Seurat’s La Grande Jatte:
An Anarchist Meditation.
“All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
Propaganda, Popularity, and Painting: George Orwell and Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte.
What makes a painting popular? Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte,” which translates into English as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hereafter referred to as “La Grande Jatte,” is a very popular painting. Completed in 1886, it was a sensation when it was first shown in Paris and has been prominently exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago since 1926, where it regularly draws larger crowds of viewers than almost any other painting. The picture is so popular that it is the subject of a popular musical “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. First performed in 1984, the musical was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among other honors, and has been repeatedly performed ever since.
What makes a painting popular, and is a popular painting necessarily a great painting? In turn, what makes a painting great, and is a great painting necessarily popular? There are connoisseurs and experts who evaluate works of art and make judgments based on highly cultivated tastes and esoteric technical criteria. But that is not the case with most of us who appreciate art but are neither artists nor experts. Experts’ opinions of the aesthetic values of a painting will get a picture into an art museum, but that doesn’t guarantee a painting’s popularity. There are a lot of paintings that are highly regarded by experts and connoisseurs but only some of them are popular among the general public. What makes La Grande Jatte popular?
The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” dramatizes the painting of La Grande Jatte. It focuses on Seurat’s unusual pointillist painting technique and his supposedly strained personal relations. The drama of Seurat’s personal relations is fiction, but the painting technique is actual. Revolutionary in its time, Seurat’s pointillism was based on theories of color and perception that were newly developed in the late nineteenth century. In pointillism, dots of pure color are placed together in groups that when seen at a distance are synthesized by the eye into blended colors and shapes. Different combinations of color dots will be seen as different blended colors and shapes. When you get up close to a pointillist picture, it dissolves into a myriad of seemingly unrelated little points of color. Painting La Grande Jatte must have required very intense concentration, and Seurat’s personal relations could conceivably have been in fact strained by the obsessive devotion to his work that pointillism required. In any case, although pointillism never caught on as a major artistic technique, and has essentially faded into history, La Grande Jatte has, nonetheless, became an almost revered work.
Possibly in an attempt to explain the popularity of La Grande Jatte, the “Sunday in the Park with George” musical includes something of a tutorial in art appreciation. Seurat is made to frequently repeat an aesthetic mantra in the course of painting the picture: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.” Inserting this mantra into the play seems to be a way for Sondheim and Lapine to give the audience an idea of how to evaluate a painting such as La Grande Jatte. These are fairly simple criteria and they probably represent the sorts of things that most of us in the lay public apply, even if subconsciously, when we are looking at a picture. For most of us, trying to apply simple criteria such as these is pretty much the most we can do in aesthetically evaluating a painting. It is not all that an expert might do, but it is something. In any case, it probably does not explain why one picture is popular with us while another isn’t.
George Orwell famously claimed that the popularity of a work of art is based on its resonance as a piece of propaganda. He said that “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of the artist’s work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.” That is, whether or not people consciously realize it, and even whether the artist realizes it, every work of art embodies moral and political views and propagates them to the public. It is the message, Orwell claimed, that determines the popularity of a work of art, and that includes paintings. If a painting’s message resonates with the viewing public, it will be popular, which says as much about the viewers as it does about the painting.
Popularity, Orwell claimed in turn, is a criterion of greatness. While not all popular art is great, great art is by definition popular. A great work of art – whether a novel, poem, play, painting, piece of music, or whatever – has been defined as one that you can read, listen to, or look at repeatedly and get something more each time. A great work may please you but it also provokes you. You can look at a great painting repeatedly and see, feel, or think something more and different each time. A work can be popular without being great if it merely pleases without provoking. A great painting is popular because it provokes viewers to think about it and to come back for more. That is the difference between a hotel room landscape that pacifies guests and a Van Gogh landscape that provokes viewers to ask “What is going on here?”
Applying Orwell’s criteria to La Grande Jatte, it would seem to be both a popular and a great painting. It is a big picture that occupies a whole wall by itself in a big room at the Art Institute. It is flanked on three sides by Impressionist landscapes by Monet. While Monet’s landscapes are great pictures and get a lot of attention, La Grande Jatte gets the most. That may partly be because of its large size, and partly because of its notoriety. But there seems to be more to it. Standing in bunches in front of the painting — alternately at a distance where a viewer can see the objects in the picture and up close where it dissolves into dots — most people spend more time looking at La Grande Jatte than at the other paintings. Why?
