The shy and secluded Georges Seurat was a French post-Impressionist artist, who challenged the prevailing establishment by departing from the ideals of Impressionism, ultimately giving rise to a new painting technique called Pointillism. His treatment of class identity, and the social constructs that juxtaposed them, were themes that Seurat explored throughout his short-lived life. In his 1823 composition titled ‘The Gardener’, Seurat presents a striking depiction of working rural proletarian life. The painting immediately bathes us in blues, greens, oranges, and yellows; all trademarks of his scientific curiosity into the perception of colour in art. This intense warmness provokes a sense of serenity and calm. But is there more to this representation than just a horticultural enterprise? In this post, we will examine abstract themes such as solitude, isolation, endurance, and fortitude, and even consider how one remains steadfast and accepting of the Gardener’s place in this world, whilst confronting his burden of the deterministic nature of being.
Originality depends on the character of the drawing and the vision peculiar to each artist.”
– Georges Seurat
Figure 1: Georges Seurat, “The Gardener”, 1882–83, oil on wood, 15.9 x 24.8 cm. Image courtesy of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Life is full of labels, and they serve many purposes. They denigrate, they celebrate, they inspire. They are convenient. In this composition, who or what are we observing? Perhaps a label will help. An elderly Gardener. A proletariat, to coin a rather more formal characterisation of his social standing. Another label. Husband and/or Father; possibly. Above all else, a Man. Yes. A convenient umbrella. But what of this man? Seurat titled this composition “The Gardener”; an astute depiction of his vocation. How many of us are adequately defined by what we do? No, we must probe deeper. It is reasonable to assume that Seurat wanted us to see something more than this label. As a vanguard of post-Impressionism, realism is not his chief goal. Seurat creates form with colour and the texture of brushstroke, and then dissolves many of the forms’ shapes with light. Seurat applies the paint in loose brushstrokes, he blurs the edges and one colour overlaps another, creating an undefined shape and a lack of form. Therefore, this is not designed as a literal interpretation. There is something more, but we must look with better eyes. As Amy Herman surmised in her wonderful book Visual Intelligence, we should recognise “that observation is not just passively watching something but an actively engaging mental process”. Surat teases us and dares us to look beyond the surface. There is no label here. There is a story to be told, and it is worthy of our attention. The Gardener, the Proletariat, the Man, has earned it. This could be the narrative of his life: the struggle of his perpetual physical toil, the all-encompassing of nature, and dignity of endurance. This is what we shall explore.
Taking up nearly half of the visual real-estate, Seurat wants our attention immediately drawn to the Gardener and his toil. His presence dominates but does not overwhelm. He is presented to us off-centre, as a solitary human figure, hard at work. Seurat has made deliberate choices to ensure we feel this. Let us consider his choice of the Gardener’s pose. This is not a man sitting, relaxing, sipping on a cold drink, basking in the sense of satisfaction one can feel after a good day’s work. No, this is the Gardener in the middle of hard labour. His bright white shirt stands out from the textured yellows of the background to delineate his shape, yet the patches of light on his back blur the sense of roundness implied by the line arching of his back. Years of bending, heavy repetitive lifting, have no doubt rounded his spine. He must experience difficulty in retaining a straight posture. The physical labour has taken its toll. Then there are the environmental conditions. The aesthetics are deceptive, and Seurat offers further clues for us to discern the difficulties of working in the heat. It is a very sunny and hot day; the orchard is poured by light that interacts with everything around. The Gardener is positioned under a tree, perhaps seeking a moment of respite from the unrelenting scorch of the sun. We can imagine the warm air engulfing him like balm on his body. His olive, tanned skin, with slightly reddened forehead, symbolise a lifetime of work outdoors. To invite us to sense the warmth, Seurat dissolves the forms, as if to create a haze across the canvas. The background yellows shimmer with strokes of white, blurring sense of distance. A stronger green/blue line along the bottom edge of the painting is similarly blurred, especially where the Gardener’s foot seems to be planted. Paradoxically, Seurat’s disintegration of form can make the painting feel more realistic. The arrangement of light and colour produces a visual effect of nature and how the Gardener interacts with it. We are challenged to reflect on the difficulties of a life-long endeavour in such conditions. This is the Gardeners’ life, and it is hard.
