In contrast to the dynamic interactions that appear to take place between the characters in the final composition of Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte, the power of Georges Seurat’s exquisite oil study Le Saint-Cyrien lies in its focus on a single lone figure at the far end of the island, the stark emptiness of the usual bustling park making his presence in the scene all the more surprising. Patiently built up in layers of dense brushwork, Le Saint-Cyrien is transformed by the appearance of the soldier, his bright scarlet trousers punctuating the great expanse of green grass, drawing our eyes straight through the quiet, serene landscape to his tall, upright form. Occupying a key position in Seurat’s cycle of preparatory studies for his grand composition, this croqueton, or small oil panel, was created en plein air on the Île de la Grande Jatte during the summer of 1884, and captures the unique combination of rigorous study and spontaneity that characterizes Seurat’s oil studies for this momentous project.
Seurat, before touching his little panel with paint, scrutinizes, compares, looks with half shut eyes at the play of light and shadow, observes contrasts, isolates reflections, … he slices from his little heap of colors arranged in the order of the spectrum the various colored elements which form the tint destined best to convey the mystery he has glimpsed. Execution follows an observation, stroke by stroke the panel is covered.”
Perhaps serendipitously encountered by the artist on one of his trips to the Grande Jatte and quickly added to what was originally a study of the landscape alone, the soldier’s boldly colored uniform indicates he is either a cadet or an instructor from the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr. The bright colors and detailing of his costume, from the scarlet epaulets on his dark blue tunic to the touch of red on the upper portion of his shako, even the slight hint of gold in the belt at his waist, highlight Seurat’s keen observational skills and continued interest in the individuality and uniformity of costume and fashion. The figure appears in much the same position within the final full-scale composition, joined by a fellow soldier which doubles the impact of the boldly colored uniform within the scene. The soldiers were specifically mentioned in a number of the contemporary reviews and articles following the inaugural exhibition of Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte in May 1886, with Octave Maus coyly commenting on their toy-like appearance, as if plucked from the hands of a child and absorbed into Seurat’s stage-like scene.
Their recognizability was no doubt an important factor in the soldiers’ prominence in critical accounts of the painting—the cadets’ uniforms allowed them to be easily identified and picked out from among the crowd of Parisiennes at leisure. In comparison, the other figures in the final composition (barring the nurse who sits with her elderly client in the left hand portion of the painting) remain something of a mystery, their identities, social status and occupations obscured by their carefully chosen costumes and outfits. Sporting their Sunday best, they participate in the established rituals of display and public parade so popular in Parisian society at this time, their elegant attire suggesting they are all part of the bourgeoisie, but without revealing any information about their individual identities. The two soldiers, are therefore, in some ways the most authentic characters in the scene, identifying themselves and their occupation boldly and clearly to everyone they meet.
The majority of Le Saint-Cyrien is given over to the study of the play of light falling across different aspects of the park, each tiny dash of pigment indicating the artist’s intense focus and keen awareness of even the slightest color changes in every corner of the scene. Indeed, the panel was built up in carefully considered layers of intricately laced brushwork, and most likely intended primarily as a pure color study. Seurat pays close attention to the interaction of different hues in even the smallest patches of sunlight, seen perhaps most clearly in the examination of tone and gradient in the cluster of trees dotted across the scene. Take for example, the gradual transition from pale pink to a richer orange hued tan color in the trunk of the tree on the left hand side, which then subtly shifts to a blue tone as it reaches the verdant foliage, indicating the dramatic shift out of the sunlight and into the shade.
Similarly, the large patch of shadow in the foreground, cast by the canopy of an unseen tree underneath which the artist has positioned himself, is rendered using a plethora of subtly shifting green tones, which overlap and abut one another in a complex interwoven pattern. The manner in which Seurat allows the greens to grow gradually darker as they reach the edge of the shaded area, even adding strokes of blues to their number, indicate that he was experimenting with the theories of the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who had promoted the juxtaposition of different tones of the same color to deepen the impact of the effects of chiaroscuro. Emphasizing the borders of this patch of shadow with the addition of short strokes of deep blue, mauve and dusty pink, Seurat generates a dynamic surface pattern that reflects the central tenets of his rapidly developing theories of “chromo-luminarism.”
