A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is the largest painting realized by Georges Seurat from 1884 to 1886. Preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting is an important example of the art movement of Pointillism and Post-Impressionism. The work is based on modern color theories developed in scientific research. Often referred to simply as the “people in the park painting “, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of the most popular examples of neo-impressionist painting.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Georges Seurat depicts a relaxing Parisian scene. In a park, Seurat paints the Sunday crowd relaxing on the banks of the Seine river. One can observe women in period clothing strolling around with parasols, rowers resting after a competition, and children playing. In the background, two soldiers are walking and there is also a nurse, recognizable by her red and white banded hat, and an elderly lady near a tree. Seurat also depicted companion animals, even exotic ones such as a small monkey on a leash. The protagonists of the paintings are all from different social classes. The setting is the small island of La Grande-Jatte on the Seine near Neuilly sur Seine.
The painting is characterized by the innovative technique known as pointillism. The composition is created by the meticulous juxtaposition of dots of pure colors, obtained with small brush strokes on the canvas. The dots mix and give a unified vision once the work is observed from a distance. The technique is based on studies of color perception by chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. According to Chevreul, the various dots of pure color at a distance tend to merge and return a different color, according to the mixtures indicated by the chromatic theory of primary and complementary colors. The resulting hues are therefore obtained by the painter by manually mixing them on the palette but are created as an optical effect. The pointillist technique is the ancestor of today’s digital image, fragmented into pixels.
Seurat, like the Impressionists, was also interested in the rendering of light effects. He believed that this technique, called Divisionism at the time because of the divided juxtaposition of colors, would give the canvas more brilliance.
In 1889, Seurat added changes to the painting, adding a border of red, orange, and blue dots and narrowing the composition. He thus created a transitional effect between inside and outside.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is currently exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was purchased in 1924 on the advice of trustee Frederic Bartlett and his second wife, Helen Birch Bartlett, collectors of French Post-Impressionist art.
The theme chosen by Seurat was in vogue among the Impressionists: the canvas depicts a moment of leisure, play, and tranquillity, common in Parisian life. The subject of leisure was a frequent iconography in nineteenth-century French painting.
Despite being a scene of modern life, the painter Seurat made it clear that he wanted to communicate a sense of timelessness, reminiscent of 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.”
The subject is, however, connected to the social life of the French Third Republic. The visitors are taking advantage of the public holiday and are people from all social classes: the Grande-Jatte, after all, was easily accessible from Paris thanks to a railway line. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has also been interpreted from a social and political perspective. Historians and Marxist art critics have noted the mechanical use of Seurat’s figures, interpreting them as a metaphor for the static nature of French society. It is, therefore, a commentary on the contrived and set manners of Parisian bourgeois society of the time.
Georges Seurat previously painted another painting of a riverside scene, called Bathers at Asnières in 1884.
The work was also echoed in contemporary art. In 2021, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei replicated Seurat’s work with LEGO bricks, naming it Untitled (After Seurat). The pattern of LEGO bricks recalls the French painter’s pointillist technique, bringing it to a three-dimensional dimension. The work also shows how Seurat’s vision was pioneering similar to a digital image broken down into pixels.