Georges Seurat

“More in Seurat than in Ingres”

A Journey in Art & Literature

By Peter Y. Chou

Jean A.D. Ingres

Preface: In Dick Cavett's second Blog on William F. Buckley "Uncommoner Than Thou: Buckley, Part Two" (NY Times, March 14, 2008), Cavett wrote: "He was a fan of all wordplay and had admired an unforgivable pun I had made about French painters. He wrote:

To Richard, in deepest gratitude for
"More in Seurat than in Ingres." May I use it?
With affection,

This pun eluded me. But being a lover of French paintings, I tried to see what is the difference between the paintings of Seurat and Ingres. I loved Seurat's scientific experiments in pointillism and his neo-impressionism style. His Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte is one of my favorite paintings, conveying a peaceful scene on a Sunday afternoon in a park. Perhaps Seurat titled it "Sunday..." because on the seventh day, God rested from his six days of creation. This painting has that restful air to it. No one is in a hurry, almost a still life of people instead of fruits. Ingres, the great painter of neo-classicism, lived to 87 compared to Seurat who died at age 32. When I studied art history at Columbia, I admired Ingres's paintings, especially the details in women's costumes. However, when Delacroix became my favorite artist, I realized that Ingres was a champion of the old guard and blocked the works of young artists of Romanticism from exhibition at the Louvre. When Delacroix's Liberté (1830) was finally exhibited at the Louvre (1848), the old Ingres begrudgingly shook Delacroix's hand. After reading about that incident, I lost my interest in Ingres. Now, what's more in Seurat than in Ingres— points of paint, number of people, what else? I placed Ingres' "Princess de Broglie" from the Met next to Seurat's "Sunday" and meditated on the two paintings. I read Sister Wendy's comment on Seurat's masterpiece and the description of Ingres's painting from New York's Metropolitan Museum. After learning more about Seurat and Ingres, I still had no insight why Buckley loved Cavett's pun so much. After a little more sleuthing, I finally got it (see below).

Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884-1886)
Art Institute of Chicago

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Portrait of Princesse de Broglie (1851-1853)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte
Text from "Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces":

Seurat's Grande Jatte is one of those rare works of art that stand alone; its transcendence is instinctively recognized by everyone. What makes this transcendence so mysterious is that the theme of the work is not some profound emotion or momentous event, but the most banal of workaday scenes: Parisians enjoying an afternoon in a local park. Yet we never seem to fathom its elusive power. Stranger still, when he painted it, Seurat was a mere 25 (with only seven more years to live), a young man with a scientific theory to prove; this is hardly the recipe for success. His theory was optical: the conviction that painting in dots, known as pointillism or divisionism, would produce a brighter color than painting in strokes.

Seurat spent two years painting this picture, concentrating painstakingly on the landscape of the park before focusing on the people; always their shapes, never their personalities. Individuals did not interest him, only their formal elegance. There is no untidiness in Seurat; all is beautifully balanced. The park was quite a noisy place: a man blows his bugle, children run around, there are dogs. Yet the impression we receive is of silence, of control, of nothing disordered. I think it is this that makes La Grande Jatte so moving to us who live in such a disordered world: Seurat's control. There is an intellectual clarity here that sets him free to paint this small park with an astonishing poetry. Even if the people in the park are pairs or groups, they still seem alone in their concision of form— alone but not lonely. No figure encroaches on another's space: all coexist in peace.

This is a world both real and unreal— a sacred world. We are often harried by life's pressures and its speed, and many of us think at times: Stop the world, I want to get off! In this painting, Seurat has "stopped the world," and it reveals itself as beautiful, sunlit, and silent— it is Seurat's world, from which we would never want to get off."

Ingres's Portrait of Princesse de Broglie
Text from Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

Although portraiture was a genre he came to dislike, Ingres depicted many of the leading personalities of his day. This painting of Joséphine Eléonore Marie Pauline de Galard de Brassacede Béarn, princesse de Broglie, is his last commissioned portrait of a female sitter. A member of the most cultivated circles of the Second Empire, the princess was renowned for her great beauty as well as her reserve, both qualities captured in this portrait. Ingres' facility for brilliantly transcribing the material quality of objects is seen in the rich satin and lace of the sitter's gown, the silk damask upholstery, and the richly embroidered evening scarf draped across the chair. Also rendered in exquisite detail are her sumptuous jewels, which include the fashionable antique-inspired pendant around her neck.

The princesse de Broglie died of consumption at the age of thirty-five. Her bereaved husband kept this portrait behind draperies in perpetual tribute to her memory. It remained in the family until shortly before it was acquired by Robert Lehman and retains the original, ornately carved frame that Ingres himself selected.


