The Art Mysteries – Seurat

I am loving Waldermar Januszczak’s new series, The Art Mysteries and this week’s was an absolute cracker.

In this episode, he looked at the post-impressionist, Georges Seurat and the mystery surrounding this painting, to be found in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Le Poseurs (The Models), 1886, Barnes Foundation, PA

The question that Waldemar was exploring is why has Seurat included one of his masterpieces, A Sunday Afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte in the corner?

One of the reasons I am so in love with exploring art is that, it often is linked to the social issues of the day, has historical resonances or has meaning in the artist’s life: it’s all about the stories.

Georges Seurat came from a wealthy background, so his story is not one of the struggling artist, but what he is most famous for is his obsession with colour theory and how contrasts worked.  He brought pointillism to the art world, the way in which the paint is not blended on the palette, but on the canvas through tiny dots of contrasting colours that the eye blends rather than the artist.

What I became most interested in what the connection between the two paintings Seurat made based on activities on the Seine: the above mentioned Sunday afternoon and Bathers at Asnières, 1884:




Bathers at Asnières, 1884, National Gallery, London

In Bathers, Seurat shows a group of workers having a break at the edge of the Seine.  We can see the factories in the background; modernity breaking through and linking our working men in the foreground to the employment.  Like the Old Masters, Seurat, puts his figures next to water, like the gods of the Old Masters, but perhaps these are the new gods?

What I did not know is that this side of the River Seine is opposite the island of La Grande Jatte!  All of the workers are looking in the same direction, all looking at where the bourgeoisie played and spent their leisure time.  Our young man in the red hat looks as if he is shouting abuse at those across the river who are showing off their wealth!

Not all is at it seems in the Grand Jatte either.  The couple in the foreground may appear to be a respectable couple out for a stroll, but no, our young lady in the jaunty hat, carrying a parasol is a working girl, out with her patron.  You can tell by the fact she has a monkey as a pet!  The park was popular in order to escape the summer heat and it attracted many different people looking to pass their leisure time.  This is a direct contrast to the bathers on the other side, who have no shade to protect them, just the coolness of the river.

But what has this to do with the question, Waldemar posed?

The answer lies in the story of the Judgment of Paris; where Paris was asked to choose who was the most beautiful of the goddesses, Venus, Juno and Minerva – as beautifully depicted in Ruben’s painting of 1635:

Peter Paul Rubens, Judgment of Paris, 1632-1635, National Gallery, London

It is all to do with the three nudes in the La Poseurs, and the double meaning of the term.  They are not just models, they are posing.  The three girls are the models for La Grand Jatte and they are taking off the costumes they put on to be someone else.


Waldemar thinks that the term, ‘judgement of Paris’ is really about judging Parisian society at this time. Clever, non?

Make sure you don’t miss this series: Tuesdays, BBC4 9pm