An Art Lover's GUide TO Cambridge - 'Study for A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte: Couple Walking', 1884,King's College Cambridge (Keynes Collection)
The Fitzwilliam Museum is fortunate to have one of only three large-scale oil studies of Seurat’s iconic painting “A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte” 1884/6 (Art Institute of Chicago). Although the painting is usually on display at the Fitzwilliam, it actually belongs to the Provost and Fellows of Kings College and is here in Cambridge thanks to the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and began collecting art under the influence and encouragement of the art critic Roger Fry. When he died he left 143 works to Kings College including paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso and Braque as well as his Bloomsbury friends Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
The Seurat study is one of Keynes’ most significant purchases. It reveals the way Seurat prepared and planned for his finished masterpiece which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886. In the study, Seurat sketches out the forms and colour combinations for the final painting, as well as the passages of light and shade. A number of grid lines are visible under the paint layer which he used to transfer the layout onto the enormous finished canvas. The paint is applied with loose, short brushstrokes that create a patchwork of diagonal marks. In contrast, Seurat’s finished painting is much more precise. In it he perfects the technique that became known as ‘pointillism’ which involved applying small dots of unmixed pigment, often in complementary colours, to create the forms. Seurat was fascinated by colour theories which showed that the eye would then read these dots as blocks of luminous colour.
The scene is a view of Parisiennes at leisure on an island in the Seine. Here we can see the two standing figures who have a prominent position in the finished painting. Their identity has been a subject of much debate. Is the woman a prostitute with her client or a well-to-do member of the bourgeoisie? The study gives us even fewer clues than the finished painting - the man and woman are faceless and enigmatic.
John Maynard Keynes bought the Fitzwilliam study in the early 1920s and it certainly proved a good investment. A recent study by academics at the Judge Business School estimated that Keynes spent about £13,000 on his art collection over his lifetime and that its market value was approximately £76 million in early 2019. I’ll leave the mathematicians among you to do the sums but what money can’t buy is the thrill of seeing the artist’s hand at work in this study as he plans for what is considered to be his greatest masterpiece.
Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) Study for A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Latte: Couple Walking, 1884-6, oil on canvas with squaring up in conté crayon, 81 x 65 cm, The Provost and Fellows of King's College (Keynes Collection), on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.