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A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

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Title: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte  
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Subject: Georges Seurat, Modernism, 1886 paintings, Post-impressionist paintings, Dogs in art
Collection: 1886 Paintings, Dogs in Art, Paintings by Georges Seurat, Paintings of the Art Institute of Chicago, Post-Impressionist Paintings
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A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Artist Georges-Pierre Seurat
Year 1884–1886
Type Oil on canvas
Subject People relaxing at la Grande Jatte, Paris
Dimensions 207.6 cm × 308 cm (81.7 in × 121.25 in)
Location Art Institute of Chicago[1]

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 (pointillism.


  • Background 1
  • Interpretation 2
  • Painting Materials 3
  • Acquisition by the Art Institute of Chicago 4
  • In popular culture 5
  • Related works by Seurat 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


In 1879 Georges Seurat enlisted as a soldier in the French army and was back home by 1880. Later, he ran a small painter’s studio in Paris, and in 1883 showed his work publicly for the first time. The following year, Seurat began to work on La Grand Jatte and exhibited the painting in the spring of 1886 with the Impressionists.[2] With La Grande Jatte, Seurat was immediately acknowledged as the leader of a new and rebellious form of Impressionism called Neo-Impressionism.[3]

Seurat spent over two years painting A Sunday Afternoon, focusing meticulously on the landscape of the park. He reworked the original as well as completed numerous preliminary drawings and oil sketches. He sat in the park, creating numerous sketches of the various figures in order to perfect their form. He concentrated on the issues of colour, light, and form. The painting is approximately 2 by 3 meters (7 by 10 feet) in size.

Inspired by optical effects and perception inherent in the color theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and others, Seurat adapted this scientific research to his painting.[4] Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called divisionism at the time but now known as pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brush strokes. The use of dots of almost uniform size came in the second year of his work on the painting, 1885–86. To make the experience of the painting even more vivid, he surrounded it with a frame of painted dots, which in turn he enclosed with a pure white, wooden frame, which is how the painting is exhibited today at the Art Institute of Chicago.

La Grande Jatte, toward Clichy, 2006

The island of la Grande Jatte is located at the very gates of Paris, lying in the Seine between Neuilly and Levallois-Perret, a short distance from where currently stands La Défense business district. Although for many years it was an industrial site, it is today the site of a public garden and a housing development. When Seurat began the painting in 1884, the island was a bucolic retreat far from the urban center.

The painting was first exhibited in 1886, dominating the second Salon of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, of which Seurat had been a founder in 1884. Seurat was extremely disciplined, always serious and private to the point of secretiveness, and for the most part, steered his own steady course. As a painter, he wanted to make a difference in the history of art and with La Grand Jatte succeeded.[5]


The left bank of working class Bathers at Asnières mirrors the right bank of the bourgeoisie on La Grande Jatte.

Seurat's painting was a mirror impression of his own painting, Bathers at Asnières, completed shortly before, in 1884. While the bathers in that earlier painting are doused in light, almost every figure on La Grande Jatte appears to be cast in shadow, either under trees or an umbrella, or from another person. For Parisians, Sunday was the day to escape from the heat of the city and head for the shade of the trees and the cool breezes that came off the river. And at first glance, the viewer sees many different people relaxing in a park by the river. On the right, a fashionable couple, the woman with the sunshade and the man in his top hat, are on a stroll. On the left, another woman who is also well dressed extends her fishing pole over the water. There is a small man with the black hat and thin cane looking at the river, and a white dog with a brown head, a woman knitting, a man playing a horn, two soldiers standing at attention as the musician plays, and a woman hunched under an orange umbrella. Seurat also painted a man with a pipe, a woman under a parasol in a boat filled with rowers, and a couple admiring their infant child.[6]

