A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (by Georges-Pierre Seurat) is one of the most influential paintings in art history. It is a large painting (6 ft. 10 in. X 10 ft. 1 in.) depicting an afternoon landscape of a park with numerous picnickers appearing to watch sailboats on the water. It features simple lines, vivid colors, and detailed accuracy of light and shadow.
The work exudes a feeling of harmony, not only in colors and form, but in the scene itself. While it is quite deliberately a mundane scene of a typical Paris afternoon, it carefully portrays all ages and social classes, coexisting peacefully.
Seurat took painstaking care in creating this work. He spent over two years and practiced many sketches as well as re-working the original painting several times. He began with endless practice of sketching figures in the park, perfecting the light and shadow as well as form. At one point, he even painted a small version of the finished piece.
In this masterpiece, Georges-Pierre Seurat employed the then innovative technique of pointillism. This method was inspired by scientific discoveries regarding color theory and optical effect. Rather than traditional brush strokes, he used a mass of miniscule contrasting dots which appear as a solid color to the human eye.
Seurat is regarded as the father of the Neo-impressionist art movement, and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is considered to be the beginning of that movement. Although pointillism was heavily used during this era, it is the theory of light and color, as well as artistic impression of form that truly defines the style.
Seurat adopted the scientific discoveries regarding how the eye perceives color. Scientists were beginning to understand the difference in the result of mixed material color pigments and mixed colored light, and he believed utilizing these principles could result in a more emotionally evocative work.
Using complementary or contrasting base colors in tiny increments, instead of mixing the desired shade of paint, the desired color blending would appear to the naked eye. This was believed to be more reflective of a real world experience, and therefore incite a more intuitive response from the viewer. However, this scientific approach to art and emotion was quite controversial at the time.
The meticulous care, smooth lines, and realistic colors of this painting, and the Neo-impression style were not well-received at the time. It was criticized as too mechanical, in contrast to the spontaneity and rough brush strokes of the impressionist movement that dominated the art world at the time.
The painting was completed, in 1886 and the neo-impressionist movement spread rapidly over the next few years, especially before Seurat’s death in 1891. However, it was not until the 19th century that the style became widely accepted, and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande became known as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time.
In 1924 the painting was purchased by Fredric and Helen Birch Bartlett, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The source of funds (the Bartlett’s of the museum) is unclear. The painting is currently displayed in the Helen Birch Bartlett Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Some of the colors have darkened over the years. Seurat used the then new yellow zinc for many of the yellow highlights, especially in the park lawn. As this pigment darkens over time, it is now brown rather than bright yellow.
The smaller version Seurat made in his preparations is entitled Study for A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and is currently held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.