Georges Seurat, who died of diphtheria at the tragically young age of 31, was celebrated in the United States long before his fame reached his native France.
Seurat’s master painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-86), is prominently displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Side Show” (1887-88), a melancholy painting of a circus band, has a happy home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“The Models” (1888), an unusual work that depicts three young women dressing and posing in front of a reproduction of Seurat’s previous painting of strollers (including a corseted and big-bustled woman walking a monkey) on Grande Jatte Island, is owned and quietly displayed by the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa.
The artist has even been immortalized in an American musical--Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”
But a century after his death in 1890, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (in co-sponsorship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art) has attempted to make up for Seurat’s relative unpopularity in France by hosting the first-ever major retrospective of the artist’s work in a wing of the Grand Palais.
The exhibition ranges from Seurat’s early academic works to his haunting black chalk sketches and concludes with several finished works, including “Side Show” and a dizzy-making painting of horse-borne acrobats in “The Circus” (1891).
After the exhibition concludes at the Grand Palais on Aug. 12, it will move to the Met in New York to be on display from Sept. 9 to Jan. 12, 1992.
The show has received generally upbeat reviews in France, where museum officials say they are averaging 4,750 visitors a day.
The fact that Seurat’s stock is up was obvious at a May 7 Sotheby’s art auction, where a small sketch (6x10 inches) he made in preparation for his “Grande Jatte” painting was sold for $1.37 million, one-third more than the auction house’s high estimate.
This came at a time when sales prices for other artworks are declining. At the same Sotheby’s sale, for example, Mattisse’s portrait “The Persian Robe” went for $4.5 million, more than 20% under the house low estimate.
Unfortunately, the Seurat retrospective is considered by experts to be flawed as a comprehensive exhibit because four of his major works, including “Grande Jatte,” “The Models,” “Le Chahut” (1889-1890) and the masterpiece “Bathers at Asnieres,” painted when the artist was only 25 in 1883-84, are absent because the owning museums refused to part with them. In the case of “Grande Jatte,” officials at the Art Institute of Chicago said the painting was simply too important to the museum’s collection to lend for a year.
“It is absolutely central to our collection,” said Chicago museum spokeswoman Eileen Harakal. “People come from all over the world just to see this painting.”
Meanwhile, the Barnes Foundation, possessor of “The Models,” never lends or allows photographs of its works. The Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo (Netherlands), owner of “Le Cahut,” gave no explanation why it rejected the exhibitor’s requests for the painting.
And the National Gallery in London--where the great “Bathers at Asnieres” painting, depicting working-class youths cooling themselves on the banks of the Seine in the industrial suburb of Paris--said that the work was too fragile to move. Part of the problem, National Gallery officials said, was that previous curators at the museum mistakenly glued the canvas to a metal backing, rendering it both too heavy and too fragile for safe transport.
The missing pieces of the Suerat oeuvre are glaring in their absence because the organizers, led by Seurat expert Robert L. Herbert of Mount Holyoke College and Francoise Cachin of the Musee d’Orsay, labored to gather the artist’s sketches and studies leading up to the major works, huge by the standards of his time at 6x9 feet in dimension.
According to Musee d’Orsay curator Anne Distal, who led U.S. reporters on a recent tour of the exhibition, Seurat--the developer of pointillism--worked much like a photographer, using his studies and sketches to zoom in on one aspect of the work or trying different croppings or blow-ups to treat others. The effect of viewing the detailed sketches leading up to works such as the “Grande Jatte” and “Bathers at Asnieres,” then being deprived of the final product, creates a natural letdown. Instead, the exhibitors have mounted full-size, black-and-white photographs of the finished works on a facing wall.
Critics have characterized this as a noble gesture to confront the problems of the Seurat exhibition head-on.
But it has not been enough to satisfy many Seurat lovers.
“In Seurat’s case,” wrote art critic Genevieve Breerette in Le Monde, “the absence of the large canvases is particularly unfortunate since the paintings in question are not separate, parallel productions with no major impact on his development as an artist, but comprehensive works developed over a long period, sometimes more than a year, which have no equivalent and which punctuate and articulate the painter’s path.”
“Moreover,” Breerette wrote, “Seurat deliberately built his image on these paintings, and it was often on them that his work was judged, not always positively.”