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Everything You Must Know About "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat

Painting of the Week

Everything You Must Know About "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat

On this day, December 2nd, 1859 the French post-Impressionist painter and draftsman Georges Seurat was born. On this occasion we’ve decided to remind you of his greatest painting – “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,1884, Art Institute of Chicago

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,1884, Art Institute of Chicago

In this large painting, Seurat depicted people relaxing in a suburban park on an island in the Seine River called La Grande Jatte. It may be just an ordinary day with ordinary people. The cast comprised three dogs, eight boats and 48 people as they congregated for a Sunday afternoon in the sunny park. But, the titular locale was a favorite of prostitutes on the prowl, so some historians suspect that fish are not what the fishing-pole-toting woman on the left was hoping to hook. The same speculation has arisen around the lady on the right, with a monkey on a leash and a man on her arm.

Georges Seurat, A Woman Fishing, drawing, 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Georges Seurat, A Woman Fishing, drawing, 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It is the most famous example of use of highly systematic and “scientific” technique, subsequently called Pointillism. It relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones. Seurat himself preferred to call his technique “chromo-luminarism,” a term he felt better stressed its focus on color and light.

Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail

Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail

Seurat embraced the subject matter of modern life so typical to Impressionist artists, but he went beyond their interest of capturing the moment. Seurat sought to evoke permanence by recalling the art of the past, especially Egyptian and Greek sculpture and even Italian Renaissance frescoes. As he explained to the French poet Gustave Kahn, “The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. 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.

Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail

Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail

It took more than two years for Seurat to complete the painting – at the end, the artist was only 26 years old! Seurat worked on it in several campaigns and started with almost 60 sketches. Then he started painting. This sketch, one of the earliest, would have been painted in the open air at La Grande Jatte:

Georges Seurat, Study for 'La Grande Jatte', 1884-5, National Gallery, London

Georges Seurat, Study for ‘La Grande Jatte’, 1884-5, National Gallery, London

Known as croquetons—literally ‘sketchettes’—Seurat’s studies were all made on small wooden panels. Extraordinarily proud of them, he hung many in his studio. He also exhibited them regularly, demonstrating the significance he felt they had in his oeuvre. Seurat called the panels his ‘constant joy’.

Georges Seurat, Study for 'A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte', 1884-86, Musée d'Orsay

Georges Seurat, Study for ‘A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’, 1884-86, Musée d’Orsay

Seurat’s painting, firstly exhibited at the 1886 Impressionist exhibit was a major turnoff for some critics. Some observers didn’t like rigid profiles of Seurat’s subjects, whose poses were negatively compared to tin soldiers.

Leaflet of the 8th Impressionist exhibition, 1886

Leaflet of the 8th Impressionist exhibition, 1886

In 1899 Seurat re-stretched its canvas to allow for room to paint a border made up of red, orange and blue dots. It was suppose to make the whole concept of pointilism more visible, as well as putting the painting into white frame. Unfortunately, Seurat employed a then-new pigment, a zinc chromate yellow that he hoped would properly capture the highlights of the park’s green grasses. But for years this pigment has been undergoing a chemical reaction that began turning it brown even in Seurat’s lifetime.

detail

Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail

Seurat died in 1891 and this magnificent work was largely unseen for the next 30 years. The opportunity to view the historic painting returned in 1924 when art lover Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 and loaned it indefinitely to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it remains until this day.

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Art Historian, founder and CEO of DailyArtMagazine.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.

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