The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the technical aspects of Seurat’s pointillism and, thereby, portrays what is essentially the conventional view of La Grande Jatte as an amazing and amazingly interesting technical feat. I think, however, that this view is only half right because there is nothing in it about Seurat’s politics and that, I think, is the other half of the point about La Grande Jatte. Seurat was a dedicated anarchist who intended his paintings to convey political messages. If Orwell is right about what makes a work of art popular, then Seurat’s anarchist political beliefs could be a key to the painting’s popularity, and it may be that the anarchist philosophy that underlies the messages of the painting have subliminal appeal to a largely unwitting public. Exploring that idea is the main theme of this essay.
Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: Anarchism as an Anti-ism-ism.
Webster’s Dictionary defines anarchism as: “A political theory…advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.”
If you attach “ism” to the end of a word, you have made an ideology out of whatever the word denotes. John Lennon once complained that “Everybody is talking ‘bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.” That is, people were taking their own particular ideas or interests and making whole philosophies out of them, essentially making fetishes of them, and then using their ideologies to divide and try to conquer each other. Ideologies, Lennon intoned, make a mess of the world because they divide people between “us,” i.e. those who agree with someone’s whole program, and “them,” those who don’t.
The problem is that when ideologies and ideologues disagree, there is no room for compromise. People who have different ideas about something can negotiate their differences but people with different ideologies have non-negotiable differences. They can only fight them out. Anarchism, Seurat’s political credo, is, however, a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate ideological barriers. It is an anti-ism-ism that seeks to give peace the chance John Lennon called for.
In order to explore the anarchist philosophy Seurat hoped to convey in La Grande Jatte, we have to first distinguish anarchism from libertarianism because the two are often confused with each other. Although both philosophies eschew strong centralized government, they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons.
Anarchism is a form of socialism without a strong central government. It is based on anarchists’ belief in the inherently cooperative nature of most people. Anarchists believe that if artificial obstacles to cooperation are removed, people will naturally live together on an all-for-one, one-for-all basis. Ideologies that are invented to promote and protect oppressive power and excessive property are an example of the obstacles that block pragmatic cooperation among people. In turn, coercive central governments operate as instruments of the powerful and their ideologies.
Anarchists contend that if we eliminate economic inequality and the coercive governments that protect that inequality, we would eliminate the power struggles and class conflicts that roil society, and the Golden Rule would rule. Anarchism is, thereby, an anti-ism-ism because it stresses the ability of people to pragmatically resolve their differences and practically solve their problems without ideological barriers getting in the way. It is the vision expressed in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
Libertarianism is an ideology that promotes capitalism without a strong central government. It is based on libertarians’ belief in the inherently self-centered and aggressive nature of people. They claim that dog-eat-dog conflict is the natural state of humankind. The universe, in their view, is as a zero-sum competition in which one person’s gain is invariably another person’s loss and vice versa. The goal is to inflict losses on others so as to make gains for oneself.
Libertarians believe that might makes right and might signifies the righteous. Theirs is an individualistic and essentially anti-social philosophy. They reject government as an instrument of the inferior weak against the superior strong which restricts free competition, while coming down against the deserving winners and in favor of the undeserving losers. Despite the mutual rejection by anarchists and libertarians of strong central government, libertarianism is the moral and political opposite of anarchism. Seurat was an anarchist, not a libertarian.
And Seurat was a pacifist anarchist which we must distinguish from militant anarchism. Although the pacifist form of anarchism has historically had, and currently has, by far the most adherents, the militant form has gotten all the publicity and is often conflated with anarchism as a whole. The goal of both forms of anarchism is to raise the public’s political consciousness so that people will reject authoritarian capitalism and adopt participatory democratic socialism, but they do so in very different ways with very different moral and political implications.
Anarchists assume that people are unhappy with the existing society but that most people don’t think they can do anything about it. Anarchists believe, therefore, that people need to be convinced they have the ability to get rid of the established order. Militant anarchists think the public can be convinced of this through exemplary acts of violence – so-called propaganda by deed – that demonstrate the political weakness and physical vulnerability of the ruling classes. Bakunin and Johann Most were well known nineteenth century advocates of militant anarchism.
In the late nineteenth century, militant anarchists assassinated politicians and set off bombs in public places, hoping thereby to provoke a spontaneous mass uprising that would violently overthrow the established order. In recent years, self-styled militant anarchists have turned peaceful political demonstrations into riots and have damaged public property with seemingly the same goal in mind.
Pacifist anarchists believe in moving public opinion through education. Tolstoy and Kropotkin were well-known nineteenth century exemplars. Their method emphasizes exemplary acts of thinking and creating – works of art and science — that demonstrate the cultural weakness and intellectual paucity of the ruling classes. Their method also includes setting up small-scale cooperative communities and industries which, by demonstrating anarchism’s efficacy, could become the cells of a new society.
