seurat,” by Richard Shiff, examines the significance of Seurat’s “serious” way of painting in relation to the range of signification that a pictorial mark might traverse. Shiff shows how Seurat’s “cold” and “dry” touch could amount to an impersonal absence of individuality for some. But he argues too that, in the light of more recent discourses and practices, Seurat’s laconic, discontinuous, and poised style can be seen to produce a species of “interference.” This, he suggests, affirms the materiality of painting—with the result that the attentive spectator becomes aware of the presence of both the physical surface and the image, and through this of the corporeal embeddedness of perception itself.

This book ends with a section called “Stillness and Symbolism,” which comprises my “‘Souls of Glass’: Seurat and the Ethics of ‘Timeless’ Experience” and Richard Hobbs’s “Seurat and Mallarmean Thought,” both of which relate the meanings and effects of Seurat’s work to the values of literary symbolism taken seriously as aesthetic theory. The former likens Seurat’s particular kind of stasis to the symbolist treatment of “timelessness,” with the intention of showing how Seurat’s individual style positions the spectator imaginatively outside the flow of time, thereby providing an aesthetic “perspective” that carries powerful ethical implications for the way we see life when we inevitably come back down to earth. In “Seurat and Mallarmean Thought,” Richard Hobbs examines Seurat’s work for correspondences with Mallarmé’s, arguing that both œuvres are centrally preoccupied with reconciling the conflict between materiality and metaphysical transcendence. Mallarmé’s writing, he suggests, thematizes this tension by figuring art’s potential for “abolition” (the transformation of the prosaic and material world into an ideal, immaterial “whiteness,” or musical “silence”), even while it acknowledges the impossibility of transcendence. Mallarmé’s resolution, Hobbs suggests, is to acknowledge and highlight the process of artistic refinement as intrinsically worthwhile—as, he suggests, does Seurat.

While the “Seurats” that emerge from these essays are not entirely compatible, this is not a wholly unhelpful result when the authority of one narrative has so effectively constrained interpretation of the artist’s work. There is nevertheless some agreement in these texts about Seurat’s ability to engage with the contemporary political world both vividly and critically, just as there is some consensus that his work is distinguished by aesthetic effects concerned with discontinuity and harmony alike. It would be inappropriate to suggest that there is no tension between these two positions; but it would be equally reductive to ignore how, taken together, they suggest that it is precisely through securing a measure of autonomy that Seurat’s work was able to attain such poignant purchase on his world.

While English translations of Seurat’s titles are used in the text, the original French titles are given in brackets in the list of illustrations wherever these are known from the catalogues of the Groupe or Société des artistes indépendants, or Les XX. The list of illustrations also gives the numbers of Seurat’s works as listed in the two catalogues raisonnés of his work by Dorra and Rewald (DR), and César de Hauke (H).

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