On April 15, 1958 a fire broke out at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One panel of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies was ruined and a Jackson Pollock painting was damaged by smoke, which drove the museum to create a Conservation department. In a bit of bad luck, Georges Seurat’s Sunday at La Grande Jatte was on display on the floor below the fire, on loan from permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Museum curators grabbed artworks off the walls and ran down stairwells with them, though it’s hard to imagine how they managed this particular 7’x10’ canvas. Though Seurat’s painting wasn’t damaged, the Art Institute may have felt burned anyway. The painting hasn’t left Chicago since.
On May 22, 1884 Georges Seurat began what would become his most famous painting, then exhibited it at a Salon des Independents in 1886 to great acclaim, But the painting never sold and at Georges’ death his mother inherited it. Then at her death his brother inherited it. It passed through several hands until 1923 when Frederic Bartlett, art student and heir to a hardware fortune, brought it home with him to Chicago and gave it to the Art Institute in 1926, the year my father was born.
My father, who arrived in New York City from Chicago in 1951 to make it as an Abstract Expressionist, may have seen the painting in New York, but he definitely knew it well from the art classes he took at the Art Institute as a child and later as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 1958 was a good year for him. He was about to have a solo show at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in May. The Whitney Museum, which had bought his pastel “Orange Flowers” in 1955, lent it back to the Borgenicht for the show. Later that year he would have a painting in the Whitney’s annual show for the second time.
Seurat based his painting on afternoons spent on an island out in the Seine, watching families lounge on the grass amid the landscaped gardens. The composition is forced into a rigid pattern by his method of applying individual dots of paint to create forms that appear blended and whole from a distance. Women stand in severe profile, like figures on the prow of a ship. The dark shadow creeping over the grass on the lower right mirrors the pale blue shape of the water at the upper left. Seurat apparently told contemporaries that he wanted to mimic Classical Greek friezes like the Parthenon, and the painting indeed seems more like sculpture than painting. It may be flat like a canvas but its perfect stillness seems statuesque. In 1926, when La Grande Jatte left Paris, art critic Roger Fry wrote that it represented “a world from which life and movement are banished and all is fixed for ever in the rigid frame of its geometry.” The scene itself may be still but Felix Feneon, Seurat’s major champion in the art press, believed the pointillist method made the canvas itself vibrate.
“The sense of motion in immobility.” That’s how novelist E.M. Forster described the painting after seeing it in Chicago in the 1940s. He used it to explain how art creates worlds unto themselves, manifesting their internal order as external form. Unintentionally, La Grande Jatte bridges the growth of modernism and consumer culture in fin-de-siecle Paris with the advertising and design boom in 1920s Chicago. Seurat documented the Parisian pedestrians who strolled along the grand boulevards, window-shopping in the new department stores like Galeries Lafayette and gathering in cafes and cabarets. These pedestrians, like the Sunday visitors in Seurat’s painting, formed a new sort of bourgeois public, who had more leisure time for arts and entertainments.
Early in the twentieth century American collectors travelled to Europe and brought that modern art, and the lifestyle it represented, back home. With its flattened, simple design, La Grande Jatte reads like a gigantic billboard, easily legible from afar, that advertises the very leisure it represents. It displays the figures in ways that anticipate merchandising strategies to come: one at a time and in high contrast for easy recognition. It resembles a page in a catalogue from Montgomery Ward, the world’s oldest mail order business, or a window display in the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store, where my grandmother worked before she married. Like Bartlett in the 1920s, my father had left that commercial world in Chicago behind to study art in Europe in the 1950s. He toured around and lingered in Positano, Italy, which had a well-known American-run art school.
I have a daughter who loves jigsaw puzzles and she and I have spent many hours during summers on Cape Cod fitting together pieces of a Simpson’s version of Seurat’s Grande Jatte. (It has become a consumer object after all, and a piece of pop culture.) Cut into irregular pieces of cardboard, the image dissolves into its dots again, then is reconstituted over and over, though with great effort. Like most jigsaw puzzles, the key to success is matching colors rather than shapes. The process requires close observation, patience, and a large flat surface. It brings surprises to the foreground — like the mysterious white figure of a girl near the center, the only one to face the viewer. She is a bit of blank canvas to be writ upon as only a young girl can be.
This girl plays a key role in John Hughes’s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: when Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his friend Cameron cut school one day in Chicago one of their stops is the Art Institute. After a striking montage of still shots of various paintings from the collection the film lingers on Cameron studying La Grande Jatte. Hughes’s camera cuts back and forth between Cameron and the painting, getting ever closer to each until we see only Cameron’s eyes and the girl in white, who has become an unrecognizable patch of multicolored paint. It’s a coy statement about pointillism (those dots!) and human vision (the perception of color and light!) but it’s also a psychological turning point of some kind.
In some ways the film is really Cameron’s story more than Ferris’s. Ferris is a readymade character, sprung fully-formed from the beginning of the film, but Cameron is in crisis and changes over the course of the film’s single day. Crippled by anxiety about his future, he learns from Ferris and Sloane first to relax and then to assert himself. The movie makes that transformation the cumulative effect of “the best day of his life” but the one place where Cameron has his own separate experience from the others is in the museum, in contemplating that painting. It’s a surprising testament to the impact art, even in its abstract representations of life, can have on “real” life and “real” people, even those merely represented in a more realistic medium like film. The meta levels are dizzying.
Paris-Chicago-New York. 1884-1926-1958-1986. Sunday after Sunday in perpetuity. George-Frederic-Earle-Cameron, and an unnamed girl in white, threaded together by a painting that almost went up in smoke.