Cracking the Code: After getting nowhere comparing paintings of Seurat to Ingres, I recalled Dick Cavett's first blog on William F. Buckley "A Most Uncommon Man" (NY Times, March 7, 2008). Cavett tells the first time Buckley appeared on his talk show: "Conversation seemed to be moving along nicely when, in reference to something he had just brought up, I said, 'I'm not really familiar with that.' Back came, 'You don't seem to be familiar with anything.' Wham! I think I nearly lost consciousness. It was a rotten thing to say to a beginner." Later, Cavett and his wife became friends of the Buckleys and was often invited on their yacht. On one occasion Cavett's wife Carrie Nye asked Buckley a question about St. Paul and the founding of the church that seemed contradictory. Buckley tried to answer and came up short. Later, in view of his striking out on the religious question, Buckley gave Carrie Nye The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare as gift, inscribing "From one who was at a temporary loss for words, to one who — now — never need be. Affectionately, Bill." So Buckley must be a Shakespeare aficionado to appreciate Cavett's clever pun on the French painters. A check of familiar phrases from Shakespeare at The Phrase Finder showed that the first one listed as:
"A countenance more in sorrow than in anger" (Lucky for me, the phrases are listed alphabetically.)

Clever! Clever! Clever indeed!
No wonder Buckley loved it and sent that note of gratitude to Cavett.

This phrase is from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603), Act I, Scene 2 , line 446.
Horatio describes to Hamlet the appearance of his father's ghost:

Hamlet: What, look'd he frowningly?

Horatio: A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.

In French, Seurat is pronounced sur-rah (sorrow) and Ingres is pronounced ang-res (anger).

So Cavett's pun is related more to Shakespeare's Hamlet than to differences in the paintings of Seurat and Ingres. One must know their art and literature to really appreciate this pun as William F. Buckley did. That's why Dick Cavett titled his Buckley Blogs "A Most Uncommon Man" and "Uncommoner Than Thou: Buckley". — PYC (3-16-2008)

Afterword: A search for "more in Seurat than in Ingres" in Google (3-17-2008) gave 10 web links, but none referring to the pun in Shakespeare's Hamlet. However, the 10th link referred to Alan A. Grometstein's 1999 book The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics. Google had scanned this book, and on page 228, "Endnote 6: How many dots of paint does The Grande Jatte contain? My guess of 104-105 is probably within a factor of 10. You realize, of course, that I tell you this more in Seurat than in Ingres. (Attributed to Charles Poore in [Fadiman 1957:175])."

Did this pun originate with Charles Poore (1902-1971)? Stanford Library has two of his books— Goya (1939) and The Hemingway Reader (1953), and 40 books by Clifton Fadiman (1904-1999). Fadiman's 1957 book is Any Number Can Play (World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio). This book (814.4.F15AP) is located off-campus in the Stanford Auxilary Library 3, so I make a request for delivery to Green Library. Now, I have it in my hands and turn to page 175 in the Grometstein's Endnote 6 reference. Poore's quote is not there nor in the adjacent pages of the chapter "In Praise of Quotation" (pp. 173-180). Ah, it's in the next chapter titled "I Shook Hands with Shakespeare" (pp. 181-188)— no luck, not there either. Browsing through Fadiman's book, I come to the chapter "Small Excellencies: A Dissertation on Puns" (pp. 219-253)— surely it must be in here somewhere. Fadiman begins his chapter with an epigraph from James Boswell, "A good pun may be admitted among the small excellencies of lively conversation." Then, he follows with "There is something to be said against puns. The man who pounces with his pun upon something you have just said reveals his attendance upon your words rather than upon your thoughts. He derails your train of reflection. Puns upset the dignity of speech, flout the etiquette of serious communication, cut the ground of logic from under us... To a great practioner like Christopher Morley, a pun is language on vacation. But to the non-practitioner it may seem more like language in agony, its appeal more akin to the esthetic charms of the contortionist's art... In Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx recalled that when shooting elephants in Africa he found the tusks very difficult to remove— adding, however, that in Alabama the Tuscaloosa... The first European pun may be found in the 9th Book of Homer's Odyssey. To fool the giant Polyphemus in the cave, the wily Odysseus has given his name as Outis (Greek for Nobody). When Odysseus later attacks Polyphemus in the cave, the latter calls to his fellow Cyclopes for help, crying, 'Nobody is killing me!' His friends take him literally of course and make no attempt to aid him [while Odysseus runs away]... I calculate that James Joyce's Finnegans Wake contains at least 50,000 puns in perhaps ten languages. Here punning has become cancerous. Joyce does not master the pun, he is mastered by it. It is as though his ear were distorted so that it could never hear single sounds but only a multitude of echoes. This affliction made Joyce the greatest punster who ever lived. It also made his book unreadable except to a syndicate of glossologists." (pp. 224-225)

After reading many clever puns Fadiman cites from literature, I finally located Poore's pun (p. 245): The learned pun of course need not turn on a foreign language. However it usually involves some special knowledge and assumes in the audience a well-developed bump of reference... Such puns are "inside" humor, making a strong appeal to specialists only. Another beautiful example is Charles Poore's "More in Seurat than in Ingres."

Dick Cavett Show appeared on ABC late night TV (Dec. 29, 1969—Jan. 1, 1975), when Cavett interviewed William F. Buckley, who later became his friend. Fadiman's book Any Number Can Play was published in 1957, so Cavett probably read that chapter on puns since he loved wordplays. He didn't acknowledge Charles Poore as the originator of the pun on French painters and claimed it as his own to impress Buckley and succeeded. Luckily for Cavett, Buckley was not familiar with Fadiman's book with its chapter "Small Excellencies: A Dissertation on Puns". — PYC (3-19-2008)

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