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Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

you can know every inch of a picture by heart and it can still be a mystery. That is the secret of the Mona Lisa, a portrait so enigmatic that even endless duplication can’t make you sick of it. It’s even truer of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, a canvas that everyone knows but no one entirely possesses.

Forty-eight people, eight boats, three dogs and one monkey on a leash — together they assemble on a narrow island in the Seine to enjoy a summer’s day and the spectacle of one another. What’s wrong with this picture? From a distance some of the figures have the heft and stability of Mesopotamian statuary. But step closer, and they dissolve into a force field of bristling molecules. Step back again, and they also appear like paper cutouts, flat and stiff. Are they enjoying themselves or just impersonating themselves? It won’t do to ask the monumental couple on the right — he with the cigar, she with the monkey. Like just about everyone else in this painting, both have the immobile gaze of the Sphinx.

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Like the Sphinx, La Grande Jatte does not travel. Since the painting entered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926, it has been lent just once, to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City for a Seurat retrospective in 1958. After it arrived there, a fire broke out in MOMA's galleries. The painting was unharmed, but the trustees of the Art Institute decided it would never leave home again. Even the great Seurat touring retrospective in 1991 had to do without it. Thirteen years later, the Art Institute is making up for that curatorial blank spot with “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte,” an exhibition consisting of the distinguished thing itself and dozens of works by Seurat and others that led to its creation. Do we need to tell you that it won’t travel? But you travel, no? Hit Chicago before the show closes on Sept. 19.

Seurat’s career was brief but consequential. In 1884, when he was just 24, he exhibited Bathing Place, Asnières, a painting that announced a powerful ambition: to synthesize flickering Impressionist-derived technique with stable, classical form. Two years later, he unveiled La Grande Jatte, a canvas that we now realize brought whole new departments of feeling and form into view. Five years after that, he was dead from diphtheria. But within that short life he was able to formulate a style, both utterly modern and serenely classical, that opened the way to everything from post-Impressionism and Symbolism to 20th century geometric abstraction.

Where did it come from? Reach back far enough, and you can see its beginnings in work not included in this show: Giorgione’s Fête Champêtre, from 1510, and the 18th century fêtes galantes of Watteau. They provide the pictorial tradition — plush scenes of the aristocracy at leisure in green settings — that Seurat adapted to the world of middle-class entertainments.

By the time he began work on La Grande Jatte, Seurat was also looking closely at Millet, whose bulky peasants figure behind many of Seurat’s magnificent drawings, and at the velvety etchings of Goya and Rembrandt. Seurat worked in soft, fatty Conté crayon, dragging it across paper that had a rough, microscopically tufted surface. Minute threads of the paper’s whiteness remain visible beneath the crayon’s black, creating smoky gray and black textures of incredible depth.

Seurat was also looking closely at the Impressionist works of Renoir, Monet and Pissarro. By the 1880s Impressionism was coming under attack not just from the usual academic conservatives but from a new generation who wanted art to reclaim its larger purposes, to represent moral hierarchies, eternal values, history — anything that imposed an order of the mind on the hectic gatherings of the eye. The Impressionists had no use for any of that. Their working method was to record the fleeting effects of light at a particular moment, and that moment was always “now.”

Seurat had a longer arc in mind. He wanted to adapt the bright staccato of Impressionist technique to forms that would be as weighty and enduring as the art he saw at the Louvre. Unlike the Impressionists, who preferred to work as rapidly and spontaneously as possible, Seurat returned to the traditional technique of making numerous preliminary sketches and oils in his studio; there are more than 60 for La Grande Jatte. Many of those are in the show, where they make clear how he conceived the island first as an empty stage — early on he produced a view of it free of all people — then gradually brought on his actors, constantly refashioning their contours and dimensions.

Seurat was steeped in the work of color theorists like Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who held that each color gives off a halo of its complementary color and that adjoining dots of different hue would be blended by the eye. Adjacent spots of blue and yellow, for instance, would create a joint aureole of green. From that idea Seurat developed his pointillist technique. But the Chicago show, which was guest-curated by scholar Robert L. Herbert, takes pains to remind us that Seurat was never truly bound to it. In an age that worshipped science — even socialism had been made “scientific” — pointillism appeared to lend his art the authority of science. But Seurat gained that not so much by following scientific practices as by evoking them. His surfaces looked systematic, rational, patterned. In fact they were the outcome of many purely spontaneous gestures, brushwork that frequently conformed to no system more orderly than his own intuitions.

Unfortunately, Seurat opted to experiment with a newly available pigment, zinc yellow, that turned out to be highly unstable. Over time, it turned dull brown. Within a few years, wide areas of La Grande Jatte had darkened. For this show, the Art Institute has prepared a nearly full-scale reproduction that gives an idea of how the painting looked before the colors faded. Predictably, there was a radiance in some passages that’s lost to us now, but what’s interesting is how little the picture has been diminished by the decay of mere pigment. The fascination of La Grande Jatte is not just a matter of color and light. It lies in Seurat’s endlessly absorbing and ambiguous notion — to show modern men and women bearing the signs of their daily life into eternity, so that even their pettiest, most comical vanities become part of something stately and immemorial. His cigar, her monkey — no less than the Sphinx, they belong to the ages now.