A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – A look at Georges Seurat’s masterpiece and its predecessor

“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

Overview

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.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, CA 1184-1886

Background

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.

Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat, CA 1884

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’s Life

Georges-Pierre Seurat was born in Paris in 1859 to a former legal officer from Champagne and his Parisian wife.

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.

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Georges Seurat – ca 1889-90 (Madeleine Knobloch, model)

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.

Conclusion

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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

14 Comments

  1. I’ve seen his work at the Art Institute of Chicago…it’s amazing in person! I didn’t know that he only lived till 31!! WOW! Interesting article as I really don’t know that much about him.

    1. I’ve seen this piece at the Art Institute also, the size just blew me away. I’ve seen the picture in books and noted the dimension, but until I entered that gallery the huge size just never clicked, I was awestruck…this was 40+ years ago so I’m not sure it’s still in Chicago……

  2. You can’t seem to talk about pointillism without mentioning Seurat, but while his paint-handling technique is commendable, I find his rendering of the figures (even Bathers) rather stiff, and the composition feels like an untrained tourist/amateur photographer.

    And I’ve heard the “two years” figure for Grand Jatte, but now I’m wondering how much of that was the piddlyness of the technique itself (I know pointillism is one of the slowest methods to get paint onto a canvas), and how much was the research of developing it.

  3. Thank you for this post.

    It is a wonderful moment in art history and worth the time contemplating the possible influence of class division and importantly the revolutionary scientific revelations of the impressionist and early modern period. Seurat’s process of optical color juxtaposition can still be seen in contemporary impressionist work as “broken color” applications. As artists, the contemplation of the present culture wars and conversations about a civil democratic society are rich content for inspiration. However, many artists intent on marketing their work seem to prefer to walk that razor edge between political and religious division or avoid such subjects all together, rather than risk alienating their collectors. More food for thought.

  4. Art as social commentary is important and I suppose Jean-Michel Basquiat represents this in an intensely emotional impact of color and subject matter. Not the subtle precision Seurat for damn sure, but todays world is not subtle but in your face just as Basquiat was. Hard to believe he has been gone for over 40 years yet his paintings still astound me. The art of the street and not the beach. “Irony of Negro Policemen’

  5. As a scientist, this painting has always blown me away for two reasons.

    One is that Seurat developed the theory that led to pointillism in discussion with scientists who were developing theories about colour vision. (Their collaboration is rumoured to have been lubricated by absinthe.) The other reason is that I understand he painted this enormous work in an attic that did not allow him to stand back far enough to see the colours fuse, as predicted by his theory. He was so close to the forest as he worked that all he could see was the trees (dot). If that’s true, it’s amazing.

    As a sculptor it blows me away beause Michelangelo exercized something similar to Seurat’s theory in leaving most of his sculptures not smooth, but incised with parallel grooves from a toothed chisel. Close up, those grooves are rendered into parallel bands of light and dark whose intensity varies with the angle of the light. Viewed at the distance at which he intended them to be seen, the grooves or the bands of intensity fuse into smooth curvature, and the result is a perception of perfect smoothness. I don’t think they had absinthe back in Michelangelo’s day.

  6. I also have seen his work in the Institute in Chicago. I thank you for that bit of history of him. I tend to be open minded about art and artist. They share their gift with us, so I do not make any judgement I enjoy what they give some much more than others I am awe stricken by what comes out of the minds of some.

  7. Stunning works. I love the connection you traced between the two pieces. Seurat (and Signac) is hugely influential in my work although I tend more towards Pointillism than Divisionism. I do not see this style/technique of work celebrated enough in contemporary galleries or exhibits. More often than not, I find myself in a position of explaining to viewers exactly what they are looking as far as execution.

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