1887-88; Oil on Canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8 in. Signed, bottom right; The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.
Following Bathing at Asnieres and La Grande Jatte, Models is the third large picture that Seurat exhibited in public, and the second executed in his new pointillist-or "neo-impressionist"-manner. It was, until now, less famous and popular than the preceding two, only because it has been less looked at and studied, and was almost never reproduced. Nonetheless, one of the artists' most ambitious works, Models is also among the most important paintings of his career, and one of the richest in interpretive possibilities, as significant for the history of modern painting as Cézanne's large Bathers or Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon.
This canvas is painted on the same monumental scale as the history paintings at the official Salon. Seurat's contemporary Arsene Alexandre wrote that it represented the young painter's attempt ``to prove that his theory, which was so well-suited to subjects en plein air, was applicable to large-scale interiors with figures''. In fact, in the context of La Grande Jatte, one objection to Seurat's technique had been that the pointillist system of contrasting color was suited, at best, to the representation of immaterial things-light, water, or foliage, for example-but not the human figure. In the fall of 1886, then, this more traditional subject matter represented a distinct challenge to Seurat's revolutionary technique. Keeping within the confines of realism, the title clearly implies a depiction of contemporary models at work- or a single model in three separate stages of activity: disrobing, dressing, and posing. The scene can be precisely dated from accessories and hairstyles that were in fashion in 1886-1887, and also from the presence of La Grande Jatte, which is shown leaning against the studio wall within this painting, and which had been an object of scandal a few months before, at the last impressionist exhibition of 1886.
Seurat's context is commonplace: nudes in a studio before a painting that rests on the floor. But the artist exploits every possible connection between the two elements of his composition: the nude women might be models from La Grande Jatte-where they appear fully dressed- who have returned to the studio to disrobe. Strewn about the foreground are articles from the "painting-within-a-painting": the hats, shoes, parasols, and a small basket of flowers that have been cast off by these women. Such elements tempt us to contemplate oppositions: dressed and undressed, truth and artifice, nature and culture, the captured instance of daily life and the timelessness of art.
Of course, we must also place the work in its aesthetic context:
Seurat set out to prove that his "scientific" approach to composition
and color was both important and practical. By adapting a theme
through which he could revisit and reconceive academic norms, he at
once defied official painting and challenged impressionism's emphasis
on the ephermal. This ambition was very difficult to sustain, and
Seurat had great difficulty finishing the work:
Canvas with plaster
very discouraging, he wrote to
Can't understand a thing. Everything stains-very heavy going.
Aside from the gesso ground (to which, it seems, he was not
accustomed), the artist's principal challenge consisted of
accommodating the pointillist idiom to large-scale painting in a more
systematic fashion than he had managed to achieve thus far. In fact,
we do see certain areas in which he applied enlarged touches of
paint-red, for example, in the blue fabric at the lower right, or blue
on the yellow parasol, lower left.