Much of the time it slips our mind that all cultural practices are
inventions of humans. (That's the way culture works, right?) And often,
those practices which we most take for granted are those which have the
most interesting and complex history. The notion of leisure is one such
In Waiting for the Weekend, Wytold Rybczynski chronicles the
evolution of our modern ideas about leisure. In the chapter entitled "Sunday
in the Park," he uses Seurat's painting as a visual metaphor for the rather
modern notions we were developing at that time towards public spaces and
leisure. That is, through the painting, Rybczynski is putting "a face on"
our first context--
The island of Grande Jatte lies in the middle
of the Seine, upstream from Asnieres and Clichy, where the river loops
around to encircle the northwest edge of Paris. Today this area is completely
citified, the skyline dominated by the futuristic architecture of the nearby
La Defense, but in the nineteenth century it was the site of a different
type of modern novelty--the suburb....
The Isle de Grande Jatte lay between two towns, Clichy and Asnieres--a
no man's land between the well-behaved middle class (Asnieres) and the
hard-living working class (Clichy). But as the suburbs extended out from
Paris, the island became a popular destination for Parisians who felt the
need to get away and spend a "day in the country." With the advent of the
convenience of rail travel, during the second half of the nineteenth century,
the Grande Jatte became a place for strolling and picnics--but more importantly,
it was a place for the people to "practice" using a another recent invention--the
public park. "Like many Parisian painters, Georges Seurat was attracted
to the outer suburbs and their peculiarly odd mixture of images--pastoral
and industrial, field and factory......In A Sunday on the Isle of Grande
Jatte, Seurat dealt deliberately, and in great detail, with a subject
that fascinated him, as it did many of his contemporaries: the nature of
public urban leisure in an industrial age" (86).
The physical expansion [of the city] occurred
in concentric rings: first, closest to the city, were the industrial slums
of the workers; next, slightly farther out, the tidy houses of the middle
class; lastly, at the perimeter, beyond the reach of the railway, (and
hence of the masses), one found the fashionable homes of the haute bourgeoisie
[upper middle class] (82).
Seurat portrayed a scene whose ingredients
are recognizably modern: escaping the city for an afternoon, walking in
the park, sitting on the grass, sailing on the river, fishing by the shore,
taking pets for a stroll. The languid Sunday atmosphere, too, is unmistakable.
Update the costumes, take away the parasols, add some boys playing with
a Frisbee and a teenager lugging a boombox, and this could be Central Park,
or Mount Royal in Montreal, on a summer Sunday afternoon (87).
These final images which Rybczynski connects to the Grande Jatte--the
Frisbee, the boombox--are familiar to us. So are the activities connected
with them--picnics, volleyball, baseball, swimming, and so on. But as Rybczynski
explains, the use of public spaces for leisure activity was just being
experimented with in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In fact,
"[i]n 1780, no one could have predicted the shape of leisure a century
ahead. In 1880, by contrast, the lines of development are clear...There
is nothing in the leisure of today which was not visible in 1880" (Hugh
Cunningham in Waiting for the Weekend, 87).
The Commercialization of Leisure
This change in the nature of leisure activities, both public and
private, was tied to the social and commercial changes which came about
as a result of the Industrial Revolution. And with these changes came prosperity,
an essential precursor to leisure--
What was novel about the early eighteenth
century was that this prosperity was widespread--or at least more widespread
than before. The "leisured classes' included not only the aristocracy and
the landed gentry but also the middle classes...
Other forms of leisure also became popular at this same time, activities
such as public concerts, theatre, horse racing, cricket, and the habits
of tea and coffee drinking and tobacco smoking. But more importantly--
[For example, t]he number of people who read
for pleasure is a good indicator of leisure since reading requires the
availability of not only money but, more importantly, time....There is
no more leisurely occupation than reading a novel. it requires calm surroundings,
a comfortable chair, and long periods of uninterrupted time (89-91).
The first half of the eighteenth century saw
the beginning of what J.H. Plumb has called the "commercialization of leisure,"
a trend that would continue throughout the Georgian and Victorian epochs.
What's striking about this commercialization is it didn't mean, as one
might expect, the commercialization of traditional or amateur recreations.
