A Family Farm Album: The Photographs of Frank Sadorus

at the Illinois State Museum, through August 27

Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through September 19

Work and leisure coexist in the benevolent, fertile landscape captured by Frank Sadorus, an amateur photographer who documented his life on a farm in eastern Illinois from 1908 until 1912, just after his father died. Neoimpressionist Georges Seurat, who was actually working some 30 years earlier, also portrayed scenes of work and leisure but quite differently.

During the time these artists were practicing, the relationship between work and pleasure changed dramatically, from a fluid integration to the kind of fragmentation still characteristic of the 21st century. The industrial revolution that brought the camera to Sadorus’s farm would ultimately make the family farm untenable. Meanwhile Seurat and his contemporaries portrayed the reorganization of everyday life among people whose livelihoods were no longer connected with the land.

Sadorus took the photos now on exhibit at the Illinois State Museum with five-by-seven and eight-by-ten box cameras, much like the Black Beauty on display. He used a tripod with these large cameras and developed and printed the photographs himself, experimenting with finishes and double exposures. Scenes of harvesting and threshing alternate with shots of picnics and other outings in nearby settings. The beauty of wheat, maple leaves, and crab apple blossoms is captured in contemplative, formally striking still lifes. The spare farmhouse surrounded by trees is another frequent subject, caught in all kinds of light and weather.

Sadorus methodically studied the Kodak manuals–also on display in this deftly curated exhibit–he received in the mail. And his compositions are by the book: consider the graceful close-ups of plants covered in ice after a storm. Using such formulas produced what art theorists once classified as the beautiful, as opposed to the sublime: the effect is pastoral, domestic, and orderly, perfect for conveying the stability of preindustrial agricultural life. Like the British painter Constable, Sadorus created landscapes in which a progression of objects leads the eye from the foreground through the middle ground to the background. Despite the formulas, his images have a gravity, fullness, and depth of feeling that in hindsight hint at the losses to come. Two photographs of the harvesting and binding of wheat hauntingly preserve the grace of working the land: the wheat lends texture and pattern to the foreground; in the middle ground are two men, two horses, and two mules whose flanks are modeled by the light as they pull the binder across a field; behind is a hazy sky. Other photos document the slaughtering of pigs and hauling of manure.

Sadorus’s images testify to the family’s prosperity. In one photograph among many whose subject is leisure, family members sit in a grove of hardwood trees (later sold for logging). The sense of occasion they felt about the outing is evident in their comportment and in their formal clothes. The women have on large flowered hats, the wind is blurring the leaves of the trees–it’s a long exposure–and the dappled light catches the family of nine at rest, forming a gentle arc receding along the diagonal into the background. The quality of the glass-plate negatives and the meticulous printing reveals the texture of a tree trunk in the foreground, while the angle of the light places half of each face in shadow. In a strange inverse of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the figures sit upright in a natural environment dressed in their best, but it’s a private pastoral place rather than a public park. While Seurat’s painting depicts the future, Sadorus’s lyrical photograph displays a way of life that’s about to vanish.

The sense of stability that informs these landscapes turned out to be illusory. After the farm was sold, Sadorus lived for a while in a small house in town–but soon he was committed to the Kankakee mental asylum, where he lived until his death in 1934, at the age of 54. He never took another photograph. He’d opposed the sale of the farm, and a medical report cited “excessive worry” as his pathology. The loss of the farm ended an era begun by the photographer’s great-grandfather, who’d arrived as the area’s first settler in 1824. Much later the glass-plate negatives and a few of Sadorus’s prints were found in an abandoned house and given to a local photographer, Raymond Bial, who printed all 350, then chose 66 for a 1983 book, Upon a Quiet Landscape.

Also included in the exhibit are farm tools from the Illinois State Museum collection. These clean, solid, pragmatic objects have outlasted not only their utility but people’s ability to work with them. Like the stately Black Beauty and Sadorus’s photographs, they’ve become artifacts.

