Issues of glazing, framing and color shift—plus the inclusion of a full-scale replica of Seurat's Pointilist icon in "rejuvenated hues—prompt the author's reflections on a recent Chicago show.
Urban park art was this summer's theme in Chicago. With Frank Gehry's bandshell adding sparkle and flutter to the city's lakeside skyline, Millennium Park opened in July as a downtown magnet for outdoor public relaxation. Only weeks before, the neighboring Art Institute of Chicago opened a specialized exhibition, at once beautiful and extensive (including 130 works): "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte," devoted to the leading French Neo-impressionist's monumental and informal group portrait of Parisians on their day off at a riverside park. Like Millennium Park planners, who finished four years behind schedule, Seurat put off completion of La Grande Jatte with revisions and additions. He was ready to exhibit the painting in March 1885, but then reworked it with what quickly became his hallmark pinpoints of color in October of that same year, prior to its first public showing at the last Impressionist group show in May 1886; finally, in 1888-89, he slightly enlarged the work in order to enhance it with a border of dots in contrasting colors. For "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte," the famous painting has been provided with a new frame (some 115 years after the fact!), supposedly designed in keeping with the artist's preferences and fitted with an expensive sheet of nonreflecting laminated glass, weighing roughly 500 pounds, donated by the local manufacturer Tru-Vu.
The painting has never looked better to me since first I saw it, back in 1970 when I came to Chicago to organize the exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings that marked the Art Institute's 110th anniversary. At the time a brash newcomer to the field of late 19th-century French art, I liked to complain about how the Art Institute displayed the famous painting under glass, thus somewhat distorting the hard-won subtleties of Seurat's genius. I shared my peeve with the late John Rewald, Seurat's biographer, whom I met when he came to see "Toulouse-Lautrec Paintings." To my surprise, Rewald countered that Seurat himself glazed all his paintings as an alternative to varnishing them, thus obviating the gradual yellowing of colors that all varnishing eventually entails. Sure enough, writing in September 1886 for a Brussels newspaper, Seurat's well-informed champion in the press, Félix Fénéon, reported: "…following the example of [Lawrence] Alma-Tadema, James Tissot, etc., [the Neo-Impressionists] place their canvases under glass; that way there is nothing to fear with respect to darkening, which is inevitable with even the purest varnish."1 Mean's statement so fascinated me that, when I wrote a brief monograph about Seurat a few years later, I stressed that the painter had exhibited La Grande Jatte under glass, at what must have been considerable expense.2 Indeed, by extension it occurred to me that the unusually wide dimensions of the white frame provided by Seurat for La Grande Jatte around 1886 (documented in the background of the three versions of his 1887 painting, Les Poseuses) might perhaps have been predicated on a need to support the considerable weight of a sheet of protective glass.
Since Seurat specialists have never responded to my supposition, I now feel obliged to do so myself. Fénéon's claim notwithstanding, counter-indications ought to have aroused my skepticism about whether Seurat provided La Grande Jatte with a sheet of glass. Measuring nearly 7 by 10 feet, such a glass sheet would, for all I can tell, have been in 1886 the largest yet manufactured for any purpose. Although Seurat's brother-in-law, Léon Appert, was in the glass-production business, the expense, weight and fragility of such a large piece of glass would have presented near-insurmountable obstacles for transport and handling, not to mention that the reflective properties of the glass would inevitably have hindered close viewing of La Grande Jatte. Surely some, if not all, of the many critics who reviewed the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886 would have mentioned the glass, if only from a sense of amazement. But none did.