Some of the characters are doing curious things. The lady on the right hand side has a monkey on a leash. A lady on the left near the river bank is fishing. The area was known at the time as being a place to procure prostitutes among the bourgeoisie, a likely allusion of the otherwise odd "fishing" rod. In the painting's center stands a little girl dressed in white (who is not in a shadow), who stares directly at the viewer of the painting. This may be interpreted as someone who is silently questioning the audience, "what will become of these people, and their class?" Seurat paints their prospects bleakly, cloaked as they are in shadow and suspicion of sin.[7]

Notable Marxist historian and philosopher Ernst Bloch was one of the forerunners of drawing social and political significance from Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. The historian’s focal point was Seurat’s mechanical use of the figures and what their static nature said about the French society at the time. Afterwards, the work received heavy criticism by many that centered on the artist’s mathematical and robotic interpretation of modernity in Paris.[6]

The border of the painting is, unusually, in inverted color, as if the world around them is also slowly inverting from the way of life they have known. Seen in this context, the boy who bathes on the other side of the river bank at Asnières appears to be calling out to them, as if to say "we are the future, come and join us".[7]

Painting Materials

Seurat painted the 'La Grande Jatte' in three distinct stages.[8] In the first stage which was started in 1884, Seurat mixed his paints from several individual pigments and was still using dull earth pigments such as ochre or burnt sienna. In the second stage during 1885 and 1886 Seurat dispensed with the earth pigments and also limited the number of individual pigments in his paints. This change in Seurat's palette was due to his application of the advanced color theories of his time. His intention was to paint small dots or strokes of pure color which then would mix on the retina of the beholder to achieve the desired color impression instead of the usual practice of mixing individual pigments.

Seurat's palette consisted of the usual pigments of his time[9][10] such as cobalt blue, emerald green and vermilion. Additionally, Seurat employed the then-new pigment zinc yellow (zinc chromate), predominantly for yellow highlights in the sunlit grass in the middle of the painting, but also in mixtures with orange and blue pigments. In the century and more since the painting's completion, the zinc yellow has darkened to brown — a colour degeneration that was already showing in the painting in Seurat's lifetime.[11] The discoloration of the originally bright yellow zinc yellow (zinc chromate) to brownish color is due to the chemical reaction of the chromate ions to orange-colored dichromate ions.[12] In the third stage during 1888-89 Seurat added the colored borders to his composition.

The results of the investigation into the discoloration of this painting have been ingeniously combined with further research into natural ageing of paints to digitally rejuvenate the painting.[13][14]

Acquisition by the Art Institute of Chicago

On display at the Art Institute of Chicago

In 1923, Frederic Bartlett was appointed trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and second wife, Helen Birch Bartlett, loaned their collection of French Post-Impressionist and Modernist art to the museum. It was Mrs. Bartlett who had an interest in French and avant-garde artists and influenced her husband's collecting tastes. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was purchased on the advice of the Art Institute of Chicago's curatorial staff in 1924.[15]

In conceptual artist Don Celender's 1974–5 book Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers and Collectors, it is claimed that the Institute paid $24,000.00 for the work[15][16] (over $328,000 in 2013 Dollars[17]).

In 1958 the painting was loaned out for the only time – to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. On 15 April 1958, a fire there, which killed one person on the second floor of the museum, forced the evacuation of the painting which was on a floor above the fire in the Whitney Museum which adjoined MoMA at the time.[18]

In popular culture

The January 1974 Playboy magazine featured Nancy Cameron, its Playmate of the Month, on its cover superimposed on the painting in similar style.[19][20]

The painting was the basis for the 1984 Broadway musical Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Subsequently the painting is sometimes referred to by the misnomer "Sunday in the Park".

The painting is prominently featured in the 1986 comedy film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This use is parodied, among others, in Looney Tunes: Back in Action and an episode of Family Guy.

At the Old Deaf School Park in Columbus, Ohio, sculptor James T. Mason recreated the painting in topiary form;[21] the installation was completed in 1989.