Sadorus was a solitary man with limited models and no opportunity to discuss his art. French painters of the 19th century, by contrast, built their reputations by tweaking or even destroying pictorial formulas. Moreover, by 1886–the year that Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was first displayed–Paris was full of people who’d left their villages, enjoying the mobility that wage labor made possible. The centerpiece of the current exhibit at the Art Institute, this painting takes leisure as its subject: La Grande Jatte is both an island in the Seine and a park on the island near Asnieres, an industrial suburb of Paris. The painting’s subjects are most likely working people dressed in their Sunday best spending their day off outdoors.

Art historians and critics have argued over the work’s social context for more than 100 years. Some, like Gustave Coquiot, describe La Grande Jatte as the scene of “bawdy encounters,” but midcentury critic Meyer Shapiro saw the people in Seurat’s painting as ordinary workers, “the lower middle class for whom such recreation is a planned and considered, exceptional experience.” Shapiro sees their famous pharaonic stiffness as part of the general “mechanization of human movement” brought about by the industrial revolution. Another art historian, Albert Boime, believes that Seurat was depicting different classes, mixing harmoniously here in an anarchist-influenced vision, and arguing for workers’ well-earned day of rest.

Seurat’s studies of men relaxing on the banks of the river at Asnieres show factories in the background, their smoking chimneys creating atmospheric effects. A large painting, Bathing Place, Asnieres, is reproduced here, but Seurat’s numerous small compositional studies for the work are more compelling. They show oddly reflective boys bare to the waist, their shoulders slumped. A fully clothed man gazes out at the river abstractedly, as if his thoughts were churning and he could hardly take in the view. In earlier works Seurat painted young women tending crops, and in three he showed men breaking stones–a job at the very bottom of the work ladder.

La Grand Jatte is displayed in a room that also contains about 40 studies for the larger painting. (Unlike his impressionist forebears, Seurat did not improvise. One of the exhibit’s aims is to expose the artist’s process as well as the painting’s cultural context.) Included are images from popular culture–notably engravings from ladies’ magazines that celebrate the exaggerated silhouette of the bustle. There’s a great deal of information about color theory of the time, in particular about theorist Michel-Eugene Chevreul. Scientific analysis of the optical effects of color was important to Seurat, whose pointillist technique gave his work its flat, static quality.

The luminous works by Renoir and Monet also on display illustrate the contrast between the impressionists and neoimpressionists like Seurat and his friend Paul Signac. Where the impressionists tended to produce broad, beautiful landscapes that fully incorporated any human figures, Seurat was influenced by the ideas of the literary naturalists, like Zola, who sought to reveal not the details of everyday life, associated with realism, but the larger patterns determined by social and economic forces. Seurat took a similarly scientific approach in his almost mechanistic technique, his small spots of color prefiguring the dot screen and color separations, his “scientific impressionism” intensifying the distant, mannered postures and anonymity of his figures, who are always looking away from the viewer. By contrast Sadorus’s outdoor portrait of his family shows all of them looking at the photographer, creating a sense of connection.

Unlike agricultural labor, factory work was thought of as brutalizing and unhealthy, which led to the establishment of public parks. Often aristocratic properties were taken over by the city to provide the working classes with fresh air, restore physical vitality, and stave off social unrest. In fact La Grande Jatte was a new park built on land that had belonged to the House of Orleans, and Sunday had only recently been designated as workers’ one day of rest. Sunday afternoon as Seurat depicted it in La Grande Jatte was a relatively new experience.

Among the paintings that accompanied La Grande Jatte during its 1886 exhibition was a striking work by Signac, on display here. Gas Tanks at Clichy shows a house before a line of holding tanks, shifting the focus from domestic landscape to industrial wasteland. Not a shred of the picturesque remains. Signac’s use of color is scrappy in this early painting–he mixes colors and kinds of brushwork, keeping us aware of the process of painting but leaving us to wonder at this landscape’s primary use.

These exhibits seem simple–amateur photographs of Illinois farmland and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a painting we know almost too well. Yet both have complex, sobering undercurrents. Sadorus captures the integration of work and play in rural existence, a way of life about to disappear even for him, while Seurat catches the moment when labor and leisure separate, marking the beginning of contemporary life.