A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Why is the painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte an emblem of Impressionist zeitgeist?

  • Georges Seurat – obsessed and bullied misanthrope
  • A passionate painting with dispassionate subjects
  • How is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte like a mullet?

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You know a painting’s hot stuff when an entire Broadway musical’s devoted to it. But pop references aren’t the only reason to check out A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It’s a marvel of color ingenuity. As a child I saw the show Sunday in the Park with George on PBS. Funny enough, it wasn’t the extraordinary performances that struck me. It was the painting. This glorious canvas plays the protagonist. That’s because the whole show’s about Seurat’s obsession with painting this. It was the main object of his heartfelt desire. He wasn’t great at romance. But French painter Seurat knew he could make a masterpiece. That’s how he yearned to create a legacy.

His methodical approach gave the artist this certainty. Seurat invented Pointillism. That’s when one creates an image using tiny dots of color. Collections of careful pinprick spots create rich hued shapes. These shapes thus established Seurat’s scene. He used each color with meticulous precision. Every inch plotted out to perfection. He did it this way because Seurat believed amassed dots would make richer colors than brushstrokes. So, in a way, this painting was an experiment. Like a scientist in the lab, he worked with painstaking diligence to test his hypothesis. This masterpiece took him two years.

Considering his fastidious technique and its enormity, that’s not bad. The canvas spans about seven by ten feet. Can you imagine covering every millimeter of that with pinpricks? Two years seems like nothing with that mission in mind. But this also serves as evidence of his infatuation with the painting. He dotted at the canvas day and night. When he wasn’t creating, he ruminated and even dreamed about A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Seurat’s overwhelming attention paid off for us viewers. The painting remains a wonder of color and light. Dots give the piece a sense of excitement building. There’s palpable underlying tension. I see it as Seurat’s heart pulsing through the years to draw us in for a closer look.

Sunday on La Grande Jatte by George Seurat

Seurat’s Sense of Space and Shadow

Shadow saturation versus pale sunlight create contrast and depth in this masterpiece. These distinctions are my favorite parts of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It’s thrilling how Seurat went against painter tradition. His composition recedes the pale colors off into the distance. They dissipate. Sailboats float on shimmering water in pastels far off – fading into sunlight. So, a sense of majestic light glimmers in the distance. It resonates hope and holidays. Meanwhile the darkest painting parts stand at front in shadow. The stiff formality of the black hatted pair dominates the foreground. They’re dressed fancy and standing at attention. No spring in those steps… the foreground people are either workers or bourgeois. They’re all business. Turns out this painting’s like a mullet. All the fun’s at the back.

In fact, the further we look into the park, the more relaxed people get. At front we’ve got toil with stillness – left and right. A monkey on a leash and a woman bending forward to work at something in her lap set two examples. But behind the stern couple with the monkey we see a girl twirling far between them. Her red dress swirls with a circle turn. It’s a tiny portrait of joy set back between the trees. Meanwhile the people right up front seem like they could head off to work or boring errands at any moment.

This points to a funny contradiction Seurat lived with at the time. His French friends were aghast at how much he worked on this painting. They found his work ethic offensive to their way of life. He endured constant mocking and criticism. This drove Seurat away from a social life and deeper into A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Work thus became an escape for him. That contradictory dynamic lives in the painting as well. The painter evokes this by placing the workers and formal subjects close to his position at the canvas. He related most to them. While Seurat put those who picniced and played far away in the sunshine. That frivolity would have to wait for a day when he wasn’t focused on filling an enormous canvas with tiny dots. But this was only one of many Pointillist works Seurat painted. He knew he was onto something even if the critics abhorred his innovative style. They did. Still, Seurat’s gut about this painting was correct – he’d created an iconic masterpiece.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – FAQs

How much is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte worth?

$650 million. Of course, there’s no real number for this. The Art Institute of Chicago wouldn’t auction off their crown jewel. But some billionaire collectors said what they’d be willing to pay if the finest masterpieces were for sale. They did this as a thought experiment for Artsy.net in 2018. That’s where I found this incredible number.

But the painting’s financial history reads as a lot more modest. When A Sunday on La Grande Jatte first sold in 1900, Casimir Brû paid 800 francs for it. He gave it to his daughter, Lucie. She then sold it for about twenty thousand dollars. The buyers were Frederic Clay and Helen Birch Bartlett of Chicago in 1924. The couple gave it to the Art Institute two years later.

What style of painting is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte?

Georges Seurat created a whole new style with this painting – Pointillism. This was groundbreaking in 1884-86. But it was also a new form of Impressionism. So, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte also prompted the art critic Félix Fénéon to coin the term Neo-Impressionism. This became one of the most significant movements in Modern Art.

There’s even more to this painter’s style innovation than the painting, though. In 1899 Seurat restretched the canvas. He then created a dark border of red, orange and blue dots. Seurat thus emphasized Pointillism with a fresh way to contrast the painting against its white frame. 

Was the Island of La Grande Jatte a real place?

Not only is it real – it’s spectacular. This lovely island sits right at the gates of Paris. About four thousand people live on the island. But it’s pretty tiny at only about a mile long and 650 feet wide. Ironically, the name of the island has the word ‘Big’ in it. The French translates to “Island of the Big Bowl”.

Seurat elevated the island with this masterpiece, though. It became more than a big bowl. He created another world. The main way he did this was to transform an ordinary everyday moment into a moving experience.

The palpable tension viewers sense arises out of his zillion swirling dots. The 48 people in the painting express almost no emotions. Still, we feel something. That’s because Seurat’s emotions imbue the piece. The ferocious, obsessive, heart he poured into A Sunday on La Grande Jatte moves us. It’s a real place and also wholly unreal.

Enjoyed this A Sunday on La Grande Jatte analysis?

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Art Institute of Chicago page for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

William R. Everdell, The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth Century Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) William R. Everdell

Inge Fiedler, La Grande Jatte: A Study of the Painting Materials, in Robert L. Herbert, Douglas W. Druick, Gloria Groom, Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte, University of California, 2004

Interested in Billionaire art budgets?

Monique Lucenet, Bernard Lamy, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte – Belle Isle en Seine, Éditions Jatte Livres & Culture, 2006

H. Dorra and J. Rewald, Seurat, Paris, 1960

O’Neill, J, ed. (1991). Georges Seurat, 1859-1891. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My Modern Met on A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Celender, Don (1974–75). Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers, and Collectors. Publication was produced for an exhibition held at the O.K. Harris Gallery