Why There’s More to Seurat’s Shimmering Masterpiece Than Meets the Eye

A vivid and telling portrait of the Parisian bourgeois in the sun

Christopher P Jones
7 min readMay 22, 2024

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A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) by Georges Seurat. Oil on canvas. 207.5 × 308.1 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It is worth noting from the outset that this is an enormous painting. Measuring more than 2 × 3 metres, Georges Seurat’s depiction of a Sunday afternoon in Paris appears, at first glance, to be a monumental celebration of the carefree hours spent by a flock of well-to-do city folk.

Beautifully composed, at the top of the image a wave of sun-drenched foliage crops out most of the skyline with tree canopies. The still, glassy water accommodates sailing boats, dinghies and rowing boats with a sharp horizon, whilst the water’s edge meets a manicured lawn peppered with the afternoon’s visitors.

The colours of the painting seem to vibrate, as if the sun that shines down on this strip of land has somehow been woven into the fabric of the canvas and has been captured there, forever shimmering.

Mixing colours in the viewer’s eye

Detail of ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ (1884–1886) by Georges Seurat. Oil on canvas. 207.5 × 308.1 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Seurat achieved this effect by making his painting with tiny dots of pure colour. He was a student of colour…

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