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Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George

by William H. Benson

June 14, 2012

     Georges Seurat, the French artist, worked for two years, from 1884 until 1886, on his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It is a large painting, almost seven feet wide and over ten feet long, and today it hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago. Instead of painting with the usual brush strokes, Seurat pointed his brush’s tip at the canvas and dotted it with thousands of dots until the picture emerged, an art style now called pointillism.

     The scene that Seurat painted is that of a park on the shore of an island in the middle of the Seine River near Paris. The park is a grassy area that slopes downward to the left to the river, and one can see in the painting’s upper left corner a sail boat and a canoe on the water. In the scene’s upper right corner stand the trees. In the foreground on the green grass, are the people, both adults and children, who are either standing or sitting, and most are peering to the left, towards the water. Some hold umbrellas. Most wear hats. The women wear bustles. There are two dogs.

     The only person missing in the painting is the artist himself, Georges Seurat.

     Thirty years ago a writer named James Lapine wrote a fictional account of the artist Georges Seurat when he was painting that scene. Lapine and a dramatist named Stephen Sondheim then joined forces, and together they wrote the Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George.

     The story centers around George, a self-absorbed, inattentive, and consumed artist, who simply cannot ever stop painting long enough to connect with the people he meets in the park. He will not let down his guard for one moment. Dot, his mistress and model, is with him in the park and begs him to speak and listen to her, but he will not. The writer Roger Rosenblatt says, “He ignores her, leaves her high and dry. He’s an artiste, after all.” She finds him attractive but not great company.

     An old woman and her nurse join them in the park. They leave. Others walk in and try to visit with George. He will not. They leave. Finally, Dot leaves him for another man, and the two sail to America.

     “But then, in the very last scene [of Act 1],” Roger Rosenblatt writes, “the separate parts of Seurat’s painting coalesce before our eyes. Everything magically comes together. And the audience gasps, weeps in wonder.” Those people whom George dismissed throughout Act 1 take their respective place on stage as they appear in his painting.

     Rosenblatt then asks a curious question: “So who is the superior character—the man who attends to the feelings of his loved ones, or the artist who affects eternity?” That question I think is unfair in that it creates a false dilemma, insisting that a person must choose one or the other: be a family man or be a professional. Yet, a man or a woman can actually choose both. Also, I insist that the family man can affect eternity, and that not everyone would agree that a distinguished work of art does affect eternity.

     For nearly fifty years now, my mother’s side of the family has gathered for a picnic at the park each year on Father’s Day, a Sunday afternoon. At that picnic in the park, there is no river, no sailing boats, nobody brings an umbrella, the women do not wear bustles, no one brings his mistress, and no artist brings out canvas and easel and paints a picture. But there are trees, green grass, at least two dogs, and plenty of people—men, women, boys, and girls—and they talk to each other. They are not all looking in the same direction, to the left.

     A sad personal note: my dad passed away on Monday morning, June 4, in the emergency room at Sterling Regional MedCenter. He suffered a ruptured aorta. He was eighty-four. The well-attended funeral service was held on Friday, June 8. My dad loved that Father’s Day picnic every year, just as he  loved all the times when his family gathered: at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, or any other occasion. I miss my dad even now, and I will miss him at the annual Father’s Day picnic.

     My dad was the opposite of the fictional George Seurat. My dad was a great talker who connected extremely well with people. He loved my mother. There was no mistress in his life. He had no use for creating art, mainly because he worked hard to provide for his family. He was an active participant in life, not just its observer.

     Who is the superior character in this existence called human life? That is a crucial question, one worth thinking through until we each arrive at our answer. Is it the celebrity, the abundantly talented, and the over-achiever? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. Or is it the dad, mother, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle who is ultra-sensitive to the feelings of others? Again, perhaps yes. Perhaps no. 

     This Sunday afternoon I will be in the park on Father’s Day, not to paint a picture, but to visit and connect with friends and family. My best wishes to all.