Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
La rade de Grandcamp (Le port de Grandcamp)
Seurat’s La rade de Grandcamp, painted in the early summer of 1885, is a key work in the founding of the Neo-Impressionist movement, at one of the decisive moments in the evolution of early modernist painting. This canvas is one of a group of a half-dozen pictures completed that year in which Seurat first expressed his ideas, with confidence and authority, on light, color, and optics in painting. He demonstrated in a clear and accomplished manner the pictorial technique of divisionism that he had pioneered, revealing this innovative and—at that time—controversial method to his fellow painters and the public.
Painted in the small fishing commune of Grandcamp on the Normandy coast, La Rade depicts the roadstead—the sheltered anchorage—from which a small flotilla of sportsmen’s sail boats has sallied forth into the English Channel. In his Paris studio Seurat had recently brought his monumental masterwork, Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (Hauke, no. 162), to its initial state of completion. La Rade, together with four other important marine paintings Seurat completed that summer, had a decisive impact on the progress of his work (nos. 155, 156, 158, and 161).
The artist’s new, experimental approach had previously seemed tentative and was still subject to further development and refinement. In the Grandcamp marine pictures, however, Seurat achieved and mastered the technical means that most suitably reflected his research and ideas. Following his return to Paris, he again took up La Grande Jatte, altering the number and final appearance of the figures, but as importantly he incorporated his latest ideas concerning the application of the divisionist technique according to his theories of color separation and contrasts. He put the finishing touches on his huge canvas during the fall.
When La Grande Jatte was first exhibited in Paris at the eighth and last Impressionist group exhibition in May 1886, it hung in a special room between La Rade and another Grandcamp painting done the previous summer, Le Bec du Hoc (Hauke, no. 159). Together with three other paintings and three drawings, these works displayed the most advanced state of his experimental art at this point, and were subsequently shown at the second Salon des Indépendants in Paris that fall. In February 1887 these and other pictures traveled to Brussels for the fourth annual exhibition of Les Vingt, the association of vanguard Belgian painters.
At each event Seurat’s recent paintings attracted much attention and provoked heated disagreement, eliciting responses that ranged from cautious interest in his strange, painstaking technique to downright derision and blanket dismissal of the results. Seurat’s treatment of the figures in La Grand Jatte, which many considered to be stiff and wooden—too “Egyptian”—bore the brunt of critical abuse. The marine pictures fared more favorably, insofar as their subject and atmospheric treatment seemed to proceed more understandably from the Impressionist practice, which by this point had become familiar enough to open-minded, knowledgeable viewers.
Working in a line of chromatic experimentation that had its roots in the paintings of Delacroix, Seurat saw as the primary purpose of his research the need to bring hard, systematic science into the realm of Impressionist painting. To this young man’s way of thinking—Seurat was then only 26—Monet and his colleagues depended too heavily on rudimentary observation and the inconsistencies of an intuitive, subjectively derived approach to method and technique. Seurat wanted to apply more rigorously objective means to the pictorial representation of objective reality.
By the mid-1880s, a substantial body of scientific research and credible theory on the subjects of light, color and optics had been published. Michel-Eugène Chevreul, James Maxwell, Hermann von Helmholtz, O.N. Rood, and David Sutter had done groundbreaking and useful work in these fields, all just waiting to be applied with accuracy, insight, and consistency to the practice of painting. The art critic and historian Charles Blanc had incorporated scientific findings in his writings, having published a section on color in his Grammar of Painting, 1879. The young scientist Charles Henry, whom Seurat met in 1886, engaged in the most ambitious and far-reaching undertaking of all, in which he sought to bring together all aspects of the arts and sciences within a single, unified aesthetic system. Seurat was drawn to and pondered these ideas; he was clearly in tune with the synthesizing tendency that was everywhere in the air as the century headed towards its final decade. He made his aim no less than the definition and establishment of a comprehensive, fact-based, scientific system that would constitute the most advanced and truly modern model for painting at that time.
