Turner to Monet
Here we see a field of lucerne, the green crop infiltrated by red poppies. Along the skyline is strung a series of pale sheds and outbuildings under a silvery sky. In the distance is Saint-Denis, a suburb ten kilometres north of central Paris, which was industrialising rapidly in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The painting has a very high horizon line: Seurat depicts the plants as eighty per cent of the canvas. On the right against the sky is a small tree, and in the foreground a darker mass results from the shadow cast by a large tree behind the artist and the viewer.
The luscious intensity of Seurat’s paintings is achieved by pure colour and his application of paint in small, organised strokes. The colour wheel was first elaborated by the chemist Chevreul in 1839, with red, blue and yellow being primary, and the mixtures violet, green and orange secondary colours. Each resulting hue can be lightened or darkened by white or black. Colour theory is based on the spectator’s changing perceptions, each colour being affected by surrounding ones. Instead of pre-mixing paints, Divisionist or Neo-Impressionist artists like Seurat placed patches of pure colour alongside each other, so that the eye would blend them.
In Lucerne, Saint-Denis the bright green of the lucerne is produced by Seurat’s short, straight strokes of blue and yellow, criss-crossed to produce the animated field. Joyous interruptions of red, white and pink occur when flowers emerge from the crop. The shade from the tree in the right front is produced by darker blue, with less yellow. Beyond the fence, paintstrokes become horizontal, calming the view and lightening in tone towards the distant horizon and sky.
Seurat employs these radical strategies to produce an all-over effect, so characteristic of art after the first Impressionist experiments in the 1860s and 1870s. There is no story to tell here, no incident to draw conclusions from, only the reproduction of visual effects as perceived by the artist. The nature of beauty has changed, as the painter makes new and different choices of subject and technique, so that the content and meaning of art are transformed.