Figure 1: Detail – Georges Seurat, “The Gardener”, 1882–83, oil on wood, 15.9 x 24.8 cm. Image courtesy of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond the human protagonist, and like many other works in his oeuvre, Seurat’s wants us to consider the relationship here between Man and Nature (I say man as most of his rural-orientated paintings focus on the male gender). Although the only human in the composition, the Gardener is not the only character. There are no man-made structures and no other people. Seurat does not want us distracted by any temporal constructs. Nature has sovereignty here and it is omnipresent. The sun pours into the orchard like gold embroidery on the grass. Its rays permeate through the leaves and the branches, bouncing off the Gardener’s brilliant white shirt, and infecting its warmth and brightness into every atom of matter throughout the open countryside. Every day it demands fallen leaves to be cleared, grass to be cut, bushes to be trimmed and pruned. It is a complex relationship. Further reinforcing the importance of these two characters, Seurat utilizes thicker brushstrokes of bright white, light blues and orange to focus the eye on the placement of the Gardener in the composition, whilst dissolving form and eliminating detail, which puts the emphasis of the light effect (Nature) in relation to forms. This cleverly describes the atmosphere in the picture. The Gardener has little control in his life. Every day the sun rises, and his burden beckons. What will Nature demand of him today? An endless cycle of anguish and frustration at the system that takes so much but gives little back. Is Nature the hero (providing beauty and respite from a cruel human world) or a villain (an unrelenting force)? Only the Gardener can decide, for this is one dimension in his life that he can control.
Despite the Gardener battling hardship for many years, he is still here, still toiling, still enduring. There is an air of dignity about him. We can feel his sense of duty. For the storms of adversity, like those of the ocean, rouse the faculties. Despite the obvious heat, he maintains a strict dress code. Full length trousers, shirt still tucked in, and sleeves rolled down. The difficult conditions will not force him to yield his integrity. There are no scattered leaves around him. He will pick up every item of waste and carefully deposit them into the basket. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly. Like a freshly lit lamp, expanding and bright with triumph, the Gardener’s moral philosophy radiates out. We reminisce about our own Grandfathers, with regimented dress codes and a strong sense of decorum. He believes in hard work, and accepts his fate, drawing a sense of inner contentment despite the harshness of life. A mindset sadly missing so much from contemporary society. The Gardener possesses something intangible and venerable. For although he does not control much of his surroundings or external events, he does have inner strength and self-discipline. Although he is oppressed, he is not captive. He has an internal warrior. This is the free man’s yoke; either he is his own master, or he will be his own slave. This is what set’s him free.
What we can learn from this rendering is that beauty and tragedy can co-exist. Very little is absolute. Through various cues, Seurat ensures we understand the hardship the of the Gardener; his age, pose, appearance, isolation, and physical conditions. Although we feel sympathy for the Gardener, our sorrow is dilluted, as Seurat challenges our instincts and juxtaposes the Gardener within the ubiquity of Nature. Although ever-present, the tension of their relationship is left ambiguous. Seurat will not provide that resolution no matter how hard we stare. Instead, we are left revelling in the unwavering probity of The Gardener. This is a man who has reached a consensus. He has resolved his life, and although he may have yearnings, accepts the deterministic nature of his fate with grace and fortitude. This is a moralistic narrative that not everything is as it seems. There is elegance in hardship, and the world is not always a fair place. The Gardener will likely spend his days toiling. But he has resolved himself, and we can admire the Gardener for that. It may just be enough.
Useful Links & Bibliography:
- The Gardener (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Facos, M. (2011). An introduction to nineteenth century art. New York: Routledge.
- Hajo Düchting, Georges Seurat and Hulse, M. (2017). Georges Seurat, 1859-1891 : the master of pointillism. Köhn: Taschen.
- Art History Teaching Resources. (2015). Art and Labor in the Nineteenth Century. [online] Available at: https://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/art-and-labor-in-the-nineteenth-century/.
- Herman, A. (2017). Visual intelligence : sharpen your perception, change your life. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Sommer, E. (2013). Similes dictionary. Canton, Mi: Visible Ink Press.
- Grothe, M. (2017). Metephors by with you : an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations. New York: Harper.