Based on the theories of Chevreul and Rood, Seurat devised a color disc in which he brought together the entire gamut of color hues and intermediate tones, including the colors of available pigments that typically comprised the artist’s palette, allowing him to easily identify the complementary of any color or tone. Through the use of these related, interactive tones, applied side by side in strokes of pure color, he maximized simultaneous contrasts of hue, inducing the viewer’s eye to optically blend the chromatic elements on the canvas. Seurat called this manner of separating colors by individual brushstrokes “divisionism.”
The term “pointillist” has been often used to characterize the appearance of his technique, and in English this word has come to imply, misleadingly, the use of tiny points or dots of individuated color, a method which is actually but one among many kinds of brushstrokes and marks that Seurat and fellow divisionists employed in their paintings. In French, point means “stitch,” which accurately describes the overall effect of the many small, interwoven marks of paint that make up the surface of a divisionist painting. Nevertheless, as John Rewald has pointed out, “Seurat and his associates carefully avoided the word ‘pointillism’ in their discussions and always spoke of ‘divisionism,’ a term which embraced all their innovations” (op. cit., 1978, p. 98).
Seurat preferred to call his theories and technique “chromo-luminarism.” In 1887, the writer and gallerist Félix Fénéon coined the term néo-impressionniste to signify this new method and its practitioners. Signac later explained that Seurat and his friends allowed adoption of this label, “not in order to curry favor (the impressionists had still not won their battle), but to pay homage to the efforts of their predecessors and to emphasize that while procedures varied, the ends were still the same: light and color.” Signac nevertheless clearly delineated the essential difference in method between the two groups of artists: “the technique of the [impressionists] is instinctive and instantaneous, that of the neo-impressionists is deliberate and constant” (quoted in ibid., p. 89).
In March 1885, Seurat had brought to a provisional conclusion his first campaign to complete La Grande Jatte, having planned to include it in the Salon des Indépendants that spring, but that exhibition was postponed. In the late spring or early summer, Seurat left Paris to paint in Grandcamp. Like many artists, he liked to get out of the studio and away from city during the summer months to paint elsewhere, preferably working on site, in the open air, before the motif. For the past two years he had dedicated his efforts chiefly to two large canvases and their related studies, Une baignade à Asnières, 1883-1884 (Hauke, no. 92; Tate Gallery, London) and thereafter La Grande Jatte. The journey to Grandcamp was intended as a welcome change of pace and place. Seurat hoped to refresh his technique, and perhaps even bring back to Paris some new revelation of theory and practice which he could continue to develop during the winter months in his studio.
A sojourn during the summer of 1881 in Pontaubert, the Yonne region, had introduced Seurat to the pleasures of working outdoors. Having accomplished productive work in Port-en-Bessin on the Normandy coast during the summers of 1883 and 1884, Signac appears to have recommended to Seurat the advantages of working at a seaside location, where the experience of space would be more expansive, the light more atmospheric and intense than at any inland site. Seurat’s stay in Grandcamp would prove to be a success, and as a result, with the exception of 1887, Seurat would spend each summer of the few years remaining to him, from 1885 to 1890, painting in one of the Channel ports: Honfleur (1886), Port-en-Bessin (1888), Le Crotoy (1889), and finally Gravelines (1890).
Seurat seems to have appreciated the melancholy, contemplative sight of flat, open, wind-swept vistas at Grandcamp. As he explored the coastline east and west of the port, he painted eleven small panels, most of which show a simple composition of sea, strand, and sky, often including some beached fishing boats, as seen in the larger painting Marée basse à Grandcamp (Hauke, no. 155). Seurat also executed a single oil study on panel as preparation for the desolate dunescape Le Fort Samson à Grandcamp (no. 157) and another for Le Bec du Hoc. He did not, however, preface either of his two most elaborate compositions of that summer, the present Le Rade and Grandcamp, le soir (no. 161) with oil studies, nor do drawings exist of these views or any other Grandcamp subject.