Even though the large version of Les Poseuses in the Barnes Foundation can never be borrowed, it is hard to understand why the organizers of "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" decided not to request the loan of the smaller version of the same composition from the Heinz Berggruen Collection at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin.3 After all, the current exhibition bills itself as an investigation of the "making" of La Grande Jatte, a process ongoing until 1889, and Les Poseuses includes a reproduction of the right-hand side of the Chicago painting at a key stage in its evolution, prior to the ultimate stage in the work's realization—the addition of the narrow dotted border. Rather than even slightly modify the original proportions of La Grande Jatte, in order to realize this border Seurat went to the considerable trouble of unfolding the tacking margins of the large painting and extending them over narrow extensions, which he added to the stretcher.4 Could it be that the curiously narrow width of the dotted borders added by Seurat to most of his paintings beginning around 1888 was determined by the width of the tacking margins of the 1885-86 "final" version of La Grande Jatte? Of course, the very fact that Seurat willingly enlarged La Grande Jatte argues against the possibility that it was glazed in 1886, Had there been an expensive sheet of protective glass in 1886, enlargement of the work in 1888 would have made the glass worthless. In any case, Seurat's relatively minor enlargements to accommodate the border made La Grande Jatte too big for the original frame documented in Les Poseuses.5 When Seurat died, only a few years later, he apparently had not yet reframed the expanded Grande Jatte. How to fulfill his unexpressed last wishes with respect to framing La Grande Jatte has bedeviled his ardent admirers ever since.6
A photograph of La Grande Jatte's first owner, Lucie Cousturier, shows the unframed painting's dot-bordered bottom edge resting on a baseboard molding. She sold the work around 1924 to Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Birch Bartlett of Chicago. It was evidently Mr. Bartlett, himself a painter, who chose the relatively narrow and light frame visible in early photographs of its installation at the Art Institute.7 The extensive research carried out on La Grande Jatte and Seurat's preliminary studies for it by Daniel Caton Rich, who first joined the staff of the Art Institute in 1927, forms the foundation of modern scholarship on the painting. In his valuable essay in the current catalogue, Neil Harris explains Rich's efforts, beginning no later than 1949, to mount a thorough retrospective of Seurat's works at the Art Institute, in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art.8 Since the great painting had been donated on condition that it never leave the Art Institute, however, Rich needed special permission from Bartlett in order to lend La Grande Jatte to New York. Installation photographs of this exhibition, which finally opened in 1958, show La Grande Jatte in a new white frame, closely based on the one documented in Les Poseuses. It seems unlikely that the painting was glazed at this time since during the course of the 1958 exhibition the Art Institute solicited opinions (luckily all negative) from leading conservation specialists about whether to varnish the painting.9 But while the decision to replicate the original frame was made in the spirit of historical accuracy, it is hardly certain that Seurat would have chosen the same sort of wide white frame for La Grande Jatte once it had a border as he had when it was without one. Indeed, the wide proportions of the 1886 frame appear awkward in visual relationship to the narrow dotted border added in 1888.
Justified or not, Rich's replica of the 1886 white frame was nevertheless removed, thanks to John Maxon, who came to the Art Institute in 1959, Maxon replaced it with a gilded Louis XVI frame, fitted with a sheet of protective glass. I saw it framed this way in 1979. Appointed by Maxon as curator of earlier European paintings in 1974, J. Patrice Marandel (today chief curator of European paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) began a long but fruitless search for the white frame documented in 1950s installation photographs, with the hope that it might have been Seurat's original.
Enter Rick Brettell, the brilliant Robert L. Herbert student, who succeeded Marandel in 1980 and quickly turned his attention to framing questions in general and to La Grande Jatte in particular.10 As Rich had done in the 1950s, Brettell in 1982 ordered up another replica of the white 1886 frame recorded in Les Poseuses, regardless of the fact that the latter shows La Grande Jatte without its final border. La Grande Jatte was displayed in Brettell's frame until this year, when it was replaced to coincide with the opening of "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte." Although the rationale for the most recent frame design is discussed neither in the exhibition catalogue nor in any of the educational texts on display in the exhibition itself, Art Institute curator Gloria Groom told me that it was based on the frame (now lost) for the large Barnes version of Les Poseuses, as documented in an installation photograph of an 1892 exhibition in Antwerp. This precious documentary photograph from the year following Seurat's death shows six different works, all presumably framed according to his ultimate wishes. For an art historian, the photograph is maddening to contemplate: all the frames in the photograph have since been destroyed, with the partial exception of the frame for the Museum of Modern Art's Honfleur, Evening (1886), which maintains its original dark inner frame, though without the light outer frame. (Part of Kirk Varnedoe's legacy at the Museum of Modern Art was to have this outer frame carefully replicated.)11
Brettell came to his Art Institute of Chicago job well aware that Seurat's frame was not all that had changed with respect to La Grande Jatte. Fénéon in 1892 complained that colors used by Seurat were significantly changed already, after only seven or eight years: "…if the pinks and the blues remain unchanged, the Veronese [greens] are now olive in tone and the oranges which represented light no longer represent anything but holes.12 Determined to evaluate Fénéon's disturbing claims, Brettell encouraged Art Institute conservator Inge Fiedler to take pigment samples and examine them with stereomicroscopy, I well recall in the early 1980s listening to Brettell propose that Fiedler's information be systematized using what were then the superpowerful computers at Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (though the project never reached the computer stage). Given his creative efforts on behalf of La Grande Jatte scholarship, it saddens me that Brettell's name goes unmentioned in the current exhibition catalogue. No matter. Something like what he had in mind became one of the key features of "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte."