It was businessmen who promoted the growth of cricket, music, circuses,
theatre, magazines, novels, and horse racing. This is worth pointing out,
since our conventional view holds that commercial leisure activities--and
today almost all leisure has a commercial component-are somehow a crass
distortion of "pure" leisure (98).
In other words, leisure activities were very quickly seen by the rapidly
growing merchant class as a way to make money. This resulted in an interesting
turn of events, a turn which has come to be called conspicuous consumption--
But leisure was also a way of asserting status
in a public way--hence the popularity of such pastimes as fox hunting and
shooting, which by law and by custom were unavailable to ordinary people.
The pastime of yachting, which grew in popularity in the first half of
the nineteenth century, was ideally suited to conspicuous consumption....[i]t
was--and remains-- a gratifying opportunity to be seen, admired, and envied
by the plebeians on the shore (102).
Rational Recreation Movement: The
Invention of Parks
The trend toward segregating leisure according to social class during
the latter half of the 1800's continued. However, there was one influence
in particular which opposed this tendency. This was the rational recreation
Initially a middle-class phenomenon that promoted
circulating libraries, literary societies, and public lectures, it eventually
turned its attention to the public at large. The general idea was to offer
the workingman an ordered, educational, self-improving alternative to the
attractions of the tavern and the gaming house. [This] did produce some
tangible results such as free museum admissions on holidays and the passing
of statutes that made it possible for municipalities to create a variety
of public leisure institutions: libraries, museums, and parks. Although
the physical realization of the ideal--public places of recreation accessible
to all--took many years to achieve, the shift in perception was an important
one. Leisure, previously a commercial affair, was becoming a public concern
As Rybczynski goes on to tell us, "The first public parks were intended
only for walking and contained no other facilities: they were deliberately
introduced as a 'civilizing' alternative to other recreations. One Manchester
writer approvingly observed that 'on Sunday, instead of loitering in fields,
dog-fighting, playing at pitch-and-toss, or being in the beerhouse, they
[the public] go to some of those parks.' He added, 'They also are induced
to dress better.' "
Coming Full Circle (Hermeneutical,
Which brings us back to the painting. The Grande Jatte was the perfect
place for Parisians and locals to go for fresh air and a healthy walk.
Although not a formal park, it still provided the "civilizing" influence
which the the proponents of the rational recreation movement strove for.
And the figures in Seurat's painting are certainly, if nothing else, "civilized,"
at least in their appearance. But other aspects of the change in leisure
are also captured by the painting--
Certainly the promenading figures that Seurat
observed were well-dressed: gentlemen in frock coats and top hats, ladies
with fancy bonnets and parasols, exhibiting the curious silhouette that
came from wearing a bustle, which was then the height of chic. But among
those fashion plates in their Sunday best are the other figures, whose
costumes suggest a lesser social pedigree: the two hatless young women
sitting on the grass, for example, or the nanny with the child. On closer
inspection this "bourgeois scene" is not that at all, for it also includes
working-class participants such as the wet nurse and the conscript soldiers.
Or the reclining man in the foreground, whose billed cap, sleeveless singlet,
and clay pipe mark him as a factory worker. At the other end of the social
spectrum are the yachtsmen and the team of rowers, indulging in gentlemanly
pastimes that were restricted to the prosperous bourgeois.
But Seurat also captured one other shift in attitudes toward leisure
which were taking place at this time. Despite the mixing of social classes,
despite the "civilizing" influence and the "conspicuous consumption," we
cannot help but notice the fact that the figures clearly are not interacting
with each other. "They are all together, yet apart-"
The mixture of the social classes demonstrated
the extent to which the middle-class ideals of the rational recreation
movement had come to dominate French Sunday leisure.....the immense changes
that Sunday--and leisure--had undergone by the last quarter of the nineteenth
century were admirably depicted by Seurat in Grande Jatte (106).
|This was yet another nineteenth-century
change. Public leisure ceased to be local, class-bound, and familiar, and
became instead increasingly communal. In the process, it also became more
impersonal, almost anonymous. Now one went away to rest, and on
the beach, or in the park, one took one's leisure in the company of strangers