Please note this work has been requested by the Art Institute of Chicago for inclusion in their forthcoming exhibition curated by Robert L. Herbert, Seurat and the Making of 'La Grande Jatte', which will be held from June to September 2004.
Femmes assises was painted in 1884-1885 as a study for Seurat's masterpiece, Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte (fig. 1), and as such is an important stepping stone in the evolution of one of the most ground-breaking paintings in art history. It was in La Grande Jatte that Seurat truly consolidated his Pointillism, and displayed it on an epic scale. The painting represented a huge undertaking for the artist, who studied the location, the figures and every miniature aspect of the piece in great detail, gradually honing his composition and figures to a state of perfection. Femmes assises is an interesting reflection of this process--although it is not cluttered with the same number of people as the final painting, the view is almost exactly the same, whereas other studies bare evidence that the artist experimented with different angles and locations from which to render the scene. The light and shadows, by contrast, show that Femmes assises was painted slightly later in the day than La Grande Jatte is set, and the artist has managed to evoke this in the warm, buttery light, a far cry from the cold and crisp light of the latter work. This light, combined with the scale of Femmes assises, give a sense that this is an intimate and personal work filled with warmth and feeling, unlike the clinical and calculated painting that it helped inspire.
The sense of light in this painting is itself an important reflection of the artist's techniques. Although this is by no means the rigorous Pointillism of La Grande Jatte, the small stabs of pure color nonetheless create a Pointillist effect. Seurat has largely avoided mixing his oils, instead allowing the color to appear in small, irregular bars. Seurat believed that this brought an immediacy to the colors, while tone and gradation would be interpreted automatically and subconsciously by the human mind and the eye. Thus, in looking closely at some parts of the painting, strokes appear almost absurd, but the moment the eye is taken even a foot away, the shapes combine to give a sense of light, dark or contrast according to their purpose. Femmes assises shows Seurat's almost instinctive ability to use his science without any sense of tedium or labor.
The feeling of intimacy that the evocative light creates in Femmes assises is augmented by the lack of crowds. Here, solitary, pensive people linger as the day's outings come to a close. Most of the crowds have dispersed. In itself, this seems to reflect on the artist himself--perhaps his mood was as contemplative as those of the scattered figures. This painting thus combines the monumentality of Seurat's intentions with an intriguing insight into his mind.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte, 1884-1886, Reproduction, The Art Institute of Chicago.