A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is both the best-known and largest painting Georges Seurat ever created on a canvas. It depicts people relaxing in a suburban park on an island in the Seine River called La Grande Jatte, a popular retreat for the middle and upper class of Paris in the 19th century.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of those rare cases where a single artwork is able to stand out completely - its transcendence, both narratively and technically, is instinctively recognized by everyone.
What makes this painting even more unique and mysterious is that the theme of the work is not some profound emotion or momentous event, but the banalest of workaday scenes.
Executed on a large canvas painted in 1884, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte reveals everything magical about Seurat's world - it's beautiful and disturbing, sunlit and shadowed, silent and noisy, all at the same time. The painting's dimensions are approximately 2 by 3 meters (7 by 10 feet), representing a truly huge size for pieces painted during this period.
When he painted this work, Georges Seurat was a mere 25-year-old who had only seven more years to live. He was an ambitious young man with a scientific theory to prove, something totally unique for the elite of the modern art world. Seurat's theory was an optical one - he had the conviction that painting in dots was able to produce a brighter color than painting in strokes.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was painted in two sessions, the first between May 1884 and March 1885, and the second from October 1885 to May 1886. Seurat claimed he sat in the park for hours upon hours, creating numerous sketches of the various figures in order to perfect their form before he even thought about starting the actual painting.
Extremely disciplined and private to the point of almost complete secretiveness, Georges Seurat concentrated primarily on issues of color, light and form. Gustave Kahn often spoke about how Georges used the Panathenaic procession in the Parthenon frieze as the main visual model for this work - yet, there was not a lot of classical in the completed painting.
Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was one of the stand-out works in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1884. When it was shown at the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendents during the same year, it encouraged critic Félix Fénéon to invent the name Neo-Impressionism, a term that eventually became the name of one of the greatest movements in modern art.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was initially started in 1884 with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colors. Seurat later added small dots that appear as solid and luminous forms when seen from a long enough distance. This was the way he spectacularly proved his theory, showing that employing tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint really can allow the viewer's eye to blend colors optically. This turned out to be a revolutionary alternative to the way traditional painters went about defining forms within their artworks' compositions.
Seurat's use of this highly systematic and near-scientific technique distinguished his art from the endlessly more intuitive approach to painting used by the Impressionists. Georges may have embraced the subject matter of modern life preferred by artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but the way he depicted it on canvas couldn't be any more different from the techniques of his peers.
Georges' technique was subsequently called Pointillism and it's known by that name to this day. However, the painter himself preferred to call his method chromo-luminarism, a term he felt better stressed the focus on color and light.
Seurat spent over two years painting this picture, concentrating painstakingly on the landscape of the park before turning his focus on the people that will eventually inhabit the composition. However, when the time came to actually start portraying men and women, Georges decided to completely dedicate his efforts to their shapes, and not their personalities.
Individuals never did interest Seurat, only their formal elegance and the way they contributed to the overall perfect balance of the composition. As a result, this high class get-away for the Parisian community appears to be terrifyingly still - although we assume children would be running around and that dogs would be barking, the impression we receive is of silence, of control, of no disorder whatsoever. Even those who came to this mile-long island in pairs seem alone in their concise form.
This Seurat's painting was actually a mirror impression of his own earlier painting executed in the same year, Bathers at Asnières. Whereas the figures in the earlier painting are doused in light, everyone portrayed in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte appears to be cast in shadow, either under trees or an umbrella, or from another person.
At first glance, the viewer sees many different people relaxing in a park by the river and nothing appears out of the ordinary. On the right, a fashionable couple is on a stroll. On the left, another well-dressed woman extends her fishing pole over the water. There is a small man with a black hat looking at the river, a white dog with a brown head, a man playing a horn, two soldiers standing at attention, a couple admiring their infant child, etc.
It is only after close inspection that the viewer sees some curious things happening. The lady on the right side has a monkey on a leash. The lady on the left that's fishing is a metaphor for prostitution, something this part of Paris was well-known for back in the day. In the painting's center stands a little girl dressed in white, the only figure that is not in a shadow. She stares directly at the viewer as if she's silently questioning the audience.
Other than the little girl, all of the figures in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte are cloaked in shadow, almost robbed of their identities.
Compositionally speaking, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte's balance is carefully positioned and proportioned so that the entire work is intriguing to the human eye. The center of the painting is a flurry of activity, which makes it appealing to look at as the well-balanced left and the right sides. Yet, everything exists in a static state of things, and Georges' decision to only depict people facing sideways or straight on makes the entire scene seem very rigid.
In traditional painting, shadows are primarily represented by the color black, but the principles of Pointillism dictate that one should define his shadows by the color they come into contact with. The skirts of the women are definitely the best examples of this. On the other hand, Seurat's use of light is also one of the unique points of the piece. The light from the left comes into contact with people and objects in the composition, and he did a truly masterful job of blending such colors.
In terms of perspective, most of the figures' view is focused on the river to the left of the image. Despite the fact the river comprises only a small part of the painting, the activities in this segment draw the viewer's gaze. The figures at the front appear to be very close to the viewer - the woman walking a monkey and the man beside her are the biggest figures in A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte and their size balances this work of immense proportions.
The border of the painting is, unusually, in inverted color. This was Seurat's last addition to the painting and it makes the entire piece appear as if it's slowly inverting.
Just like a lot of Neo-Impressionist works back then, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte was met with a lot of harsh criticism from the traditional, more Salon-oriented audiences. Many reputable contemporary art critics found Seurat's figures to be less a nod to earlier art styles than a commentary on the modern Parisian society. They also had a problem with the rigid state of the portrayed people and many criticized it for being too mathematical.
However, after A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte was exhibited in 1884, it was mostly heralded as a grand work of meticulous proportions. It appears that the biggest issue contemporary French art scene had with the piece was the way in which it was made - as is the case with most bold new artistic movements or styles, Pointillism had to face its fair share of initial scrutiny. After all, the painting's style was unlike anything else that preceded it, so it was only natural for some to question it.
Nonetheless, the now-famous eighth Impressionist exhibition prided itself on being at the cutting edge of new styles and movements, so Seurat's Grande Jatte fitted that mold perfectly.
Interestingly, notable Marxist historian and philosopher Ernest Bloch was one of the 20th century's forerunners of drawing social and political significance from Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte - the historian's focal point was Seurat's robotic use of the figures that he saw as being symbols for the static nature of the French society at the time.
Nowadays, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte can be viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Aside from offering us an opportunity to see first-hand one of the most important modern artworks that paved the way for avant-garde thought, this painting is also a symbol of how an ambitious young man, unsatisfied with current artistic standards and norms, set off to prove his own views on art regardless of the protests of his colleagues. As a painter, Georges Seurat wanted to make a difference and with La Grand Jatte, he succeeded. A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte is now regarded as an iconic part of our culture and is viewed as one of the most pivotal works of art ever put onto a canvas.
Editors’ Tip: Seurat and the Making of 'La Grande Jatte'
"Bedlam," "scandal" and "hilarity" were among the epithets used to describe the effect of what is now considered Georges Seurat's greatest work, and one of the most remarkable paintings of the nineteenth century when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1886. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, an extensive landscape peopled with over forty figures, took the artist almost two years to complete. This sumptuous book, created to accompany a major exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, provides a fascinating, in-depth examination of the gestation, execution, and influence of Seurat's masterpiece. Bringing together all known studies and drawings directly related to the painting, this volume provides a visual and contextual survey of Seurat's working methods and aesthetic priorities, as well as the evolutionary process that culminated in his singular achievement.
Featured image: Georges Seurat - A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884, via mydailyartdisplay.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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