Nineteenth century anarchists organized communes with the goal of undermining and overwhelming the established order by drawing more and more people into an alternative anarchist way of life that would eventually become the predominant society. Twentieth and twenty-first century anarchists have established communes with similar hopes.
Seurat was part of a late nineteenth century group of French anarchist artists, mostly Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, led by the painter Camille Pissarro. Unlike the bomb-throwing anarchists of that period, Pissarro and his comrades were peaceful anarchists who hoped to educate the masses into socialism. Most of them painted idyllic rural scenes and hardy yeoman peasants as uplifting examples of the utopian way things could be. They also painted satirical pictures of stuffy bourgeois as negative examples of the way things currently were.
Seurat was a “highly recognized member of the anarchist Neo-Impressionist movement” and it is generally acknowledged that La Grande Jatte, with its pompous bourgeois figures, was intended to satirize bourgeois mores. Although I agree that Seurat’s intent was partly satirical, I contend further that the pointillism of the picture was intended to be seen as an anarchistic method of painting and that the subject matter was intended to be understood as a meditation on anarchism.
Setting the Scene for a Meditation on Anarchism in La Grande Jatte.
La Grande Jatte seems an unusual picture to be so widely popular, especially compared with the paintings around it at the Art Institute. Although you can Google a copy of the picture, I will describe what I see as the key elements in it. The scene is mundane: a bunch of ordinary people in a park abutting a body of water. The park is not at all scenic. No pretty flowers. This is in sharp contrast with the beautiful landscapes by Monet that share the room with La Grande Jatte.
Likewise, while Monet’s landscapes and the Impressionist paintings in the rooms adjacent to La Grande Jatte are fluid and their human subjects are generally portrayed as relaxed, almost all of Seurat’s figures are stiff, almost stilted. In turn, where most of the subjects in the other paintings are interesting in and of themselves, the subjects in Seurat’s painting are of no inherent interest. And where the subjects of the other paintings complement their surroundings, Seurat’s figures clash with their environment and some are too small and out-of-proportion to their surroundings.
La Grande Jatte looks at first glance to be a mere clutter of figures and objects. There are some thirty or more people, at least two dogs, and a monkey scattered on the park’s grass in various poses, some sitting, others standing, a few walking. There are a number of boats of various kinds in the water. There does not seem at first glance to be any coherence to the picture.
The impression fostered by the picture is of a hot day. With the exception of a little girl who looks directly out at us and is in the sunshine, the people are keeping to the shade of umbrellas and leafy trees and are looking away from us. There is one man in loose-fitting, comfortable working-class clothes. The other people are well-dressed, in fact overdressed for a park in hot weather, and are seemingly of the middle classes.
The foreground of the picture is dominated by three figures: a formally dressed bourgeois man and woman who are standing stiff and haughty with their monkey on a leash on the right side of the painting and the working-class man who is reclining in a leisurely manner on the grass, leaning back on his arm on the left side of the picture. All three seem to be looking out at the body of water, the bourgeois couple glaring, the worker relaxed and smoking a pipe. The bourgeois couple look uncomfortable and tense. The working man radiates comfort and calm.
The background of the picture is filled with a disparate assortment of people and things in and out of the water. There are about six boats in the water, including two steamboats, at least two sailboats, and a sculling boat being rowed by four men and coxswained seemingly by a woman. Among the people, there are two soldiers standing at attention, two girls with fishing poles, a man being shaved by a woman, and two women sitting under a tree.
There is a superficial calmness and quietude to the scene. A painting, after all, is silent. And the people in the foreground of the picture are stationary and silently looking out at the water. None of them is moving or talking. But much more is taking place behind them.
On the land, there is a man blowing away on what looks like a French horn. There is a yipping little dog just about to pounce on a larger dog, possibly the prelude to a dog fight. In the water at the back of the picture, one of the steamboats seems to be sinking. A short distance in front of it, another steamboat seems about to run into the sculling boat. The rowers have their backs to the steamboat, seemingly unaware of their peril, and the coxswain’s line of vision is seemingly impaired by her parasol. So much for the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon in the park.
So, how does the setting of this scene relate to anarchism, pointillism, meditation and the ongoing popularity of La Grande Jatte?
Pointillism: Anarchism in the Method of La Grande Jatte.
Most conventional commentaries on La Grande Jatte miss or bypass any connection between pointillism and anarchism. They focus on pointillism as an interesting semi-scientific technique of making color. This is the focus in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” and is the explanation of pointillism found in Wikipedia and on the Art Institute web site. There is nothing in these commentaries about how Seurat’s politics might relate to his pointillist method of painting. I think that is a mistake.
