sunday afternoon in the park painting
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte depicts a typical outing for Parisians living in the 1880s. Facing the shimmering river and relying on umbrellas and trees for shade, they appear to enjoy a brief escape from city life, whether they’re lounging on the grass, fishing in the river, or even admiring the ambiance in the company of a pet monkey.
Georges Seurat, Study for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
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. 
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.
Gala became Dalí’s muse, portrait model, and business manager. He even signed his paintings with both of their names, explaining in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí that “It is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” (Emphasis in the original.)
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It is only after close inspection that the viewer sees some curious things happening. The lady on the right side has a monkey on a leash. The lady on the left that’s fishing is a metaphor for prostitution, something this part of Paris was well-known for back in the day. In the painting’s center stands a little girl dressed in white, the only figure that is not in a shadow. She stares directly at the viewer as if she’s silently questioning the audience.
However, after A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte was exhibited in 1884, it was mostly heralded as a grand work of meticulous proportions. It appears that the biggest issue contemporary French art scene had with the piece was the way in which it was made – as is the case with most bold new artistic movements or styles, Pointillism had to face its fair share of initial scrutiny. After all, the painting’s style was unlike anything else that preceded it, so it was only natural for some to question it.
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.
Georges Seurat, Sunday at La Grand Jatte, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago, detail