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Video transcript

some say they see poetry in my paintings I see only science we're in the Art Institute of Chicago and we're looking at Sunday afternoon on the Isle of the Gravitron by Georges Seurat and that was a quote by Sarah whose ambition was to bring science to the methods of Impressionism what's interesting is that the science that he was thinking about has been to some extent overturned and were left with the poetry the science that he was referring to had to do with ways of making the painting seem more luminous to seem brighter and I have to say he's really succeeded this is a painting that is brilliantly luminous and incredibly complex when it comes to color so he's taking the earlier traditions of the Impressionists and he's imposing on them the science of vision and especially the science of color that had been developed by people like shiroi and Ruud he was interested in this idea of dividing color into its components that is instead of trying to find the perfect purple which is really hard to do you mean when you mix it on your palette well that's right and the reason is that when you take say a blue and a red and you mix them together that red is not pure red it's got lots of other things in it the blue is not pure and when you mix them together it gets too muddy so how do you get a pure purple that you might see in nature well surahs' solution was to take the red take the blue and put them next to each other so that as your eye receives that light the light waves do the mixing themselves right and this is called optical mixture and this is really a change from academic technique of finding that local color of an object mixing it on your palette and then applying it and if you think back to the Impressionists project that what the impression is sought after was to really create a sense of outdoor light I think using this divisionist method this idea of optical mixture sir I really did that in the ground shot we have a real sense of Parisians outside on a sunny day and the real strong sense of sunlight streaming through the trees so clearly there is this bridge back to Impressionism and in fact the artists use the term neo-impressionist when he described the kind of painting that he was doing and yet this is also so far away from Impressionism it's got the leisure of the impressionist painting it's got the outside but this is not a painting that was painted plein air this is not a done directly before these subjects he did do small sketches actually dozens of drawings and oil sketches outside that's right but then he goes back to the studio and makes this very composed very carefully structured painting in fact he said that he wanted his figures to have a kind of solemnity it was found in the sculptures of the frieze of the Parthenon right so he's really wanting to bring a sense of timelessness and classicism to the art of Impressionism and also as you said a sense of thoughtfulness of composing of not doing something spontaneous the figures are remarkably structured within this space and the space itself is also remarkably organized and there's much more of an illusion of space than we would ever get in an impressionist painting well almost going back to the classical tradition of landscape painting of Claude or Poussin you have alternating shadow and light which steps us back slowly into space and we also have a receding diagonal line that creates an illusion of space and yet at the same time this is a painting because of its technique that really draws our eye to the surface of the canvas so this is really interesting tension that exists between this deep pictorial space and the very obvious heavily worked surface let's go up really close and take a look so I'm looking at the lower left corner of the painting and I'm looking at the man who's smoking a pipe leaning on his back take a close look at the way that his body is defined you can see some of the earlier painting I see blues I see reds and I see yellows all fairly long strokes but then I also see is painted over that little points of color of pinks and have blues as well that Syrah actually added a bit later and you can see that especially in the shadows and the highlights at the top and bottom where Seurat innocence creates a kind of volume and as we're looking at all of these different brushstrokes that are layered one on the other I'm also noticing how the figure has really clear contours which is something that we don't see in Impressionism so we have a sense of line here and a form defined by line and even modeling so the figure really seems three-dimensional so we know that we're in the northwest of Paris in a place that was frequented by the middle and upper classes for leisure we know that the other side of the river was frequented more by working-class figures and so there's this question of what Sarah is saying about class and Paris in the nineteenth century and here art historians really disagree and it's in part because there's a lot of ambiguity the ambiguity of class was an issue of his moment of his time class wasn't normally important and it had always been in French society absolutely clear but the cities had a way now of mixing classes and this was a modern phenomenon there was a way that clothing and fashion now blurred class distinctions that were more clear before one of the things that Sarah's doing is he's confounding the expectations of a typical viewer in the end of the 19th century so where someone would expect to see a narrative a pretty story that was easily readable between the figures a sense of sentiment or emotion Sarah's not giving us that we have figures who don't talk to each other don't interact we don't have a sense of a clear narrative it just doesn't do what 19th century viewers wanted paintings to do and so this painting was a challenge not only for that typical viewer that you spoke of but for the art community as well when this painting was first exhibited in 1886 it caused a real stir and artists divided into camps supporting it or detracting from it well it was so different than anything anyone was doing I mean it exploded what the most advanced art of the time was at that point in 1884 to 1886 the most advanced art was an impressionist technique of open brushwork open contours paintings planted on sight outside on plein air with a sense of spontaneity capturing outdoor light Sarah took all that and just turned it its head and created something really serious and monumental and classical and thoughtful and everyone had to come to terms with it