Gray Weather, Grande Jatte, c. 1886–1888

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Artist Seurat, Georges

In 1890 Georges Seurat showed ten pictures with the Societe des Artistes Indépendants at the Cours la Reine of the Palais d’'Industrie in Paris; among them were two landscapes showing the banks of the Seine painted during the previous two or three years, which the critic Jules Christophe selected for particular note: “The effect is calm and gentle, with a harmonious placement of greys; the peaceful tonalities of the two studies of the Grande Jatte are delightful.” In his review Georges Lecomte stated that “The Grande Jatte, Gray Weather, proves that even in the torpor of an opaque sky, the sun still acts with a muffled and latent diffusion of light.” This praise would not have been particularly pleasing to an artist who had earlier responded indignantly to a similar subjective appraisal of his work: “Certain critics see poetry in what I have done. No, I apply my method and that is all there is to it.” By his own description, Seurat set out to discipline the creation of paintings through the systematic application of carefully calculated formulas concerning colour, composition, and line, which superseded those works of the older generation of Impressionists—Zola’s “Nature seen through temperament.” During the second half of the 1880s he laid a foundation for a new, objective mission for the many artists of his own generation who were drawn to his methods. Yet, for all the rigor of intention and application of his theories, the outcome always seemed to comprise a balance of systematic application and poetic expression. This duality is no more apparent than in the vigorously analytical yet subtly evocative painting Gray Weather, Grande Jatte.

The site is one of the best known in nineteenth-century French painting: the island of the Grande Jatte. Stretching for over one mile in the river Seine, just northwest of Paris, this narrow strip of land (six hundred feet at its widest), opposite factories and the dense working-class neighbourhoods of Clichy and Valois-Perret on the right bank, with the more arboreal and prosperous middle-class suburbs of Courbevoie and Asniéres to the north, was a favourite outing place for Parisians by the 1880s. Thanks to the easily available train service from the Gare Saint-Lazare, they came in mobs on summer Sundays to swim, fish, boat, or to take the air with their pets. The Grande Jatte was one of the favourite haunts of Seurat and his friends; boys swimming along the banks at Asniéres became the subject of his first ambitious painting, The Bathing Place (Asniéres) of 1884. Two years later at the eighth, and last, Impressionist exhibition, he showed Sunday Afternoon: Island of the Grande Jatte, 1886, the celebrated picture resulting from a long gestation that included numerous drawings and oil sketches and that established his reputation among the avant-garde, permanently dividing the artists of the older generation of Impressionists, who had shown together since 1874. Both of these grand pictures are monumental experiments in the long French tradition of depicting figures in a landscape, and their complexity is immense. However, particularly in the latter part of the decade, Seurat painted landscapes on a more modest scale, on summer outings to the French towns on the Channel and, on at least three occasions, when revisiting the site of his great achievement of 1886. He returned to nature, as he noted, to “wash” the light of his Parisian studio from his eyes, and “to transcribe most exactly the vivid outdoor clarity in all its nuances.”  It was Seurat’s practice to work in plein air only for drawings and small oil sketches; his final paintings were done in his studio, which was often lit by gaslight.
This picture shows a dull, overcast summer's day on the Grande Jatte, devoid of the rowers, boaters, and fun seekers who populate the 1886 picture, which contains some forty figures. The idle boats are tied up to the mooring posts driven into the shallows along the bank: a little sailboat on the far left; two punts with pennants (perhaps from their rowing clubs) fluttering from the mooring pole: and a steam-powered craft firmly secured between two other poles, its dinghy tied up separately. As large as the latter boat seems in this context, it is probably just a small pleasure craft of the kind that moves gaily downriver in the 1886 painting, its guide sail, which goes up over the metal arch on the stern, furled away.

The view across the gently flowing river to the suburb of Courbevoie behind a concrete embankment is framed by the trees of the island. A path worn on the grass moves strongly across the foreground, the boldness of its diagonal somewhat dissipated as it weaves in and through the little grove of trees on the left. The surface of the painting is densely, but not evenly, covered by a series of small brush- strokes applied with great deliberation, Directly placed pure colours alternate within each area of definition: orange/green, blue/yellow, and white/grey. A border of alternating strokes of red and blue surrounds the entire canvas. The effect is at once freshly panoramic and spatially flattened. As Robert Goldwater noted, the diagonal placement of the tree trunks is balanced by the visual union of the foliage to the surface of the picture plane, just as the strong angle of the path is spatially thwarted by the even horizon of the bank beyond.

The painter Charles Angrand (1854-1926) described his working visits to the Grande Jatte with Seurat in 1885 or 1886: “The luxuous summer grasses along the bank had reached such a height that it obscured a boat, just along the bank, which he wished to depict. To avoid any trouble, I did him the service of cutting away the grass; afterwards he eliminated the boat from his picture. He was no slave to nature, oh, no! But he was respectful of it, not imaginative. His greatest attention was given to the tonalities, the colours and theirinteraction.” The picture Seurat was painting is not the one shown here, but Angrand’s description of Seurat’s attitudes applies. As abstract as his theories about the making of a picture may have been, the subject and the place were central issues, and questions of poetic mood and response to specific locations were, particularly in the independent landscapes, critical aspects of his work. It is unusual for Seurat, who was very prudent about his titles, to have given a descriptive title to this painting: “Gray Weather.” At least three of his harbour pictures bear the notation “Evening” along with the name of the town in which they were painted, but never was he as specific in noting the climatic nature of the moment as he was here. In this he was drawing close to the intention—at least in title—of the Impressionists, particularly Monet, whose declared purpose was to capture specific climatic effects. Given Seurat’s relationship to the older generation of Impressionists and his supposed dependency on their attitudes and style—a link that has been seriously questioned in recent criticism'—this is an idea worth testing, Is this, indeed, a closely witnessed record of a temporal and climatic condition in nature?

