Why Georges Seurat’s Pointillist Painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte Is a Masterpiece

Every­one knows that Georges Seu­rat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jat­te, or A Sun­day After­noon on the Island of La Grande Jat­te, resides at the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. Or at least every­one who’s seen Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off knows it. The Art Insti­tute appears as just one of the implau­si­bly var­ied attrac­tions of Chica­go enjoyed by that film’s tit­u­lar hooky-play­ing high-school senior and his friends — even the anx­i­ety-rid­den Cameron, drops from a moment out of his trou­bled life while trans­fixed by Seu­rat’s most famous paint­ing. The clos­er he looks, the less dis­cernible its gen­teel Parisian fig­ures become, dis­solv­ing into fields of col­ored dots.

“George Seu­rat spent most of his adult life think­ing about col­or,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne, “study­ing the­o­ries and work­ing out sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly how one col­or, placed in a series of dots next to those of anoth­er, cre­ates a whole dif­fer­ent col­or when it hits the reti­na of the human eye.”

By the time of La Grande Jat­te — which he metic­u­lous­ly planned, labo­ri­ous­ly exe­cut­ed, and com­plet­ed between 1884 and 1886 — “he made sure we saw col­or exact­ly how he want­ed us to.” Payne tells the sto­ry of Seu­rat, his sci­en­tif­ic, aes­thet­ic, and philo­soph­i­cal inter­ests, and the fruits of his intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic labors, in the new video from his chan­nel Great Art Explained at the top of the post.

Seu­rat first paint­ed La Grande Jat­te using not dots but dash­es, “ver­ti­cal for trees and hor­i­zon­tal for the water.” After fur­ther devel­op­ing his col­or the­o­ry, he returned to the can­vas and “added hun­dreds of thou­sands of small dots of com­pli­men­ta­ry col­ors on top of what he’d already done, which appear as sol­id and lumi­nous forms when seen from a dis­tance.” The final stage involved the addi­tion of a col­ored bor­der around the entire scene, and not long there­after elab­o­rate inter­pre­ta­tions of the out­ward­ly placid paint­ing began to mul­ti­ply. But “the lack of nar­ra­tive means we real­ly should look to the artist’s obses­sion with form, tech­nique, and the­o­ry, which is prac­ti­cal­ly all he wrote about, and not the mean­ing or sub­ject man­ner.” We may enjoy talk­ing about art’s con­tent, but it is art’s form, after all, that tru­ly cap­ti­vates us.

Relat­ed con­tent:

2,000+ Impres­sion­ist, Post-impres­sion­ist & Ear­ly Mod­ern Paint­ings Now Free Online, Thanks to the Barnes Foun­da­tion

Vin­cent Van Gogh’s The Star­ry Night: Why It’s a Great Paint­ing in 15 Min­utes

Monet’s Water Lilies: How World War

The Scream Explained: What’s Real­ly Hap­pen­ing in Edvard Munch’s World-Famous Paint­ing

The Maligned Impres­sion­ist Painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir Illus­trates Emile Zola’s Grit­ty Nov­el L’Assommoir (1878)

An Intro­duc­tion to 100 Impor­tant Paint­ings with Videos Cre­at­ed by Smarthis­to­ry

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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