How boring can a summer Sunday afternoon in the city be? If we ask the Parisians of the nineteenth century it is simple: it all depends on where you go. And they had no doubts about this: on Sunday afternoon we go to the island of La Grande Jatte.
E A Sunday Afternoon on Seurat’s Grande-Jatte Island from 1884 is one of the works that best describes French society of the late nineteenth century. And it is kept on the other side of the ocean, in America, at theArt Institute of Chicago.
The subject of the work
Seurat’s painting of 1884 is one of the works that best describes French society of the late nineteenth century. And it is kept on the other side of the ocean, in America, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The work portrays fashionable Parisians enjoying the sun on Sunday afternoons on the banks of the Seine. But their figures, some very geometric, are a tool for experimentation.
The interesting paradox of this work is that the scene Seurat witnesses is actually frenetic and impregnable. Instead, he makes it monumental. All the figures are still in their positions and stylized. Faces, the rare times they are visible, seem empty. The protagonists seem to be enjoying their Sunday afternoon on the Seine forever, as their actions are frozen in time. And Seurat’s compositional balance and sense of form have been attributed to the influence of 15th-century Italian artist Piero della Francesca. In The Baptism of Christ, for example, the composition is apparently natural, but in reality it is characterized by precise mathematical rules to give a sense of calm and serenity.
Seurat and Pointillism
The painting was first shown in May 1886 at an Impressionist exhibition. In reality, however, it departs very far from the works of the movement. Impressionist painting is in fact based on intuitive painting, linked to changes in light and immediate.
And only a few months later, in August the work became the protagonist of the Salon of Independent Artists, founded by Seurat himself two years earlier in 1884.
Seurat’s work can be defined post-impressionist and is part of the Pointillism movement. Indeed, he demonstrated a more systematic and scientific approach to the composition and application of color than the Impressionists. And he is remembered mainly for his monumental paintings made with the Pointillism technique. A technique he himself invented in which the work was created by juxtaposing a myriad of dots of pure color. And in painting this masterpiece he managed to perfect his technique, certainly influenced by recent scientific theories.
But what is pointillism or pointillism in art? Seurat’s pointillism involves placing small dots of pure color next to each other on the canvas. In this way the dots merge in the viewer’s mind, thanks to the eye that observes them. So instead of mixing the colors from the palette onto the canvas, the eye will mix the colors for us. For example, this effect on the canvas in the work almost seems to reproduce the heat of the hot sun.
By looking carefully at the work it is clear that each shape is made up of small dots of contrasting color, which creates a sparkling effect. The bright green of sunlit grass is actually also composed of dots of yellow and orange. While the shadow areas are composed of blue and pink.
Seurat is inspired by the optical effects and studies on perception linked to the theories of color of two quite famous scientists at the time (Michel Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood) not so much for the theories on color but for discoveries related to soap and diabetes. ‘other. Seurat, however, decides to study the theories of the two chemists and apply them in art.
These contrasting effects are found in different areas of the painting. Instead of framing the work, for example, Seurat decides to create a frame of dots. And to do so he inserts colors complementary to those in the areas of each area of the painting. Red against green, blue close to orange and purple against yellow. This is to underline how he was captured by scientific discoveries and theories on color.
In this masterpiece by Seurat, the subject of the work is therefore more a pretext to study composition, lights and colors than to describe the Paris of the time.
One Sunday afternoon on the island of Grande-Jatte. The details
The woman with the child
At the center of the work we find a woman who shakes the hand of a child. Together they walk towards the viewer. They are distinguished because they are among the few frontal figures, all the others are mostly represented in profile.
Furthermore, the colors of the clothes were chosen with a specific purpose. Both the white of the child’s dress and the pink of the woman stand out against the green of the lawn, illuminated by the sun. They are fundamental in the composition because they give a feeling of movement, along with a few other characters.
The monkey on a leash
Then inserting a monkey in such a work might seem absurd to our eyes today. Yet this was not the case in late nineteenth-century France. Monkeys, called capuchin monkeys, were fashionable pets at the time. But Seurat also inserts it for another reason. The feminine word for monkey was used in jargon to refer to prostitutes. One therefore thinks that Seurat wants to send a message. The lady in the company of the monkey could indeed be a prostitute hanging out with her client.