The painting was the inspiration for the commemorative poster printed for the 1993 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, with racing cars and the Detroit skyline added.

In 2011, the cast of the U.S. version of The Office recreated the painting for a poster to promote the show's seventh season finale.[22]

The cover photo of the June 2014 edition of San Francisco Magazine, "The Oakland Issue: Special Edition" features a scene on the shore of Lake Merritt that recreates the poses of the figures in Seurat's painting.[23]

Related works by Seurat


  1. ^ Roch, Christine L. "From "Rube Town" to Modern Metropolis:". 
  2. ^ Janis Tomlinson, ed., Readings in Nineteenth-Century Art, 1996
  3. ^ Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Nineteenth-Century European Art, 2012 (3rd Edition)
  4. ^ Robert Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1968, Library of Congress Card Catalogue Number: 68-16803
  5. ^ Herbert, Robert L., Neil Harris, and Georges Seurat. Seurat and the making of La Grande Jatte. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press, 2004. Print.
  6. ^ a b Seurat and La Grande Jatte: connecting the dotsBurleigh, Robert, , New York: H.N. Abrams in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, 2004. Print
  7. ^ a b BBC, The Private Life of a Masterpiece (2005) Series 4, Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
  8. ^ Inge Fiedler, La Grande Jatte: A Study of the Painting Materials, in Robert L. Herbert, Douglas W. Druick, Gloria Groom, Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, University of California, 2004
  9. ^ Inge Fiedler, A Technical Evaluation of the Grande Jatte, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, The Grande Jatte at 100 (1989), pp. 173-179+244-245
  10. ^ Georges Seurat, 'Sunday afternoon on La Grande Jatte', ColourLex
  11. ^ Gage, John (1993). Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 220, 224. .
  12. ^ Casadio, F., I. Fiedler, K. A. Gray, and R. Warta. Deterioration of zinc potassium chromate pigments: elucidating the effects of paint composition and environmental conditions on chromatic alteration. In ICOM-CC 15th Triennial Conference Preprints, New Delhi, 22–26 September 2008, ed. J. Bridgland, 572–580. Paris: International Council of Museums.
  13. ^ Berns, R. S., Byrns, S., Casadio, F., Fiedler, I., Gallagher, C., Imai, F. H., … Taplin, L. A. Rejuvenating the color palette of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884: A simulation. Color Research & Application, 31(4), 278 – 293, DOI: 10.1002/col.20223
  14. ^ Berns, R.S. Rejuvenating Seurat’s Palette Using Color and Imaging Science: A Simulation, Website of R.S. Berns at Rochester Institute of Technology
  15. ^ a b , 1884A Sunday on La Grande JatteThe Art Institute of Chicago,
  16. ^ Celender, Don (1974–75). Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers, and Collectors. Publication was produced for an exhibition held at the O.K. Harris Gallery, 383 West Broadway, New York, from 7 to 28 December 1974. pp. Question: Page 5, Answer: Page 23. 
  17. ^ CPI Inflation Calculator
  18. ^ , April 16, 1958Fire in Modern Museum; Most Art Safe; 6 Canvases Burned, Seurat's RemovedNew York Times,
  19. ^ Lucass Pivey, Stagerism Alert: Seurat
  20. ^ faculty.txwes(password-protected)
  21. ^ The Topiary Park: A Unique Interpretation of a Painting
  22. ^ "First Look: NBC's amazing new 'The Office' poster". Entertainment Weekly. 
  23. ^ "The Oakland Issue". San Francisco Magazine. 

Further reading

  • O'Neill, J, ed. (1991). Georges Seurat, 1859-1891. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (see index)

External links

  • La Grande JatteSeurat and the Making of
  • – Inspiration, Analysis and Critical ReceptionLa Grande Jatte
  • About this Artwork, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Georges Seurat, 1859–1891, MoMA exhibition catalog
  • , ColourLexSunday Afternoon at La Grande JatteGeorges Seurat,
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