Art is Harmony. Harmony is the analogy of opposites, the analogy of similarities of tone, of tint, of line.”
The present panel remained in the artist’s possession until his untimely death in 1890, at which point Le Saint-Cyrien was gifted by the artist’s mother to the painter Henri-Edmond Cross, who was a close friend of Seurat’s and a fellow advocate for pointillism. The work subsequently passed into the collection of Félix Fénéon, the passionate promoter of Neo-Impressionism and one of Seurat’s greatest supporters. Referring to himself as a trait d’union, or “hyphen,” between the artists he championed and the general public, Fénéon had a profound impact on the development and reception of the avant-garde during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, through his varied roles as an art critic, curator, writer, editor, publisher, dealer and gallerist.
Born in Italy, Fénéon had moved to Paris at the tender age of just twenty, where he quickly immersed himself in the city’s artistic and literary circles. He was among the first observers to recognize the potential of the bold new aesthetic proposed by pointillism, and in September 1886 he coined the term néo-impressionnisme to refer to the art of Seurat, Signac and their circle, simultaneously highlighting their intrinsic connection to their forebearers, while also emphasizing the revolutionary nature of their new visual language. In the aftermath of Seurat’s death, Fénéon made it his mission to promote and preserve the artist’s work. Over the course of the following three decades he set about organizing numerous exhibitions of Seurat’s work, assisting in the placement of various compositions in important museum collections, and allowing his own meticulous documentation and research to act as the basis for the earliest catalogue raisonnés of Seurat’s oeuvre.
Throughout his life Fénéon collected art by the figures he most admired, filling the walls of his modest apartments with an ever-changing roster of artists—at any one time, visitors could be treated to works by Paul Signac, Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse, Kees van Dongen or Raoul Dufy, alongside exquisite objets d’art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. During the 1920s Fénéon developed a keen passion for the art of Amedeo Modigliani, purchasing a number of important paintings by the recently deceased artist. Seurat, however, remained at the heart of his collecting activities—over fifty-three paintings and some 180 drawings by the artist are recorded as having passed through Fénéon’s collection. Perhaps the most notable work in his possession was Une baignade à Asnières (de Hauke, no. 92; The National Gallery, London), which he had purchased in 1900 on the occasion of Seurat’s first retrospective at the offices of La Revue blanche. It had been an encounter with this very work at the Salon des indépendants of 1884 which had sparked Fénéon’s initial fascination with Seurat, and the painting remained a center-piece within his collection for twenty-four years.
Le Saint-Cyrien made its way across the Atlantic in the mid-1920s, where it was reunited with Paysage et personnages (La jupe rose).The two croquetons were then acquired by the Boston-based collector Robert Treat Paine II in April 1929 from M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. in New York, and the pair have remained in his family ever since, cherished throughout the subsequent generations. A descendant of Robert Treat Paine, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and nephew of the dynamic philanthropist and social reformer Robert Treat Paine Jr., after whom he was named, Robert Treat Paine II was an avid collector and true connoisseur of art, acquiring a diverse array of masterpieces over the course of his life, from medieval tapestries and Old Master drawings, to exquisite Sèvres porcelain and the bold compositions of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
Renowned for his discerning taste, Paine was highly selective in his purchases, prioritizing quality in his search for pieces that were best representative of particular aspects of an artist’s oeuvre. Working with dealers in both Europe and the United States, his acquisitions revealed a passion for portraiture and the human figure, as seen in his purchases of Edgar Degas’ portrait of his sister and her new husband, Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli (circa 1865), Paul Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (circa 1877), and Vincent Van Gogh’s Postman Joseph Roulin (1888), all of which were subsequently donated by Paine to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he served as a Trustee from 1928 until his death fifteen years later. Both Paysage et personnages (La jupe rose) and Le Saint-Cyrien have left an indelible mark on subsequent generations of the family, with their most recent custodian describing the joy the two panels brought: “I love them, and consider it a very great privilege to have lived with them... My life has been deeply affected by seeing them every day.”
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).