La Rade depicts one of the regattas that the Channel ports sponsored during the summer months to attract tourists and vacationers. A small fleet of mid-size, sea-going racing craft is gathered close-in to the shore. Having raised and spread their mainsails, they venture forth into the Channel along an expansive, counter-clockwise track. Other boats hover at the distant horizon; behind them are the bluffs that mark the shoreline of the Cotentin Peninsula. As precedents for this subject, Seurat perhaps had in mind two Monet paintings of 1867, both done in Sainte-Adresse and today in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Les Régattes (Wildenstein, no. 91), which shows the sailboats gathering offshore, and the Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse (no. 95) which offers a compositional parallel to Seurat’s La Rade.
In place of the finely cultivated garden terrace with figures in the lower central section of Monet’s painting, Seurat has depicted a wildly overgrown seaside garden set behind a rustic stone wall and stick fence. A sprawling patch of vegetation also dominates the foreground of Grandcamp, le soir. Hardly picturesque in itself, the garden nevertheless represents an essential component in Seurat’s pictorial scheme, the conjunction of the basic elements of land, sea, and sky. This foliage may have interested Seurat for the possibility it offered him to experiment with various kinds of divisionist brushwork, contrasting his treatment in the land forms with other means given to handling the sea and sky.
Of the five large Grandcamp canvases painted in 1885, only La Rade and possibly Le Fort Samson remain as Seurat initially painted them. During 1888-1889 the artist retouched Le Hoc de Bec, Grandchamp, marée basse, and Grandchamp, le soir. Robert L. Herbert, closely studying Seurat’s technique in La Rade, has noted that “This picture was probably the first canvas Seurat undertook during the summer of 1885. Its more varied brushwork places it closer to the Impressionists than other Grandcamp pictures…Seurat’s sky consists of a subdued and blended mottling of blue-grays, whites, pale yellows, and pinks. The water is rendered by a horizontal stitching whose multicolored touches give the look of lapping waves. For the foliage and grass Seurat used a varied crisscross of small strokes that suggest natural growth without closely imitating it. The rich play of different touches disguises the fact that underneath the sky and water lies a coating of gray and underneath the foreground one of brown…laid in with large strokes of rather thin paint that did not hide the weave of the canvas. Over the gray undercoating of the water, Seurat brushed his surface colors with horizontal touches that picked out the vertical strands of the canvas. The effect is to break up individual strokes, making them vibrate when we look closely” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1991, p. 239).
In his review of Seurat’s paintings in the eighth Impressionist exhibition, Octave Maus described the appearance in La Rade of “a white flight of yachts” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 76). The stately alignment of boats, all oriented in the same direction, trace a state of imminent departure, the transition from stillness into motion, and then movement off into the distance, inferring a temporal dimension that adds poetic resonance to one’s experience of the picture. In contrast to Monet’s Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse (Wildenstein no. 95), however, figures are nowhere visible, neither as participants in the activity nor as viewers of it. As Herbert observed in Seurat’s oeuvre, “his seaports are vacuumed clean of sociability” (Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 306). The silent procession of sails, appearing pilotless, as if spirits were magically navigating these ghostly vessels, projects an otherworldly, dreamlike quality—a metaphysical dimension, rarely evoked in Impressionism, that anticipated the emergence of Symbolism in painting later that decade and during the next.
Peggy and David Rockefeller acquired La Rade and two other paintings from the Beatty collection in 1955. David Rockefeller recalled that “There were two Seurats available for purchase at that time; the other was bought by John Hay Whitney [Grandcamp, le soir]. We probably chose this one because it has sailboats in it and we love to sail. Seurat did so few paintings of this size that we were very lucky to have been able to acquire it. This painting was our introduction to the pointillist style and led to the acquisition of other paintings in a similar mode” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 77).