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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