France (c. 1878–79)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Another question now demanded to be answered: where could Seurat have met such an unusual figure in 1878 Paris?
In 1878, the Universal Exposition was in full swing in Paris. Here people from all around the world gathered to display and see new technologies, arts, and sciences. Researching 19th-century world’s fairs, such as the 1878 Universal Exposition, took me down a dark road of colonial exploitation and imperial domination. It was quite common for colonial peoples, alongside goods and technologies, to be displayed in the pavilions. Some countries went as far as to create human zoos filled with “attractions” such as African Pygmies, Native Americans, and Indian yogis. In the 1878 Universal Exposition, Seurat’s brother-in-law (whose wife, Seurat’s sister, was once the owner of An Indian Man) had a booth dedicated to his glass-making business. Seurat could have encountered his model at the Exposition, given the high concentration of foreign peoples in Paris for the fair.
Interior of the Indian Palace on the Champ-de-Mars, Universal Exposition
Engraving after drawing by J. Mirma.
Original drawing: Groupe de recherche Achac, Paris.
France, Paris (1889).
Given the demeaning treatment of non-Europeans at the Exposition, Seurat’s dignified depiction of an Indian man becomes even more extraordinary. The soft fall of light on the man’s chest, the delicate rendering of his beard and wrinkles, and the use of negative space create a calm, serene atmosphere that celebrates the sitter’s body rather than exoticizing it.
An Indian Man remains a mysterious drawing in Seurat’s body of work. We may never know the true origins and background of the man in the drawing, but it is this very mystery that makes An Indian Man such a mesmerizing object. Come see it for yourself through August 24, 2014, in the Getty Center’s West Pavilion.