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The Disposition of Figures in Modern Art, 1886‒1912

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen [Princeton University]
David E. Finley Fellow, 2011‒2014

My dissertation addresses the changing valuation of the human figure in late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century modernism by focusing on the emergence of new conventions for posing and positioning figures in art. When Georges Seurat (1859–1891) exhibited A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 (1884–1886) at the final impressionist exhibition in 1886, the originality of his monumental figure painting was understood to consist not simply in its application of the new technique of pointillism, but also in the peculiarity of its presentation of bodies within the painted tableau. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte implemented a rigid, repetitive, formally abbreviated postural language that disregarded articulations of the extremities, minimized flexions and extensions of limbs, and limited the disposition of bodies to three generic aspects at right angles to the picture surface: “ou de dos ou de face ou de profil,” as the critic Félix Fénéon observed.

Seurat’s restrictive, conspicuously contrived manner of mise-en-scène, and, more specifically, his generic repertoire of de dos, de face, and de profil positions, were employed by many artists working in diverse environments, styles, and media in the decades around 1900. My dissertation considers figural disposition as an element of artistic practice in which formal, compositional preferences concretely intersect with historical ideas about the identity and temperament of the human subject. By so doing, it interrogates what was at stake, both formally and philosophically, in this new approach to posing human figures. I offer extended interpretations of three works of art that operate within an aesthetic terrain opened by the departure, in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, from earlier paradigms of bodily presentation—Seurat’s painting Poseuses (The Models; 1886–1888), the mural Beethoven Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), and the ballet Afternoon of a Faun (1912) by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889–1950). I situate visual analyses of these individual works and textual analyses of their reception in contemporary criticism alongside a range of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing in the fields of  archaeology, art history, sociology, psychology, and psychoanalysis.

Georges Seurat, Study after

Georges Seurat, Study after "The Models", 1888, pen and brown ink over graphite on wove paper, The Armand Hammer Collection, 1991.217.69

The appearance of strictly dorsal, frontal, and lateral postures within modernism indicates a widespread departure from the range of poses inherited from classical and Renaissance art. Centered on the mimetic representation of humans, these aesthetic traditions developed enduring conventions for conveying corporeal and emotional liveliness through pose. Techniques that had been standard in Western figural art up through impressionism—the oblique torsioning and ponderation of bodies, for instance, and the variation of postures and gestures between discrete figures—aided in simulating figural volume, responsiveness to gravity, capacity for movement, interaction, and self-expression. By aligning bodies directly parallel or perpendicular to the support or the viewer and often arraying multiple bodies in identical positions, modern artists embraced a mode of presentation perceived as less technically adept and expressively nuanced. This manner was understood at the time as preclassical, characteristic of older or less developmentally advanced representational systems.

Turn-of-the-century critics consistently interpreted artists’ use of dorsal, frontal, and lateral postures as evidence of archaic art’s influence on modernism. At the same time, however, they frequently associated these poses with objects and behaviors specific to contemporary culture: mechanically manufactured representations of the body (including display mannequins, mass-produced toys, and figures in motion photographs or animated film strips) and new attitudes of comportment, varying from blasé reserve to attention seeking, in the public sphere. The dissertation as a whole locates the widespread interest in archaism in the decades around 1900 in relation to new experiences of modernity and new conceptions of psychological constitution, emphasizing the return to a repertoire of purportedly preclassical poses as part of a broader modernization of figural representation.

My study of Poseuses addresses Seurat’s approach to body posture as a self-conscious historical rupture. Often described as Seurat’s “most academic” or “most naturalistic” work, Poseuses oriented A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in relation to a figural tradition it abandoned by turning back reflexively to inherited studio practices and to art history as a repository of canonical figural images. Seurat assembled in front of the scandalously “hieratic” figures in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte a trio of nude models in recognizably classical poses. The central model, reproduced from the completed painting in a drawing in the National Gallery of Art, stands in a pose that I believe mimics a specific classical statue copied on the facade of Seurat’s school, the École des Beaux-Arts. Poseuses made a calculated relapse into academic classicism, I argue, to deconstruct its techniques of “pose,” ultimately authorizing a move further away from those conventions in Seurat’s subsequent work.

My studies of the works by Klimt and Nijinsky look forward to the turn of the century, to address the operation of new postural language in relation to specific problems in contemporary culture. My discussion of Beethoven Frieze focuses on concurrently emerging concepts of stylization and ornament in aesthetic theory and sociology around 1900. The culminating chapter, on Afternoon of a Faun, addresses the relationship between archaic figural poses and changing conceptualizations of stillness and motion. I argue that the ballet, by insistently connecting archaic art with cinematic and precinematic procedures, dramatizes a concept of interrelated, contradictory psychic impulses toward the fixation and activation of images that finds a close analogue in psychoanalytic theory of the period.

Seurat, Georges
French, 1859 - 1891
Georges Seurat
Study after "The Models"