The French flag
In the background of the painting, through the trees, you can see a boat in the distance on the Seine with a French flag. This detail was inserted by Seurat probably because he himself was a French patriot. And it is a detail that is also common to other works by the artist, such as Bathers in Asnières at the National Gallery in London.
Static figures and simplified forms
The figures in profile in Seurat’s work all have one characteristic: they seem stationary, static. This depiction was likely influenced by Seurat’s childhood studies of classical sculpture.
The protagonists of the work are exemplified and stylized and some forms are constantly repeated in the painting. For example, women with an umbrella or with a hat appear several times in the work, giving the composition a sense of rhythm and repetition.
This repetition of forms accompanies another choice of style by Seurat. That of representing some figures with very simple geometric shapes. For example, the figure seated from behind with an orange scarf on his head. It is very simplified, but nevertheless the choice of this symbol in this color allowed Seurat’s contemporaries to identify her as a nurse, with typical attire.
The technique of realization Does
the island of La Grande Jatte really exist? Well yes! The Island is located in Paris in an area that at the time was considered a periphery and which today is instead inside the center, right on the Seine. For many years it was an industrial area while today there is a park and when Seurat created the work, the island was truly one of the most fashionable places of the time.
The enormous size of Seurat’s painting makes it impossible for him to work with it outdoors, as the Impressionists did with their paintings. And the artist then made at least 60 oil drawings and sketches of the Grande Jatte scene for months. And he uses them to create parts of his studio painting, perfecting the figures and arranging them into a series of small studies and a large compositional sketch of the entire work.
The final image is meticulously planned, including which colors to use and where to use them. Seurat begins the painting by covering the canvas with a background layer, and then returns to each area to work on it in detail. Rather than being a naturalistic representation of the scene, the finished painting demonstrates Seurat’s interest in color harmonies and their effect on the viewer.
Story of the arrival in Chicago
But how did the Parisians, protagonists of Seurat’s work, get to the other side of the world? The work is kept today at the Chicago Art Institute thanks to the purchase of two attentive collectors: Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett. In fact, Helen Birch Barlett as a lover of Impressionist art and at the suggestion of the museum director in 1924 convinced her husband to buy the work to donate it to the museum. The story goes that it was bought back then for $ 24,000 which at today’s exchange rate would be roughly € 320,000.
Curiosities about the work
If you have made it this far, welcome to the #arteclub for all art lovers who want to find out more about the work or artist of the day.
The painting has only been loaned by the Chicago Art Institute once in history. In 1958 at Moma, where on April 15 of that year a fire caused the death of one person and the evacuation of many works including Una Sunday afternoon on the island of Grande-Jatte. He has since rushed back to Chicago.
And in all of this the work has an earlier companion called Bathers at Asnières from 1884. Both paintings show Parisians relaxing on the Seine, but on two different stretches of the river. Bathers at Asnières was Seurat’s first large-scale painting, made before he developed pointillism. But small areas of colored dots are visible in the water and around the boy’s red hat in the river. This painting shows only men and boys, perhaps during their lunch break from the factories visible in the background. The same characters do not appear in A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande-Jatte Island because in this work Seurat shows more middle-class characters.
This first major project of his Bathers in Asnières in 1884 was rejected by the official Salon. But it is exhibited at the Salone degli Indipendenti, an alternative exhibition that Seurat helps set up and where he meets his future friends the painters Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross.
In addition, Seurat continued to work on Pointillism, focusing on how the direction of the lines has an emotional effect on the viewer, a theme he tried to embody in two other works (Lo Chahut and Il Circo) both from 1890. Unfortunately, however, he suddenly dies. of meningitis at the age of 31, having produced only a few major paintings. However, these will make him one of the most interesting and innovative artists of late nineteenth-century France also and above all for his attention to the scientific theories of his contemporaries.
Some say they see poetry in my paintings.
I only see science.