Félix Fenéon, the critic and friend of Seurat, was among the first to note that one of the grave dangers of Divisionist painting was that, through its increasing refinement of the applied, separate strokes that characterize its practice, the interaction of colours tended to cancel one another out, creating a somewhat dulled coloristic effect that may have been just the opposite from the vibrancy intended. That is certainly not the case here, where despite the intensity and degree of density of colour strokes, the relationship is so refined and delicately balanced that the overall muted effect is as intended.” This phenomenon proved a danger only for those followers of Seurat who practiced his Divisionist techniques with less rigor and strong-mindedness. The subtlety and degree of forethought exercised here argue for a completely calculated effect, an effect that is described by the title. The strokes, for example, are not applied with an even denseness. They vary markedly in their thickness and degree of colour contrast from one zone of the picture to another, just as the priming layer is not applied evenly but, rather, with considerable forethought to align with the bands of pattern within the picture: the lighter path, the water, and the sky are painted directly on unprimed canvas, whereas a white underpainting shows in spaces between the strokes in darker areas, to further enhance the contrasted colour strokes and create illusionist space. The final effect is one of great formal lucidity and absoluteness, yet it has a definite sense of the place and the atmosphere in which it was witnessed. The subjective element is in enchanting accord with the objective calculations of its realization; the “scientific” and the “poetic” duality is resolved on the highest possible aesthetic and experimental plane.

The border is painted, allowing the picture to distance itself from its original wooden frame, taking the shadow of the frame away from the image with an aura of gentle vitality. The painted border has been frequently discussed and its originality questioned on the assumption that Seurat returned to this picture at some later date to adjust its surround, as he was known to have done in other cases. However, careful observation of the edge of the picture suggests that this is not the case. The image of the landscape is carefully brought up to a fine edge of exposed, ungrounded canvas well within the perimeter of the outer edge of the canvas. This dark razor line is particularly evident in the highlight of the tree trunk to the right, which plays so effectively in and out of the third dimension, in contrast to the dark border just beyond—with the blue and red alterations applied on the same exposed canvas with great method.

The exact date of this painting remains unclear. It was first shown in the sixth exhibition of Les Vingt in Brussels in February 1889 and has often been ascribed to the previous year, although other works probably dating from 1886-87, including the Bridge at Courbevoie, which bears certain comparisons to it, were also shown there for the first time. Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), on a Seurat’s studio in 1887, noted that Seurat was just beginning to experiment with both contained painted borders and frames painted with Divisionist strokes, explaining that “the picture is not at all the same with white or anything else around it. One has positively no idea of the sun or of grey weather except through this indispensable complement. Lam going to try it out myself.” The inclusion of the painted border here suggests, therefore, a date of 1887 or later, rather than 1886 (Gray Weather, Grande Jatte was not shown in Paris by Seurat in the exhibition of 1887.) If one follows the argument that Seurat’ overall stylistic development proceeded toward a more abstracted, patterned series of compositions in the latter 1880s, culminating in the complex, frontal geometry of Parade (Musée du Louvre, Paris) in 1890, then Gray Weather, Grande Jatte should certainly fall slightly later than either the Bridge at Courbevoie or another depiction of the same site, The Banks of the Seine: Grande Jatte , neither of which has a painted border. Further, the poetic aspect of Gray Weather, Grande Jatte, both in the evocation of atmospheric effects and the slightly melancholy mood it expresses in its greyed, depopulated scene, suggests an emotional evolution beyond the two other pictures.

The early history of the picture is worthy of note. It first belonged to Seurat’s friend Alexandre Séon (1855-1917), whom he met as a fellow-student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1878 or 1879, where they studied with Henri Lehmann (1814-1882). Séon followed a less progressive course than Seurat; he became a successful painter and illustrator, somewhat affected by Seurat and his friends, but remaining more within the limited conventions of the Salon. Their friendship seems to have renewed in the late 1880s, just as Seurat was in a state of disillusionment at the hostile reaction to Sunday Afternoon: Island of the Grande Jatte from some of the Impressionists (particularly Monet and Renoir) and progressively more wary of the adaptation of his methods by his circle of follower. Given the relative prosperity of his family, Seurat had no financial need to sell his works, and it is known that he sometimes gave even important canvases to his friends. Séon may have come to this picture in this fashion. For example, in the distribution of Seurat’s estate, he was the recipient of a small oil sketch of the Grande Jatte, which Seurat’s mother (although probably not his wife, whom he kept secret from all his family and friends until literally the day of his fatal illness) had been encouraged to give to him by the theorist Félix Fenéon and the painters Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce. By the 1920s, the picture had come into the collection of the New York lawyer John Quinn, one of the most active and enlightened collectors of progressive painting. It joined one of the single most important gatherings of the artists works ever accrued, ten in all, including Seurat’s final masterpiece, The Circus, which Quinn bequeathed to the Musée du Louvre in Paris.


c. 1886–1888

Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 70.5 x 86.4 cm