A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat
Interpretation of Pointillist Genre Painting

Pin it

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6)
By Georges Seurat. One of the greatest modern paintings of the 19th century.


Analysis of 'La Grande Jatte'
Explanation of Other Modern French Paintings


Name: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6)
Artist: Georges Seurat (1859-91)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: 19th century genre painting
Movement: Neo-impressionism
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


The two main artistic traditions that dominated modern art during the second half of the nineteenth century - Realist painting and Impressionism - evolved from painters' direct observation of the world around them. In contrast, Georges Seurat based his painting on the theories of Divisionism (a scientific interpretation of how the eye sees colour), pioneered by Michel Eugene Chevreul, Ogden Rood and others. The two large genre paintings that made his reputation - Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and Bathers at Asnieres - are perfect examples of his 'new' Impressionism - although calling it after Monet's style of spontaneous plein-air painting is rather misleading. Seurat worked mostly in his studio and planned his compositions with meticulous attention to detail. Indeed, for La Grande Jatte he made over seventy preliminary drawings and oil sketches. For more on the impact of Seurat's Neo-Impressionsm, see Italian Divisionism (1890-1907). For more about the two main traditions, and how they related to each other, see: Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900).

Analysis of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

In 1881, after studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, followed by a short spell of military service, Seurat opened a small painter's studio in Paris while continuing his studies on the tonal effects of colour, with a series of conte crayon drawings. He was determined to develop an intellectual style of painting that would open up new possibilities for art. The technique he settled on - later nicknamed 'Pointillism' by the art critic Felix Feneon (1861-1944) - involved the use of small touches of pure colour, which are not mixed but placed side by side on the canvas. When viewed from a certain distance, these touches of colour blend together. In effect, the colour pigments are mixed together by the eye, rather than by the artist. The whole idea is to make the colours more luminous and shimmering than they would be if mixed on the palette. See also: Colour Theory in Fine Art Painting.



Seurat's first major pointillist work was Bathers at Asnieres (1883-4, National Gallery, London). Although rejected by the official Paris Salon, the work was shown at the Salon des Independants, an alternative event co-founded by Seurat himself, where he met fellow pointillists Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), who helped him to further develop the idiom. Shortly afterwards Seurat began painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him two years to finish. It was exhibited for the first time in May 1886 at the final Impressionist exhibition: an ironic occurrence since the work is now seen as one of the first major examples of Post-Impressionist painting (1880-95).

The huge work (7 feet in height; 10 feet in width) caused a sensation. Not only did it exude a shimmering impression of warm, hazy sunshine, but the stylized, statuesque nature of its figure painting exuded a timeless and monumental quality. Unlike the fleeting naturalism of Monet (1840-1926) and Renoir (1841-1919), which captured the momentary perceptions of the artist, La Grande Jatte was painstakingly planned from start to finish in the manner of a Greek frieze, and its (often) symbolic content positively invites careful scrutiny.

The painting depicts fashionable Parisians enjoying a Sunday afternoon at a popular beauty spot located on the River Seine between Neuilly and Levallois-Perret. While his earlier Bathers at Asnieres depicted the working class left-bank of the river, this work shows the bourgeois right-bank at La Grande Jatte. Thus, for instance, in contrast to the unremitting heat of Asnieres, La Grande Jatte has plenty of cool shade in which to escape the sun.

The canvas is crowded with some forty stereotypical Parisian figures, shown full-face or in profile. Carefully arranged in static groups across the picture, they appear uncommunicative and frozen in time, adding to the dreamlike quality of the painting. Featuring men, women and children of all ages, Seurat's figures also include several with symbolic meaning. A well-dressed women (extreme left) holds a fishing pole, alluding to the 'fishing' conducted by the bourgeois prostitutes of the area. The standing lady (foreground, extreme right) has a fashionable capuchin monkey as a pet. This identifies her as another prostitute (this time with a client), since the French word for 'female monkey' (singesse), was also slang for a woman of loose morals. A small girl dressed in white stares out at the viewer from the centre of the composition, as if to ask "what will happen to all these contented members of the bourgeoisie?" As well as these allusions to the social and political content of the picture, Seurat also includes a dash of patriotism: a boat is shown flying the French national flag, and two soldiers stand at attention as a musician plays (presumably) the national anthem.

The essential meaning of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is far from clear. However art critics believe that it should be interpreted in comparison to its sister work Bathers at Asnieres. They believe that 'La Jatte' represents the French bourgeoisie, a decaying class that has fallen victim to lust and vice, and which is now in the shadows. In contrast, the sun is shining on the working class bathers of Asnieres, who represent the bright future of France.

NOTE: Seurat's 19th century colour palette comprised the usual colour pigments of the time, including vermilion, cobalt blue and emerald green. He also used the then-new pigment zinc yellow (zinc chromate), mainly for yellow highlights in the sunlit grass, but additionally in combination with blue and orange hues. Unfortunately, the zinc yellow has gradually darkened to a brownish colour, a process detectable even in Seurat's lifetime.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924, for the reputed sum of $24,000.

Explanation of Other Modern French Paintings

Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.

Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-81) by Renoir.

The Large Bathers (1894-1906) London and Philadelphia; by Paul Cezanne.

Water Lilies (Nympheas) (1897-1926) by Claude Monet.

Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899) by Claude Monet.


• For the meaning of other Pointillist paintings, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.