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A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - Georges Seurat, 1884 -1886 - Oil on canvas.
Famous Masters : Georges Seurat & Constantin Brancusi

Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884)

Part one of Seurat and Brancusi: A discussion of the visual elements and principles of design in Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space.

By Chris Dunmire

Seurat and Brancusi's Famous Works of Art

Introduction: While taking a college course in Art Appreciation, I was given the assignment of comparing and contrasting two different pieces of art — viewing one in person in an art gallery and finding one in a virtual museum online and reporting my findings on the visual elements, principles of design, and differences of the art experience viewed each way.

So I visited Chicago's Art Institute and chose Georges Seurat's famous painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte as my in-person piece and found Constantin Brancusi's cherished series and piece, Bird in Space online. Here's my report.

The initial reaction I had to La Grande Jatte: I was impressed by the size of the painting (81 ½ X 121-¼ in.). I was amazed at how the colors and texture of the picture gave it a sense of being "alive" as I viewed it in the gallery. I chose this painting to write about because I was interested in learning how Seurat used the technique of Divisionism, (also called Pointillism) to compose an entire painting. I was also interested in seeing how he used this technique to achieve what is described as optical color mixture —- where different dots and dabs of color blend in the mind's eye to create new color sensations more vibrant than the actual pigment used.

The association I make with La Grande Jatte is of Impressionism style painting because the further away from the painting you stand, the clearer and more refined it looks. Seurat's painting differs from the Impressionism style familiar in his day (such as Monet's Waterlillies or Caillebotte's Paris Street: Rainy Day) in that he made his Impressionistic style more controlled, defined, and detailed.

La Grande Jatte depicts a leisurely Sunday in the park for local contemporaries in the outskirts of Paris. In his book Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization, Thomas Hoving describes it like this:

"The panorama of humanity on a busting Sunday on the island of the Grande Jatte in the river Seine, … is transformed from some curious ode to science into a penetrating image of living human beings." (166)

Interpretations of the painting range from scandal to satire. The plaque next to the painting at the Art Institute notes:

"'Bedlam,' 'scandal,' and 'hilarity' were among the epithets used to describe what is now considered Georges Seurat's greatest work…. In recent years some have commented that the content of the painting depicts 'Not as a decorous Sunday promenade but as a place of encounters among prostitutes and clients….'" (Seurat 176)

Still, others suggest Seurat is using humor and satire to mock the pretentiousness of the characters, and expressing his own interpretation at the stiffness and uniformity of fashion. One other observation is of a dialogue of cohesion and separateness of the characters in relationship to one another.

"Seurat's pictorial pattern … is tantamount to actual social conformism; the stiffness and psychological isolation of the figures, however, argue for disjunction … Seurat's people assume roles in a collectivity, yet because they seldom communicate with one another, their actual isolation is revealed." (Seurat 177)

Visual elements in La Grande Jatte:

Color: Color is the primary visual element in this painting. Applying his scientific understanding of light and color, Seurat used dots, dabs, and strokes of primary color pigment (red, yellow, and blue) to compose the forms on the painting. An effect referred to as optical color mixture is produced as the eye blends the colors to create new ones when viewed from a distance. 

Texture: Through the layering of the dots and dabs of paint, Seurat created an actual texture on the canvas you can touch. The texture is not thick, but it enhances the effect of the color and vibration of the picture. 

Line: La Grande Jatte has strong horizontal and vertical lines throughout the painting. The upright trees and erect forms of the people standing create the vertical lines. The people's shadows and direction they face (sideways), as well as the boats in the river and landscape create the horizontal lines.

Depth: Seurat achieves depth in this painting through the use of one-point linear perspective. The vanishing point is on the right hand side of the painting-pulling the picture in towards it.

Principles of design in La Grande Jatte:

Proportion and Scale: Most the elements in the painting are in proportion and scale to one another. There are a few places in the painting where this is slightly off, however. For example, the fisherwoman by the river is on the same plane with the central mother, but she only comes up to the mother's shoulders. Also, the seated man in the top hat, if standing, would only reach the waist of the promeneuse on the right. 

Balance: The picture has an asymmetrical balance.

Repetition and Rhythm: Repetition and rhythm is used through the painting, accomplished by the horizontal and vertical lines and through the repetition created with dabs and dots of paint. Repetition is also seen through the placement and spacing of the people in the park.

Unity: Through the horizontal and vertical lines, there is a geometric harmony and unity in the painting.

La Grande Jatte captures a satirical snapshot of what life would have typified on a Sunday afternoon in 1885 for the local middle class people on the island, so I consider the style abstract. Historically speaking, "Seurat began this painting in 1884, finished it during the winter of 1885-86, working on the island of the Grande Jatte, and exhibited it from May 15 to July 15, 1886, at the last Impressionist group show." (Hoving 166) The painting style was considered Impressionism at the time, but is now referred to as Neo-Primitivism. The materials used were the common oil pigments (and canvas) used by the artists of his day.

Next: Brancusi's Bird in Space »

Updated 12/25/13