In the fall of 1885 in Paris, a 25-year-old artist called Georges Seurat gave finishing touches to a painting that would go on to revolutionize the world of arts, captivating legends like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cezanne, who were all seniors to the young man. For these extraordinary artists who would, later on, give rise to post-Impressionism, this work would stand as the beginning point for the future of art. This huge painting, called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, was one of the few masterpieces to be deemed as ‘the first Modern painting’[i]. The reason for such was that it was the first representation of the style of Divisionism or Chromoluminarism. Seurat had been practicing this style for some time and he reworked A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in 1885 after almost completing it in 1884 in order to direct the work towards Divisionism.
The style of Divisionism or Chromoluminarism refers to the approach of not mixing the colors, instead, placing the complimentary colors closer to each other in accordance to the color wheel, so that these individual colors altogether optically interact to form the illusion of a whole within the viewer’s imagination. While the concept of color wheel was introduced by Sir Isaac Newton as the foundational combination of colors observed in a rainbow, the approach of Divisionism adopted the triangle based color wheel as reinterpreted by Charles Blanc. In 1867, Blanc, a French art critic, examined the linkages between primary and secondary colors through this model[ii]. All his teachings were written down by him in a book called Grammar of the Visual Arts which Seurat had read.
The pattern in which the colors are arranged in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has a close resemblance to the manner in which the colors are placed in Blanc’s color wheel. However, it was the discovery of the idea of division of each optical perception into its own distinct space that fascinated the artists. Through such divisions, the work seems to suggest that the notion of continuity is simply an illusion. Each unit of color rigidly belongs to its own unique space and each such region cannot be reduced to further pigments. No amount of magnification could reveal areas where the colors tangibly merged. However, these individual parts, put together into the canvas, produced a whole image within the viewer’s head that rendered the illusion of the work.
Before he started working on the larger canvas of Le Grande Jatte, Seurat created innumerable other smaller sketches of the diverse minute elements that formed the scenery of the Grande Jatte Island[iii]. These included details like individual people and trees, as well as larger scale sketches of the shore. The sketches were mostly on spot creations and concentrated upon forms and contrast of shades. At the end of the day, after leaving the island, Georges Seurat would continue working on these in his home with more of such drawings in black-and-white. Accumulation of many of such sketches rendered emergence of a concrete idea regarding the final painting. Many figures of the final composition were those recreated from previous sketches as he kept on practicing these from one sketch to the next.
Apart from the concept of Divisionism, Seurat drastically violated old rules and created new ones at another level as well. This was with regards to perspective and depth. In accordance to the Renaissance tradition, figures at one ground used to be of similar forms. For instance, the figures in the foreground would have similar shapes and sizes. However, in La Grande Jatte, the viewer can see that the characters in the foreground have different forms, like the couple on the right side of the canvas is much larger than the sewing woman right before them. If the latter woman stood up, her height would have been lower than this couple, though all of them are placed in the foreground. Similarly, the man sitting by the left of the tree in the background is located at a height higher than the man with an umbrella on the left, even though the latter is closer to the viewer than the former figure. This nuanced application of dimension, depth, and perception was found rarely back then, and such differences were even left unnoticed when the work was first exhibited[iv].
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, therefore, justifies itself as ‘the first Modern painting’ in more ways than one.
[i] William R. Everdell, “Divisionism, Cloisonnism and Chronophotography” in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, 1997, p. 63.
[ii] Jeff Wignall, “The Color Wheel” in The Photographer’s Master Guide to Colour.
[iii] William R. Everdell, “Divisionism, Cloisonnism and Chronophotography” in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, 1997, p. 65.
[iv] William R. Everdell, “Divisionism, Cloisonnism and Chronophotography” in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought, 1997, p. 68.