“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony.”*
Opening lines spoken by Seurat, “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Great art is often inspired by life, and great theater is sometimes inspired by art. Neo-impressionist master Georges Seurat is best known for his monumental painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” with its thousands of tiny dots in primary colors that combine optically to form the images. Seurat’s life and work sufficiently intrigued Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) that they created a 1984 musical around the subject, “Sunday in the Park With George,” currently in a revival at Signature Theatre. “La Grande Jatte” is the centerpiece of the action, but other Seurat works in the musical are revealing as well.
“Bathers at Asnières” (1884) was Seurat’s first large-scale composition, painted as he developed his novel technique. It depicts young workmen relaxing by the Seine river in an industrial area just outside of Paris. At the time, this scene with its working-class subjects was considered curious at best. The painting was refused display by the official Salon but was exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists, formed by Seurat and others.
In “Sunday in the Park With George,” Seurat (Claybourne Elder) seeks approval for his painting from the famous, conventional artist Jules (Mitchell Hébert), who mockingly comments to his wife, Yvonne (Valerie Leonard), that he must paint a factory next. They both dismiss the artwork, commenting that it has no passion or life and is neither pastoral nor lyrical. Yvonne says sarcastically that she likes the image of the dog.
In “Young Woman Powdering Herself” (1889-90), Seurat’s only painting connected to his private life, his mistress Madeleine Knobloch sits at her dressing table. Seurat kept his relationship with the working-class Knobloch secret from both his wealthy bourgeois parents and his bohemian friends. The couple had two children who did not survive. Seurat died at age 31 without having sold a single painting; his family gave Knobloch some as an inheritance. She then cut off communication with the family and disappeared.
To dramatize the painting “Young Woman Powdering Herself,” Sondheim and Lapine have Seurat’s lover and model Dot (Brynn O’Malley) at her vanity in the artist’s studio, getting ready for a promised evening at the Follies. Seurat is working obsessively on “La Grande Jatte.” During their duet, “Finishing the Hat,” his staccato application of paint and her application of powder and rouge are perfectly synchronized. The song demonstrates both his moment of inspiration to paint Dot as she powders and his inability to give anything precedence over his art, but it also shows what attracts Dot to George. They each end the song with, “I could look at him forever/I could look at her forever. . . .”
Greer is a freelance writer.
at Signature Theatre through Sept. 21. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday with weekend matinees. Tickets start at $40 on www.ticketmaster.com; call 703-573-7328 for more information.