Title: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - Georges Seurat (1884)
Size: 207.6 × 308 cm (81.7 × 121.25 in)
Medium: Oil on canvas
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte?1884, painting by Georges Seurat
In his best-known and largest painting, Georges Seurat depicted people from different social classes strolling and relaxing in a park just west of Paris on La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine River. Although he took his subject from modern life, Seurat sought to evoke the sense of timelessness associated with ancient art, especially Egyptian and Greek sculpture. He once wrote, "I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color."
He worked on the painting in several campaigns, beginning in 1884 with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colors. He later added small dots, also in complementary colors that appear as solid and luminous forms when seen from a distance. Seurat's use of this highly systematic and "scientific" technique, subsequently called Pointillism, distinguished his art from the more intuitive approach to painting used by the Impressionists.
Sometime before 1889, Seurat added a border of blue, orange, and red dots that provide a visual transition between the painting's interior and the specially designed white frame, which has been re-created at the Art Institute.
In the 1880s the lower-middle classes flocked to the Grande Jatte in suburban Paris for a riverside stroll and a picnic on Sunday afternoons. This was the kind of subject matter that the Impressionists had made fashionable, but Seurat was far from embracing that art movement's pursuit of the fleeting and spontaneous.
Some 40 figures crowd the canvas, mostly in profile or full face. They appear static and frozen in uncommunicative proximity adding to the dreamlike quality of the painting. Many figures have been identified as known Parisian stereotypes. Featuring men, women, and children of all ages, Seurat's figures also include several with symbolic meaning For instance, the woman standing in the right foreground, with the striking bustle, is identified by her pet monkey?a symbol of lasciviousness, This identifies her as another prostitute (this time with a client), since the French word for 'female monkey' (singles), was also slang for a woman of loose morals. A well-dressed woman (extreme left) holds a fishing pole, alluding to the 'fishing' conducted by the bourgeois prostitutes of the area. The standing lady (foreground, extreme right) has a fashionable capuchin monkey as a pet. A small girl dressed in white stares out at the viewer from the center of the composition, as if to ask, "what will happen to all these contented members of the bourgeoisie?" As well as these allusions to the social and political content of the picture, Seurat also includes a dash of patriotism: a boat is shown flying the French national flag, and two soldiers stand at attention as a musician plays (presumably) the national anthem. The seated man with the top hat on the left is a fashionable stroller of boulevards. The shift from a shaded foreground to a bright background creates a strong sense of depth to which the recession of figures contributes, although there are some disorienting shifts in scale. Seurat said that he aimed to represent modern life in the style of a classical Greek frieze.
Seurat utilizes this blending technique through his use of shadows. In traditional painting, shadows are primarily represented by the color black. Following the principles of pointillism, Seurat can define his shadows by the color that they come into contact with. The skirts of the women provide the best examples of this. Seurat's shadows here are not being defined by traditional means but are instead a combination of the colors in their proximity. Here the mix of green provides a blue shadow, which does not follow the conventions of shadow casting.
Such a different approach in the creation of shadows is repeated in the dress of the woman on the right. Where the mix of light and green casts a yellow halo for the trees the same effect is mimicked here. The woman's dress creates a slight yellow line before the onset of the shadow and this yellow hue can be seen particularly towards the back of her skirt. Furthermore, the shadow of her dress is a slight shade of blue as Seurat's green grass dots intermingle with the dress' blue and purple dots.
The essential meaning of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is far from clear. However, art critics believe that it should be interpreted in comparison to its sister work Bathers at Asnieres. They believe that 'La Jatte' represents the French bourgeoisie, a decaying class that has fallen victim to lust and vice, and which is now in the shadows. In contrast, the sun is shining on the working class bathers of Asnieres, who represent the bright future of France.
Georges Pierre Seurat was born in 1859 on 2 December, in Paris. Seurat had two siblings, one brother, and one sister, both were older than him. He was interested in art from a young age and in 1875 he first studied at École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin, which was the local municipal art school; he studied under Justin Lequien.
Although Georges Seurat did not produce many paintings during his short lifetime, he certainly left an impact on the world of art, creating artworks that were not only aesthetically grand but artistically astute. He was remembered as one of the first artists to innovate the color theory and apply it to his paintings, moving away from the Impressionist style that dominated the time.