You’ll often find this painting in use as an example of the golden section in art, although it’s by far the most ideal picture for the job. It isn’t ideal because the frame itself is not in golden section proportions. The key number for the shape of this painting is 1.487 as this is the outcome when you divide the length by the width. (A4/DIN paper is 1.414, and the golden section is 1.618). Still, it’s a beautiful painting so I can understand why makers of beautiful books would use it.
There’s little difference between .618 and .487 and the first two images demonstrate this respectively. They both have their similarities to the image and it’s difficult to tell which Seurat would have used, if either. I have wondered, though, if it is better, where possible, to use a ratio for proportions which is the same as the proportions of the shape you are working on. For instance, if you’re using an A4 page, could three typefaces which get larger by 1.414 be more pleasing to the eye than if it were by 1.618? In other words, is stringent consistency in proportion more worthwhile?
What’s clear from the images is the definite placement of the water level in the distance, and the heads/figures are usually set against some guiding line. The fifth image is the most interesting to me; the circles are in proportion with the frame and have shocking similarities to the content. The outermost circle follows the arch of the left figure’s back, trims off the top of the tree and passes across the front of the right figure’s face. The next circle in carves a portion out of the reclining man, chops off the left figure’s legs and leans on a distant figure’s head. On the other side, it also bends around the paddler’s knee and past the edge of the clothes on the bank.
How/why?? There are always two answers and it could be either every time. 1) The artist knows all about proportion and has done his/her ‘homework’. There is no such thing as coincidence in their work and the creativity lies in ‘what’ rather than ‘how’. Perhaps Seurat’s creativity was his scene and his skillful pointillism. 2) We risk giving the artist a little too much credit in their mathematical understanding and find that the whole thing was an accident. The composition was done by eye and, because s/he has a good eye for proportion, the artist has been able to conjure something so pleasing without maths. As my title will suggest, I usually hope these artists have actually devised some big plan for their work – an invisible secret behind it all. Who knows. Of course, there are always those times when paintings simply suck and no compositional flair is anywhere to be seen.