A Canvas, An Artist

Georges Seurat: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

One hundred and thirty years ago this March 29, the painter Georges Seurat died at the age of 31, likely from diphtheria. Now ensconced in the art historical canon as the founder of Neo-Impressionism, he endured the usual critical skepticism that confronts groundbreaking artists. Interestingly, Seurat long enjoyed greater renown in this country than in his native France, where the first major retrospective of his work took place on the centenary of his death. The reason for his comparatively early popularity stateside? His monumental masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte has been dazzling visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago since 1924, thanks to the prescient collectors Frederic Clay Bartlett, an artist himself, and his wife, Helen.
Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. © Art Institute of Chicago

In the Eye of the Beholder

La Grande Jatte created a stir when it made its public début in May 1886 at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition. It marked a clear departure from Impressionism – a “scientific” versus “romantic” take, in Camille Pissarro’s view. While the subject matter – contemporary Parisians enjoying some leisure time on a nearby island in the Seine – was in keeping with the movement, as was the artist’s attention to effects of light and shadow, the composition and execution were far removed from plein air spontaneity.

“Seurat wanted to extract from modern life, to distill it, and to make of it, as he said, like the Parthenon frieze, but using modern people in all their traits,” explains Art Institute of Chicago curator Gloria Groom in an audio clip on the museum’s website. Drawing on color theory and optical science, Seurat dabbed thousands of tiny dots and dashes of pure color side by side. The viewer’s eye does the mixing more effectively than a brush on a palette, with individual hues retaining all their luminosity and paired complementary colors enhancing one another, creating the “shimmering” effect often noted in descriptions of Neo-Impressionist masterworks.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. © Art Institute of Chicago

Seurat executed nearly 60 preparatory works for the painting, ranging from a Conté crayon drawing of tree trunks to oil-on-panel paintings of various figures to a final, approximately 1/3-scale study, on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After completing an earlier version of La Grande Jatte for the 1885 Salon des Indépendants, which was canceled, he reworked the piece, modifying figures and applying his pioneering paint-handling technique to the surface. Still later, he would re-stretch the canvas to add the dotted border. He completed the presentation with the simple white frame we see today.

The degree to which La Grande Jatte has entered the American cultural mainstream is evident in the references to it that have cropped up all over for decades. There was the famous scene in the 1986 John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which Ferris’s best friend, Cameron, stares at the painting, the camera going back and forth between his face and that of the little girl in the center of the canvas, which gradually dissolves into its constituent dabs of paint. A mittened Bernie Sanders appears in La Grande Jatte in one iteration of the viral Inauguration meme.

Most famous, though, is Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, a fictionalized account of the artist and his mistress/model, Dot (Seurat would not have approved) in the months leading up to the completion of La Grande Jatte.

Marrying Art and Science

Unlike some other creative geniuses who died young, Georges Seurat did not have a colorful personality or life story to help amplify his accomplishments. He was born in Paris to a family affluent enough to spare him from financial worries. He had a mistress, who was pregnant when he died. The couple also had a baby boy. He kept them all secret.

Seurat was a serious, quiet person devoted above all to his art. His formal training included about a year and a half at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied with a disciple of the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The imposing scale and static, timeless quality of La Grande Jatte reflect this academic back-ground as well as his appreciation for the classicizing style of muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Yet he also admired the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, whose color handling anticipated his own.

Ernest Laurent, Portrait of Georges Seurat, 1890. © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Fascinated by the scientific theories underpinning his approach to color, Seurat seems to have been a latter-day tech nerd with no sense for public relations. To assertions that there was “poetry” in his works, he replied, “No, I simply apply my method.” He disliked the term we now use for that method – Pointillism (originally derogatory) – preferring the more precise Divisionism, optical painting, or Chromoluminarism.

His workaday attitude no doubt gave fodder to his critics. Gauguin, for one, dismissed the Neo-Impressionists as “little chemists with all their little dots.” But the art critic Félix Fénéon, who championed the movement and coined its name, knew what millions of viewers at the Art Institute of Chicago could tell you: “Mr. So-and-So can read optical treatises until the end of time. He’ll never paint La Grande Jatte.”

Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.