seurat a sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte
The canvas is crowded with some forty stereotypical Parisian figures, shown full-face or in profile. Carefully arranged in static groups across the picture, they appear uncommunicative and frozen in time, adding to the dreamlike quality of the painting. Featuring men, women and children of all ages, Seurat’s figures also include several with symbolic meaning. A well-dressed women (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. This identifies her as another prostitute (this time with a client), since the French word for ‘female monkey’ (singesse), was also slang for a woman of loose morals. A small girl dressed in white stares out at the viewer from the centre 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.
Name: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6)
Artist: Georges Seurat (1859-91)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: 19th century genre painting
Location: Art Institute of Chicago
In 1923, Frederic Bartlett was appointed trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his 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. 
Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon between May 1884 and March 1885, and from October 1885 to May 1886,  focusing meticulously on the landscape of the park. He reworked the original and 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 issues of colour, light, and form. The painting is approximately 2 by 3 meters (7 by 10 feet) in size.
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.”
Compositionally speaking, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte‘s balance is carefully positioned and proportioned so that the entire work is intriguing to the human eye. The center of the painting is a flurry of activity, which makes it appealing to look at as the well-balanced left and the right sides. Yet, everything exists in a static state of things, and Georges’ decision to only depict people facing sideways or straight on makes the entire scene seem very rigid.
Other than the little girl, all of the figures in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte are cloaked in shadow, almost robbed of their identities.
The Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, June 1–November 1, 1934, cat. 324.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Art of the United Nations, November 16, 1944–January 1, 1945, no cat. no.