seurat sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte original in chicago
For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
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).
According to historian of Modernism William R. Everdell:
Some of the characters are doing curious things. The lady on the right 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. 
Why did he dedicate so much time to these preparatory sketches? As Pointillists, Seurat and Signac were particularly interested in playing with perception and experiment with optics, resulting in a comprehensive and meticulous painting process.
Georges Seurat, Study for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
In terms of perspective, most of the figures’ view is focused on the river to the left of the image. Despite the fact the river comprises only a small part of the painting, the activities in this segment draw the viewer’s gaze. The figures at the front appear to be very close to the viewer – the woman walking a monkey and the man beside her are the biggest figures in A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte and their size balances this work of immense proportions.
Individuals never did interest Seurat, only their formal elegance and the way they contributed to the overall perfect balance of the composition. As a result, this high class get-away for the Parisian community appears to be terrifyingly still – although we assume children would be running around and that dogs would be barking, the impression we receive is of silence, of control, of no disorder whatsoever. Even those who came to this mile-long island in pairs seem alone in their concise form.
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.
The painting was first exhibited at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, then in August 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—for the most part, steering his own steady course. As a painter, he wanted to make a difference in the history of art and with La Grand Jatte, succeeded.