Tracking Manet’s Mysterious Jewish-Painter Friend Down the Rabbit Hole

Seurat A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Georges Seurat. ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.’ (1884–86). Art Institute of Chicago


Cast in the Art Institute of Chicago’s major exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” (through Sept. 29), jointly organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay, certain paintings expose their undergarments so to speak.

At first blush, the crowd-pleaser Georges Seurat’s pointillist “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884,” of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” fame, appears to be a cheerful vision of beach-going families. But the exhibit’s lens of 19th century fashion reveals that the painting’s most prominent figures are a prostitute — who holds a leash tied to a monkey (base passion) that chases a dog (loyalty) — and a John, who sports a monocle, a cigar, and a phallic staff under his arm.

“From the painting’s first showing in 1886, the female figure with the large bustle and the monkey has been identified as a loose woman,” writes Hollis Clayson, an art history professor at Northwestern University. “She and her dandified companion are the painting’s leading emblems of venality and indecency.”

Fashion also reveals that Impressionism is about more than just pretty colors in the show’s many other, less risqué works — Henri Gervex’s Rolla (1878) aside. One of the exhibit’s better-known paintings, Édouard Manet’s 1873 The Railway (National Gallery of Art), bears a particularly compelling enigma. Posed in front of a gate, a girl turns her back to viewer and stares into the distance while a young woman reads a book and holds a dog on her lap. The older figure is easily identifiable as Manet’s favorite model Victorine Meurent, but her young companion, who wears a white dress with a blue bow, is more controversial.

Read more about Manet and Alphonse Hirsch in the Jewish Daily Forward.

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