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Georges Seurat

Models (Poseuses), 1886-1888

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About the Artwork

When Georges Seurat debuted Models at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, he delivered a bold riposte to his critics, asserting that pointillism, his daring neo-impressionist painting technique, could be applied to one of the noblest and most revered subjects in the history of art: the nude. Two years earlier, at the eighth and final impressionist exhibition, he had presented A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884–86, a scene of middle-class leisure that served as a monumental declaration of his aesthetic principles. Informed by scientific theories of light, color, and optics, Seurat methodically juxtaposed individual touches of pure color on his canvas. According to the artist, these hues mixed with greater vibrancy in the eye of the beholder. However, some commentators suggested that this intricate lattice of brushstrokes was best suited to the representation of the landscape and atmospheric effects.

Seurat's prominent citation of La Grande Jatte in this canvas explicitly announced the connection between the debate of 1886 and his latest "battle canvas" (toile de lutte,), as he referred to his most provocative manifesto works. Accepting the challenge, Seurat simultaneously embraced and subverted art-historical tradition with Models. Although scaled to the dimensions of the great machines of history painting—mythological, historical, and religious subjects that occupied the pinnacle of the hierarchy of the genres—this work offers a commonplace of the annual salon: a genre scene of models disrobing, posing, and dressing in a corner of the artist's studio. While the narrative of Models remains elusive, these women are perhaps "auditioning" in the hopes of securing modeling work, a quick succession of commercial exchanges at odds with the elevating narratives of history painting. But the conceit of this parade of models permitted Seurat to demonstrate his own virtuosity with three views of the nude—from the front, side, and back—and the suitability of his technique to the subject. Seurat simultaneously and wittily positioned his models against La Grande Jatte at left on the studio wall, permitting a comparison of nude and clothed, interior and exterior, and demonstrating the process and artifice of picture-making.

While subverting the hierarchy of the genres, Seurat included a wealth of references to classical, Renaissance, and 19th-century academic and avant-garde sources that would have been readily recognized by critics and sophisticated viewers. The three women collectively invoke the Three Graces of antiquity—as well as Raphael's depiction of the subject—but their physical separation from one another, their modern bodies, and their quiet introspection challenged traditional representations that depict three voluptuous figures linked in a graceful dance. Such an ironic borrowing evoked the example of Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe), 1863 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). While the figure at right recalls the antique Spinario, the model with her back to the viewer invites comparison to Bathing Woman, 1806, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, an 1879 addition to the Musee du Louvre. With their fashionable clothes and accessories heaped at their feet, the models in their recognizable poses link past and present.

Judith Dolkart, The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012), 78-9.

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