I greatly simplify here. Fiedler discovered that the primly culprit in the deterioration of Seurat's colors was the pigment zinc yellow.13 All the zinc-yellow dots browned considerably, as did dots of the colors that Seurat made with zinc yellow as an ingredient, most notably his greens (which he mixed himself, using yellow and blue) and his oranges (using yellow and vermilion). The challenge was to collate Fiedler's findings to create a computerized image. To do this, the Art Institute turned to Roy S. Berm, coordinator of the color-science degree program at Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Imaging Science. During a 1999-2000 sabbatical at the Conservation Department of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Berm made a widely acclaimed (although as yet unpublished) reproduction with rejuvenated colors of van Gogh's Still Life with Roses (1890), painted with fugitive pink tones that today appear white. Extending the specialized imaging techniques developed in Washington, Berns and the Art Institute's staff for "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" finally fulfilled what Brettell had imagined as a possibility: a full-scale replica of Seurat's masterpiece, with the colors corrected to appear as they were during the late 1880s, when it was made. Unfortunately, while the exhibition catalogue does contain an important section on conservation issues, including essays by Berns, Fiedler, Frank Zuccari and Allison Langley, the Photoshop replica of La Grande Jatte as a whole could not be included to everyone's satisfaction in the catalogue.
But the inclusion of the full-scale Fiedler-Berns reproduction in "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" marked a milestone in exhibition history, art history, art education and modern aesthetics, so deeply invested in theoretical considerations about the status of reproductions. The overall field of creating rejuvenated color reproductions of time-discolored paintings has exploded in the last few years. An article published in Nature in 2002 describes the work carried out by chemist Joris Dik to create a color-corrected reproduction of Hendrik Terbrugghen's Saint Luke (1621).14 Dik was already able to exhibit such a color-corrected image, along with information about the techniques and issues at stake, at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht in 2000. Included in a blockbuster exhibition, however, the Fiedler-Berns reproduction of La Grande Jatte effectively demonstrated the revolutionary new concept to a broader audience. It is worth remembering that throughout the 19th century museums relied heavily on copies and reproductions. It was only during the 20th century that such educational props were banished as misleading approximations to ever higher museum-professional standards predicated on the authenticity and historical integrity of originals. Now, however, the Dik reproduction of Saint Luke and the Fiedler-Berns reproduction of La Grande Jatte encourage reconsideration of those standards. The colors in these new reproductions can be understood to be closer in appearance to what the painters originally intended than the paintings themselves now are. Consequently, we can now imagine a future when meticulously manipulated images will provide an alternative account of what paintings were intended to look like, just as the development of iconology after World War I provided an alternative account of what paintings were supposed to have meant at the time of their making.15 For future monographs about, say, Poussin, authors and publishers will need to choose between reproductions of the works as they appear after centuries of change and reproductions of replicas crafted to show how the works were likely to have looked at the time they were painted. True enough, from no later than the Renaissance, scholars and restorers have attempted to replace missing parts of works that have survived only in fragmentary form. Yet reconstructions based on educated guesswork are ultimately stand-ins for partially lost originals, whereas rejuvenated reproductions will allow us to see everything that has survived on its own original terms.
Considering all that is at stake, it came as a surprise that, at the Art Institute's "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" exhibition, this historic full-scale reproduction was installed against a white wall, without any frame, two galleries removed from the original painting, itself newly reframed, reglazed and presented against a dark blue wall. Why go to so much trouble with the reproduction only to exhibit it under conditions very different from the ones provided for the original painting? It was impossible to look at the two simultaneously, so curious viewers shuttled back and forth between galleries, challenged to keep a memory impression of the one to check against the other in order to appreciate the degree of difference. I may be altogether wrong, but der the frustrating circumstances I came to the conclusion that the deterioration of Seurat's colors had not resulted in serious distortion, that the original appeared at most slightly dulled, that Fénéon writing in 1892 had exaggerated the problem, just as he had overstated in 1886 the extent to which Seurat glazed his paintings.
