It’s only a month ago that I wrote of another French picture of the 1880s, Lautrec’s Divan Japonais. Normally I try to be more diverse, but on this occasion I plead in extenuation that no two pictures could be more unlike than these two, by Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat. 

They both reflect life in the French capital in that decade, but their spirit is so utterly different that they might be from different countries and different epochs. Lautrec is fluid, vital, deliberately entertaining – an advertisement for entertainment. Seurat, his contemporary, is working on a much larger scale, and in oil not lithograph, but vital? Surely this is one of the most buttoned-up pictures ever painted.

It purports to show Parisians at leisure, taking their ease on a sunny island in the Seine. But everyone in sight (except a small girl running in the distance) is quite static, not to say stiff and wooden. This is not a scene of movement frozen as if in a photograph, but a stage set full of immobile dolls placed in position as though for an experiment in composition.

Let me say at once: that composition is very successful on its own eccentric terms. Colour and light contribute to that success, and help the illusion that we are witnessing real life. But compared with Lautrec, this is surely as far from reality as the depiction of human beings in a recognisable context can go. Like all the people we can see, the light and colour lack any sense of dynamism, of movement. Seurat is not a Constable, or a Monet. As a landscape painter, he has a very different agenda.

This complicated riverside setting, this large cast of characters, are deployed not to study human and natural life, but to investigate the workings of colour and line on a painted surface. This is a picture about painting: how to balance the elements of a picture in such a way that they harmonise, create rhythms, satisfy the eye as it wanders over a very large area of canvas.

Seurat’s pictorial organisation embraces not only the gigantic scale of his picture but also the minute detail of his technique. If he can be finicky about the placing of a distant sail on the river, how meticulous can he be about the positioning of one single stroke of the brush against another? He is famous for his use of ‘pointillism’, the creation of colours not by mixing them on the palette but by juxtaposing them unmixed, so that the viewer’s eye must do the mixing for itself in the process of looking.

When he made drawings of individual figures for this canvas Seurat worked only in black conte crayon, producing a subtly inflected but entirely monochrome image. This seems to throw another light on the figures themselves: it’s as though the artist had applied colour to a subject conceived in chiaroscuro – though he made several preparatory oil sketches in colour too.  He had learned this approach at a municipal school of industrial design, which may help to explain the static, schematic flavour of the whole work. All these details of his method of working add to our impression that the picture is a construction demonstrating a number of theories about painting and drawing, rather about looking. He had begun the experiment a few years earlier when he showed his first work at the Salon des Indépendants in 1884: Bathers at Asnières, another large-scale suburban holiday scene, now in the National Gallery in London.  The miraculous thing is that in spite of its background in rigorous theory, and perhaps because of Seurat’s meticulous concern for balance in each detail, the Grande Jatte contrives to be an exhilaratingly beautiful work of art. In its intellectual preoccupations, too, it is a precurser of the aesthetic debates of early Modernism at the start of the twentieth century, when theory did indeed seem very often to dictate the artistic agenda.

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