Georges Seurat’s painting of a Sunday afternoon in Paris appears, at first glance, to celebrate the carefree hours of a series of well-to-do families.
The colours are glowing, almost luminous, as if the sun that shines down on this strip of land has somehow woven into the fabric of the canvas and has been captured there, forever shining.
Seurat achieved this effect by making his painting with tiny dots of pure colour. He was a student of colour theory and studied the works of Michel Eugène Chevreul and other colour theorists active at the time. Instead of mixing paints on his palette, Seurat applied them to the canvas directly with the intention that the colours would mix on the eye of the viewer.
It is this effect which gives the painting that shimmering, slightly unstable quality. Every form is made up of thousands of dots and dashes. Seurat worked on the painting over several years in the second half of the 1880s, building up the painting in careful layers to establish this tremulous effect.
The scene takes place on a mile-long island on the River Seine in Paris known as La Grande Jatte.
Doused in sunshine, yet taking shade beneath trees and umbrellas, the visitors to the island rest and stroll with an unhurried air. It was a favourite pleasure-spot of the Parisian bourgeois, a place to retreat from the bustle of the working week and the pollution of the city. (The island remains popular with modern-day Parisians, along with actors and celebrities who have taken up residence there).
Seurat was not the only artist to visit the island and make paintings there. Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Vincent van Gogh all produced artworks with views of the La Grande Jatte. The setting agreed with one of the core ideas of Impressionism: to paint contemporary life in a real-world setting. Along with the practice of using loose, spontaneous brush marks to capture the fleeting effects of light, Impressionist painters chose to paint public places — bars, theatres, circuses, restaurants, parks — as a means of arriving at the most direct and vivid description of their city and its environs.
Georges Seurat shared many of the same interests as his contemporary artists. Yet, whilst other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists worked with an unplanned spirit, Seurat took a more meticulous approach, both in the planning of his compositions and the application of his paint.
One of the most notable aspects of Seurat’s enormous painting — it is more than three metres wide — is the way he has separated out all of the different figures into isolated groupings. It is easier to see this if you stand back from the painting: see how the green of the grass weaves like a sea across the span of the canvas, casting all the individuals (or small groups) into distinct islands.
Compare this with a painting by, say, Auguste Renoir, whose scenes of social recreation almost always involve figures overlapping and interacting. A Painting like Luncheon of the Boating Party provides a pertinent contrast: see how Renoir has taken a view that penetrates diagonally into the scene, looking across the luncheon table from an angle, so that the figures create a sort of kaleidoscope of visual activity.
To notice this contrast is to also see the vantage-point of Seurat’s work: it is distinctly perpendicular to the scene. He looks across the island, so that nearly all of the figures are painted in profile or else head-on.
Seen in this way, the painting begins to look rather more static than at first glance. Despite the luminosity of the colour palette, the figures themselves have a wooden quality to them, like a series of a child’s dolls lined up. They appear to be silent and restrained, almost like machines. The historian Ersnt Bloch described the result as representing “endless boredom.”
It is a curious conclusion to arrive at, given how bright and colourful the image is.
The purpose of Seurat’s painting begins to makes more sense when it is seen alongside its companion piece, another painting he made of the same stretch of the River Seine. This other work, known as Bathers in Asnières, gives us a view on the other side of the river, directly opposite La Grande Jatte.
When both paintings are considered together, they seem to be in dialogue. For it appears that the figures in each work are gazing across the river to one another, like two distinct worlds divided by a body of water.
This effect was almost certainly intentional. The figures in Bathers in Asnières are all working-class men. The factories in the background billowing smoke indicate their normal place of work and where they will return once the weekend is over. And whilst these men are also shown as isolated individuals, there is a great deal more naturalism in this companion image. Most of the figures have disrobed to some degree; they have shed their city garments and have, for a few hours, adopted a more sincere, unfeigned existence.
Seurat was an artist who took a deep interest in the social conditions of Paris at the time, which had recently undergone enormous changes after a massive and controversial programme of urban renewal under the planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
In contrast to Bathers in Asnières, the figures in La Grande Jatte are all from the middle and upper-classes, a scene in which Seurat has emphasised the artificiality and pretentiousness of their leisurely setting. With close attention to the costumes and play-things (one woman has a pet monkey), Seurat has painted a subtle parody of the bourgeois classes. His dot brushstrokes make reference to modern industry with its mass-production and the wider conditions of alienation in modern life.
In this way, his portrait La Grande Jatte casts a sardonic eye over the Parisian bourgeois, gently mocking their forms of leisure — perhaps wondering too if the Paris middle-classes may yet shed their rigidity, like the example set by workers across the water.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte currently hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m the author of How to Read Paintings, available here.
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