The fact that the Fiedler-Berns reproduction was not installed alongside the original painting prompted me to wonder about what roles it might ideally have played in the exhibition. Focus shows conceived reunite closely related works dispersed over time by art-market forces are a special category of exhibition. More often than not, they are relatively small, like "Seurat at Gravelines: The Last Landscapes," the 990 exhibition organized by Ellen Wardwell Lee at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to provide original historical context for that institution's fine Seurat, The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe, 1890. Ten works sufficed. But as if determined to counter the widely acclaimed Impressionist dogma .at painting ought to be done directly from the motif, without any preliminary studies, Seurat, while creating La Grande Jatte, made scores of drawings and small oils corresponding to single details in the ultimate work. Reuniting most of these studies for “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte," along with works made by other artists that were exhibited in tandem with Seurat's large painting, made it impossible to view each of them in direct proximity to the Art Institute's icon, thus undermining the focus-exhibition rationale. The Chicago exhibition would have benefited enormously had the museum owned multiple versions of La Grand Jatte: one to place in the gallery with the little preliminary studies, one to place in the gallery with the Neo-impressionist works from the last Impressionist exhibition, in May 1886, and yet another for the gallery with works from the Indépendants exhibition at the end of the same year. And indeed, the organizers of "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" did, in concept, have access to multiple versions, thanks to the Fiedler-Berns reproduction. Each gallery of the show could have temporarily juxtaposed a perfected image of La Grande Jatte with the many works with which it shared studio and gallery space during the artist's lifetime. Indeed, it would have been possible with color-improved reproductions to test a variety of framing solutions for the ultimate Grande Jatte with its painted border and to compare them with one another to see which, if any, made the best case.
Cautiously, though, the Art Institute opted to isolate the Fiedler-Berns reproduction in a gallery without any bona fide works of art, as if mixing reproduction and original would somehow violate a museum taboo. However fundamental the commitment of museums to education, color reproductions are strictly excluded from most serious presentations as a matter of museum pride. For one thing, there is the concern that some visitors might mistake the color reproduction for an original and thus be confused or even cheated as paying clients, But will such muse-um orthodoxies continue to make sense now that reproductions (at least of the Dik or Fiedler-Berns sort) have enhanced status vis-à-vis originals?
In addition to encouraging speculation about the future of art exhibitions and publications, "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" brought attention to the conventionally elevated status of large complex works developed with the help of numerous studies. Surely a demonstration of the artist's exacting work habits, the great number of related works that Seurat made for La Grande Jatte was in keeping with the superfluity of studies made in the 1880s by artists who specialized in large public projects, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes or Auguste Rodin, apparently to take advantage of an explosion of exhibition and market opportunities. Possible market influence aside, the idea of documenting each and every stage in such undertakings as case studies of the creative act at its most complex gained widespread acceptance thanks most of all to Christian Zervos, who founded the periodical Cahiers d'art in 1926. Zervos's richly illustrated article on La Grande Jatte and Seurat's preliminary drawings and studies, published in Cahiers d'art in 1928, surely inspired Rich.16 Meanwhile, the publication in 1932 of the first volume of Zervos's monumental, fully illustrated catalogue of all Picasso's works, preliminary drawings included, can be understood to have set into motion a flurry of interest in the documentation of studies as keys to the mechanism of creativity. In 1934 Marcel Duchamp published his so-called Green Box (La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme) with facsimiles of 93 of his notes for his famously incomplete Large Glass (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Then 1935 saw the publication not only of Rich's Seurat and the Evolution of "La Grande Jatte", but also of a monograph on Matisse by Roger Fry including eight of the 21 photographs with which the painter had just documented the stage-to-stage progress that very year on his Pink Nude (Baltimore Museum of Art).17 In the summer of 1937, Zervos devoted a special issue of Cahiers d'art (Summer 1037, vol. , nos. 4-6) to Picasso's Guernica (Madrid, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia), illustrating many of the related works, as well as Dora Maar's photographs of the monumental painting in progress. By 1938 even Salvador Dali. got into the act. For his exhibition the following year at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, he produced an elaborate catalogue with six preparatory drawings printed on transparent sheets that can be overlaid to follow the progress from study to study, culminating in The Endless Enigma (Madrid, Museo Nacional Reim. Sofia). With so much emphasis on the convoluted process of School of Paris genius during the '20s and '30s, no wonder that some American critics after World War II welcomed the explosive spontaneity of Jackson Pollock and his colleagues as an antidote to the ultra-premeditated tradition of Seurat.
Reconsidering the "making" of La Grande Jatte, one thing alone is altogether clear: it may have taken Seurat years of hard work to fully realize his masterpiece, but posterity will evidently never be done with it.
Let me thank the following colleagues for help formulating these remarks: Roy S. Berns, Richard Brettell, David Bull, Joris Dik, Gloria Groom, Patrice Marandel, Ross Merrill, Gerald Nordland, John Richardson, Susan Alyson Stein, Janet Whitmore and Frank Zuccari.
"Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte" was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago [June 19 - Sept. 19, 2004].
Charles F. Stuckey teaches art history and museum studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.