Other commentators who connect pointillism with Seurat’s anarchism do so by characterizing the method as mechanistic and even robotic, with Seurat supposedly dabbing his dots rotely on the canvas to make a picture. In their view, pointillism is a mechanical method of painting that was intended by Seurat as a critique of the mechanistic nature of modern society. They contend that the mechanical application and combination of color dots to produce mechanical-looking stiff figures was Seurat’s way of subverting the artistic conventions of bourgeois society. In this view, Seurat developed pointillism as an anti-humanist method to mirror the anti-humanist society in which he lived. I don’t agree with this view.
Seurat reportedly developed pointillism as a contrast and counter to the Impressionists’ methods. Having been trained in Impressionism, he came to reject the method as too impressionistic and thereby, in his opinion, too superficial. Impressionist paintings are composed of quick strokes of paint. Impressionists often completed pictures in one open-air session and the pictures comprised an impression of a scene. As with pointillism, Impressionist pictures are best viewed from a distance of fifteen feet or more, at which distance the paint strokes come together as objects in the viewer’s eyes. Get close to an Impressionist painting and it usually falls apart into a bunch of paint strokes just as a pointillist painting dissolves into dots.
But Seurat’s dots are not quickly and impressionistically applied. They are carefully and scientifically placed. As a so-called Neo-Impressionist, Seurat wanted a method that would reflect more than mere impressions of things and would get at the underlying meaning of a scene. He spent long periods of time sketching his subjects in the open air and then spent even longer periods of time in his studio – some two years to produce La Grande Jatte – working obsessively on getting his work just right.
Given the effort he put into his work, I don’t think it is likely that Seurat would have seen pointillism as an anti-humanist method that exemplified what he rejected in society. To the contrary, I think it is more likely that he saw pointillism as a humanistic method and an example of anarchism in action.
The key to pointillism seems to be to follow the color dots. It is the collaboration of the dots with each other that makes the colors and the objects in the painting. In effect, the color dots direct the painting of the picture for the artist and determine what we see. Once the artist has chosen a subject to be represented in a picture, the artist must work with the color dots so that they can come together in configurations to make the picture. In turn, our eyes must collaborate with the dots to see those configurations.
Although it may seem fanciful to speak about color dots collaborating with each other and with humans, pointillism has been compared with the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who said similar things about atoms. Democritus was one of the inventors of atomic theory. He believed the universe was composed of an infinite variety of atoms of all sorts of shapes that came together on their own to form things. He seemed to ascribe a certain willfulness to atoms, even though he thought they were essentially inanimate. His atomism seemed, therefore, to operate similarly to Seurat’s pointillism which is based on dots coming together to make colors and shapes.
As Democritus’ name would seem to imply, he was also one of the first advocates of democracy. Democritus seemed to think that humans operated on a principle similar to atoms, with an infinite variety of different people voluntarily coming together to create a society. He is said to have opined that “Equality is everywhere noble,” although like most ancient Greek democrats he did not seem to include women and slaves in this formulation. He also claimed that “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants.” Democritus could, thus, be seen as something of a precursor of both Seurat’s anarchistic pointillist method and his anarchist political philosophy.
The goal of anarchists such as Seurat was expressed in the formulation of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Pointillism reflects this goal in that it requires a good deal of patience and self-control on the part of the artist. The artist cannot do anything he/she wants, and cannot merely follow his/her feeling in how to apply the paint. The artist must work with the dots. There is no room for egoism or arbitrary self-expression. The artist is not an almighty god imposing his/her will on the canvas but merely a collaborator with the dots. Pointillism is, thereby, seemingly an example of self-control and cooperation as a way of art and a way of life. This is the essence of Seurat’s anarchism.
Meditation: Anarchism in the Subject Matter of La Grande Jatte.
Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “A discourse intended to express an author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”
Like many painters throughout history, Pissarro’s coterie of anarchist painters wanted to give viewers something to think about in the subject matter of their pictures. They intended their works to be meditations on society and hoped that people would meditate on the social messages conveyed in their works. Most in Pissarro’s group hoped their paintings would inspire people to reject bourgeois capitalist society and embrace anarchistic socialism. That included Seurat.
Despite Seurat’s avowed political aims, some interpretations of La Grande Jatte, including Wikipedia for example, seem to miss the fact that Seurat was trying to make political points in the picture. These commentators say the picture merely portrays a pleasant day in park. All is well in the picture according to this view. Nothing about a French horn blaring, boats sinking, dogs yipping. There is nothing in these appreciations of the picture about political or social messages. I think that is a mistake.
