Painted 1888 (160 Kb); Oil on canvas, 27 3/4 x 34 in; Signed, bottom left; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Walter H. Annenberg Collection
By his own description, Seurat set out to discipline the creation of paintings through the systematic application of carefully calculated formulas concerning color, composition, and line, which superseded those works of the older generation of Impressionists. 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.
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 painting, 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 poles; 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 colors alternate within each area of definition: orange/green, blue/yelloy, and white/gray. 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.
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 harbor 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?
Felix Feneon, 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 stroke that characterize its practice, the interaction of colors 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 color 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 strongmindedness. 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 color 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 color 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.