“Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, conditioned by the dominate key, and under the influence of a particular light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations.”
— Georges Seurat
A Sunday Afternoon, with its tiny dots of adjacent colors and its stiff, distinguished figures, was an important turning point for post-impressionism and remains famous and influential, and for good reason.
On its own, the piece is interesting, but to really appreciate it, it’s helpful to also look at Bathers at Asnières, the piece Seurat painted just before it.
Seurat painted Bathers at Asnières in 1884. It was a large piece, measuring 79 × 118 inches, depicting a group of working-class people on a bank of the Seine.
After completing it, Seurat submitted the painting to the jury of the Salon, hoping to have it exhibited there, but it was rejected. Many of the artist’s contemporaries weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
Despite the criticism the piece received, Seurat began work on A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which would be even larger and more experimental than Bathers. Seurat’s most famous painting wouldn’t be finished until 1886, following two years of numerous studies and meticulous work.
He exhibited his masterpiece at the final exhibition of the Impressionists the spring he completed it, kicking off the Neo-Impressionist movement.
Bathers at Asnières
If you put A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte side by side with Bathers at Asnières, you’ll notice that they seem to mirror each other, and that’s because the working-class bathers are positioned across the river from the more bourgeois crowd on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Together, the two pieces seem to make an interesting statement about class. While the working-class bathers are bathed in light, the more posh people on the Island of La Grande Jatte are largely in shadow. And behind the stately appearance of those figures, there are subtle clues that there may be corruption in their ranks, like the leashed monkey and the fishing rod, which have been interpreted as symbols of promiscuity, especially because the island was known at the time as a place where the wealthy could find prostitutes.
The allusions to the failures of the upper class may or may not have been intentional, but just the fact that Seurat chose to paint labourers the way he did, especially on such a large scale, was unique for the time period, when rapid urban development had greatly expanded the population of lower-class individuals in Paris. Interesting, Monet painted the same area about a decade earlier, but his piece had a significantly darker mood.
While this connection to the previous painting suggests that Seurat may have been making a statement about class, another major source of inspiration for the piece was the Parthenon frieze, as the artist told critic Gustave Kahn. You can definitely see similarities between the ancient Athenians and the stiff profiles of Seurat’s figures.
Seurat first studied art at the Municipal School of Sculpture and Drawing (French: École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin) near his family’s home and later attended the École des Beaux-Arts (pron. ay-coal day boze ahr), which was soon cut short as Seurat left for a year of military service.
When he returned to Paris, rather than continuing his formal education, Seurat rented an apartment for himself and began sharing a studio with Edmond Aman-Jean. He spent two years mastering monochrome drawing techniques, and the first piece he displayed at the Salon was a drawing of Aman-Jean.
Though he had left the academy, Seurat continued to study the work of artists he admired and to study color theory with intensity, which eventually led him to embrace pointillism.
Later in his career, Seurat would become enchanted by Madeleine Knobloch, the model depicted in his painting Young Woman Powdering Herself. Seurat kept their relationship a secret, even as Knobloch moved into his seventh-floor studio with him in 1889, just a few years after he painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Soon she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Pierre-Georges.
Tragically, Seurat died of an unknown illness in 1891, leaving his last piece, The Circus, incomplete, and his son died of the same illness just two weeks later.
It’s amazing that an artist with such a short life, living only to 31, could have such a lasting impact on art history.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of the most famous and influential paintings of the post-impressionism era. Painted by Georges Seurat, the piece is interesting on its own, but is made even more so by its connection to Seurat’s earlier painting, Bathers at Asnières. Together, the two pieces make an interesting statement about class. Seurat’s use of color and light in the painting is also quite unique and influential.
How do you feel about Seurat’s masterpiece?
Are you a fan of Seurat’s style and his painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte?” Have you seen Seurat’s work in person? How do you feel about art as social commentary? Share your thoughts in the comments below.