Other interpretations of the painting that do make a connection with Seurat’s politics generally focus on the stiffness and stuffiness of the overdressed bourgeois figures and see the picture as essentially a critique of bourgeois society. The Art Institute’s website, for example, says that the picture is a “commentary on the posturing and artificiality of modern Parisian society.” In a similar vein, other critics see the picture as “an anti-utopian allegory,” and they cite the laid-back worker as representing a healthy contrast to the uptight bourgeois. I agree with these interpretations but I would go further in interpreting the significance of the worker in the front of the picture and the chaos in the back. In this regard, I suggest that the painting operates as a meditation on anarchism, and does so on at least two levels.
First, I think that viewers instinctively identify with the worker who is sitting quietly and calmly on the edge of the chaos in the picture. He is seemingly contemplating the idiocy of the bourgeois around him, who are so formally and warmly dressed on a hot day in a park. He is also calmly enduring the disorder in the park, in which things are generally falling apart. The worker is at ease, as though, I think, he is waiting for the idiotic bourgeois capitalist system to collapse so that he and his comrades can then pick up the pieces and put them together again in a better way. He is witnessing anarchy as possibly a prelude to anarchism.
Sitting immediately next to the worker are two demure bourgeois figures, a man and a woman, who have seemingly joined him in calmly looking out at the water and contemplating the state of things. They are disproportionately small compared to him, perhaps symbolic of their status in the anarchists’ world view. But their little group of three contrasts with most of the other groups and individuals in the picture whose actions and attitudes seem to clash with each other. There seems to be a sort of comradeship among the three of them, maybe a portent of things to come. And I think we viewers instinctively join them in their meditation.
Second, we make eye contact with the little girl who implicitly challenges us to meditate on the scene, and we do. We are neither impressed by the façade of order represented by the haughty bourgeois couple in the foreground nor distressed by the chaos in the back. We look back at the little girl and see a picture of capitalist things falling apart, but we also see them coming together for Seurat as he composes the picture, for the dots as they comprise the picture, and for our eyes in they contemplate the picture. We see anarchist order coming from anarchic disorder, and the process constitutes a meditation on anarchism.
At the Intersection of Propaganda, Popularity and Great Art.
George Orwell is, I think, right in claiming that all art is propaganda in the sense that a world view inevitably lies behind any work of art. But there is a difference between propaganda that tries to induce you to ask certain questions and propaganda that tries to force you to accept certain answers. In painting, it is the difference between Pissarro’s pictures of hardworking peasants and the Soviet Realists’ heroic workers. La Grande Jatte is of the former sort.
La Grande Jatte is a painting that tries to get us to think about ourselves and our position in the world. Are we like the contemplative worker and the contemplative couple sitting next to him or are we like the pompous couple standing behind the worker? If we really look at the painting rather than merely glance at it as we pass through the Art Institute’s galleries, then maybe we are more like the former than the latter.
Does the picture promote anarchism as Seurat intended, even if only through its subliminal influence? Maybe. I think that even the most casual glance at the foreground of the painting will lead you to identify positively with the worker and react negatively to the bourgeois couple, and that is a start toward Seurat’s message. If you then look deeper into the painting, I think it is hard not to see that things are in disorder. The façade of normality represented by the bourgeois couple has been shattered. This leads you further toward Seurat’s message. If you then think about what you are seeing, you may arrive at Seurat’s desired conclusions, or at least come back to look at the picture again.
If Orwell is right about art being propaganda, and if my interpretation of the painting has any merit, then the popularity of La Grande Jatte may denote some appeal of anarchist ideas to those of us in the art-viewing public. And this may say as much about us as it does about the picture.
 George Orwell. All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays. “Charles Dickens.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p.65
 Mortimer Adler. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.
 “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.”
 John Lennon. “Give Peace a Chance.” Plastic Ono Band, 1969.
 George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.13, 22.
 George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.16.
 George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.430-431.
 George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.15, 21.
 “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissarropolitics.wordpress.com 12/2014.
 “Georges Seurat.” Wikipedia. Accessed 8/24/18. “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute. artic.edu
 “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Artible.com Accessed 8/24/18.
 “Georges Seurat.” The Art Story: Modern Art & Insight. theartstsory.org 8/1/18.
 Tom Bradley. “Atomic Models.” 11/20/12. Prezi:atomicmodels
 “Democritus (460-370 BCE).” International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 9/3/18.
 George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.21.
 “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute. artic.edu Accessed 8/24/18.
 “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissaropolitics.wordpress Accessed 8/24/18.