Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Different Kind of Swatch

Last week I took a morning off for a trip to San Francisco to see the Intimate Impressionism show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. These paintings, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, are smaller works intended for domestic interiors. The exhibit includes work by all the big Impressionist names.
Of all the paintings on view, the one that most struck me was this:
Seascape (Gravelines) 1890 by Georges Seurat
It was painted by Georges Seurat, who is best known for his masterwork Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte, now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte 1884-1886 by Georges Seurat 
Seurat was the pioneer of pointillism, a painting style founded on scientific study of the interaction of colors in light. Seurat did not blend his colors on the canvas. Instead, he painted tiny dots of pure color, relying on the eye's ability to blend these colors and resolve them into an image. The picture you see exists in your head, not on the canvas.
When you look at these paintings on the screen, you are missing the sense of scale. Sunday Afternoon is huge - 10 feet wide by 6 feet tall. The figures in the foreground are nearly life-sized. When I stood in front of this painting in Chicago, I felt as if I could walk into it.
The seascape I saw last week is tiny. The inner image is 6 1/4" tall by 9 3/4" wide. When I saw it, I turned to my friend Diane and said, "Look! He painted a swatch!"
Take a closer look at the seascape. Within the ornate gold leaf frame is a flat wooden frame which the artist has covered with his signature dots. To me, this feels like what we as knitters do when we practice edge treatments on our knitted swatches.
The very fact of this small painting astonishes me. It was painted just a year before Seurat's death (at the age of only 31). His masterwork was several years in his past. You wouldn't think he needed to practice with such a simple piece.
Why did Seurat make this painting? Was it a study for a larger seascape that was never completed? Was he experimenting with new color combinations? Was it the painter equivalent of "procrastiknitting", fooling around to create the appearance of work while avoiding the work that actually needed doing? (Come on; you know you do it, too.)
We knit swatches for all these reasons - to practice a new technique, to experiment with a new idea on a small scale, to test color combinations, to doodle in 3D. If you only knit swatches to measure gauge, you're missing a wonderful opportunity to play.
We'll never know why this tiny seascape was made. But this little painted swatch made my day.

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