Letters to the Editor
A Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grande Jatte:
The French painter, George Seurat, intended his artwork to reproduce the lives of the “moderns”— the average Joe. He painted into his work three dogs, eight boats, and 48 people who have congregated on a Sunday to enjoy and parade around in “nature.” The cast of characters includes soldiers, boaters, the fashionable as well as casually dressed, the old and the young, families, couples, and single men and women. And that’s exactly what happens in today’s view of Geneva Lake. Nowadays, we see a hodgepodge of individuals and families who face the water, just like those in France did more than 100 years ago. They picnic, play, converse, avoid the sun, walk their dogs, read books and mobile devices, and otherwise relax.
I love walking there on a Sunday afternoon, especially during the summer, most aren’t locals — they’re visitors from all over. The fronts of their T-shirts suggest the places they’ve visited — one shirt proclaims its wearer’s enjoyment of custard from St Louis, another her attendance at The Sorbonne University in Paris, and those matching ones — some sort of football camp both young men grid-ironed at in Green Bay. Today, however, there are no ladies’ bustles or frilly hats to be seen anywhere.
A child in white stood centered in Seurat’s painting confronting the viewer. In my ever-changing vista of the bay, the kids seem more interested in their activities than in the rest of us. A 5-year old boy in a red and white striped t-shirt crosses the sidewalk and nears the water. He steps from one rock to another trying to get as close to the ducklings and their mother as she will allow, but instantly she voices her displeasure. She quacks to her offspring to leave the stones and hop into the safety of the lake. I overhear other parents instructing their children on a Sunday afternoon, “Make sure you stay in my sight” as the kids run to hide behind a tree in a game of hide-n-go-seek with siblings. I don’t know what conversations Seurat heard as he did his first studies for this masterpiece that he created when he was only 26. For me, there are many people I hear but cannot understand. At least half of the visitors in Lake Geneva converse in another language — Hindi, German, Greek, Polish, Arabic, Russian.
As a collector of people who speak different languages, I’m delighted. A young man struggles to keep up with his girlfriend. “Wait up,” he tells her while she says over her shoulder, “Hurry up!” She carries a basket, he the ice-filled cooler, really too heavy to heft easily, let alone move at the rate she is walking. She finds a space under a sprawling maple and directs him to join her. They unpack the contents of their containers. A blanket, a water jug, sandwiches. This is close to how the French picnicked in the 1860s. The experience has changed little.
Ice cream existed in Seurat’s time, but it was eaten by the rich or the royals. In our small city of 7600, there are soon to be six establishments selling ice cream or frozen yogurt. A number of families mediate the melting mass with a combination of licks and bites. The warm weather doesn’t seem to diminish their full enjoyment, though I watch it drip down the hands of some. I want to yell, “Lick faster!” On a Sunday afternoon, families pull their cars into spots close to the park and unload huge meals to which everyone in the extended family contributes. Tupperware containers and dishes covered with aluminum foil are placed on long folding tables around which folding chairs are opened and blankets are laid. Multiple generations of women hover around children, serve food, sit on the blankets and finally relax. The smells that fill the park on a Sunday are wonderful, sometimes even exotic. From hamburgers and fried chicken to garam masala and jalapeños.
I forget that the local features, which are ordinary to me — the lake beach or the paddle-wheeled tourist boat — are unique and new for others. It’s what prompts them to visit, and brings many to return annually. This last Sunday afternoon, five women, who all look related with their dark hair and youthful skin, ask me to take their photo. “Make sure the boat is in the background,” one says. I walk a bit further and see a woman snap a photo of a teen who carries an inflated vinyl swan. Three times as big as she is, she wrestles it upside down so that her head fits into the meeting of its back and neck. And further on, a couple takes a selfie that falls into the ubiquitous “we were here” category. We all have more than enough images of our lives thanks to mobile phones. Seurat would have been comfortable with selfies as he, too, was democratizing French life. His paintings record a moment of Everyman’s history, not that of just the rich and famous. Seurat captures a moment in his time, making it appear perfect. He does not offer what went on after the park closed, in the midst of the rainy season, or amongst those in poverty. Like on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Library Park, too, is the perfection of the moment we want to remember — without the humid heat of August, the mosquitoes after a week of rain, or the occasional drunken reveler. The locals love those who come to Lake Geneva to visit, shop, and spend their hard-earned cash, but on the first day of summer, we do anticipate the last day of the season. Without the tourists, Lake Geneva wouldn’t survive. But when the cool weather comes, we breathe a sigh of relief as the restauranteurs greet us by first name, the streets empty, and the park no longer reminds us of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Judy Haselhoef, local Lake Geneva resident, and acclaimed international author