a sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte by georges seurat
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 La Défense business district currently stands. 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 the inspiration for a commemorative poster printed for the 1993 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, with racing cars and the Detroit skyline added.
Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884-1886 (Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago Public Domain)
“Confronting his subject,” Signac explained, “Seurat, before touching his little panel with paint, scrutinizes, compares, looks with half shut eyes at the play of light and shadow, observes contrasts, isolates reflections, plays for a long time with the cover of the box which serves as his palette, then . . . he slices from his little heap of colors arranged in the order of the spectrum the various colored elements which form the tint destined best to convey the mystery he has glimpsed. Execution follows on observation, stroke by stroke the panel is covered.”
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Seurat’s balance is carefully positioned and proportioned so that the entire work is interesting to look at. The river to the left is full of yachts and rowing boats, while this balance is matched by the closely placed large figures to the right.
The huge work (7 feet in height; 10 feet in width) caused a sensation. Not only did it exude a shimmering impression of warm, hazy sunshine, but the stylized, statuesque nature of its figure painting exuded a timeless and monumental quality. Unlike the fleeting naturalism of Monet (1840-1926) and Renoir (1841-1919), which captured the momentary perceptions of the artist, La Grande Jatte was painstakingly planned from start to finish in the manner of a Greek frieze, and its (often) symbolic content positively invites careful scrutiny.
The two main artistic traditions that dominated modern art during the second half of the nineteenth century – Realist painting and Impressionism – evolved from painters’ direct observation of the world around them. In contrast, Georges Seurat based his painting on the theories of Divisionism (a scientific interpretation of how the eye sees colour), pioneered by Michel Eugene Chevreul, Ogden Rood and others. The two large genre paintings that made his reputation – Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Bathers at Asnieres – are perfect examples of his ‘new’ Impressionism – although calling it after Monet’s style of spontaneous plein-air painting is rather misleading. Seurat worked mostly in his studio and planned his compositions with meticulous attention to detail. Indeed, for La Grande Jatte he made over seventy preliminary drawings and oil sketches. For more on the impact of Seurat’s Neo-Impressionsm, see Italian Divisionism (1890-1907). For more about the two main traditions, and how they related to each other, see: Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900).