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"Entreé du port de Honfleur" by Georges Seurat

lksmith's picture

            This afternoon I had the opportunity to spend time with many incredible pieces of artwork at the Barnes Foundation. In all of the pieces I saw, one that stood out to me more than the rest was “Entreé du port de Honfleur” by Georges Seurat. It is a pointillist painting of a group of sailboats coming into port. I can’t really explain why this particular piece stood out to me so much more than the others, it wasn’t particularly large or placed as a central focus of the room it was in, it was just there on the wall, begging me to come look at it.          

            The painting itself is rather simple, nothing more than a group of sailboats at a port. The waters are calm and the sky looks clear, the boats just move about doing their business, whatever that may be. They don’t appear to be moving together in anyway other than the fact that they are all going through the same directed space. When I first looked at the painting I saw only sailboats but, upon closer examination, I found that the boat in the center of the painting is actually engine powered because it emitting a cloud of smoke. Seurat also made this particular boat stand out more because he painted it a darker color than all the other boats. While the white sails on most of the boats blend into the sky, the steamboat is painted entirely in a red brown color that separates it from the blues, grays, and greens that surround it.

            As I looked at the painting I kept trying to figure out what time of day it was in the scene. Were the boats all coming in after a long day or were they heading out on their next great adventure? There weren’t any obvious shadows coming from anything in the picture so I guessed that it must be either a cloudy day, early morning or evening. Looking at the coloration of the dots that make up the sky, I noticed that there is a lighter region directly on the horizon and slightly off center to the left. The farther the points in the painting are from that spot, the darker they become (though not much darker). For me, this pattern plus the fact that the sky is colored in a light blue gray color makes me think of an early morning on a summer day. Overall the painting gave me the feeling of a crisp morning sunrise even before I made these observations, so I was completely ready to accept this. I also saw a reflection in the water in the front right portion of the painting of part of the dock. I interpreted this to mean that it was morning, not just a cloudy day. When I had the chance to look up more information about the painting (including the name) which told me that, contrary to what I observed, these ships were actually coming into port not leaving it.

            In the center of the painting I noticed a couple of odd looking structures that I could not figure out the purpose of. They are both white and appear to be floating out in the water. One of them looks like a thin tower and the other is shorter and wider. It almost looks like the steam boat is about to hit them. Although I don’t know for sure what the purpose of these towers is, I think they could possibly be placed there to warn the incoming ships that the water is shallow in that area. They could also be to tell the incoming ships what port they are entering.

            Once I moved past looking at the sailboats themselves, I took a few minutes to observe their surroundings. In the background of the painting there are some subtle hills leading me to believe that this port is either in an enclosed body of water or part of an inlet from a larger source. (After consulting a map I found that Honfleur, France is part of an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean.) I also noticed that in the foreground on the right side and the background on the left side there are lighthouses. Lighthouses mean rocky, unsafe terrain below the water and potentially rough water to travel in. It is surprising to me that in waters with that kind of potential, everything is so calm and peaceful in the moment depicted in the painting.

            When I think about this painting and all the sailboats out on the water, it reminds me of Hood River, Oregon. Hood River is a very popular destination for wind surfing and kite surfing. Every time I go there that entire section of the Columbia River is filled with wind surfers racing back and forth on the water. Although these sails are all bright and colorful, unlike the white ones in the painting, the image of all the sails out on the water brings back those memories of watching the wind surfers.

            After spending a fair amount of time with this particular Seurat painting, I felt completely lost in it. I wanted to be at that port watching the sun come up as the sailboats head out on the water for the day (or leave in the evening, as the title says). The entire scene felt so serene and comfortable, familiar even. Although I may not have known it when I first came across the painting, that feeling is what drew me to it and kept me captivated by it.