seurat sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte original in chicago
Seurat’s painting was a mirror impression of his own painting, Bathers at Asnières, completed shortly before, in 1884. Whereas the bathers in that earlier painting are doused in light, almost every figure on La Grande Jatte appears to be cast in shadow, either under trees or an umbrella, or from another person. For Parisians, Sunday was the day to escape the heat of the city and head for the shade of the trees and the cool breezes that came off the river. And at first glance, the viewer sees many different people relaxing in a park by the river. On the right, a fashionable couple, the woman with the sunshade and the man in his top hat, are on a stroll. On the left, another woman who is also well dressed extends her fishing pole over the water. There is a small man with the black hat and thin cane looking at the river, and a white dog with a brown head, a woman knitting, a man playing a horn, two soldiers standing at attention as the musician plays, and a woman hunched under an orange umbrella. Seurat also painted a man with a pipe, a woman under a parasol in a boat filled with rowers, and a couple admiring their infant child. 
Inspired by optical effects and perception inherent in the color theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and others, Seurat adapted this scientific research to his painting.  Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called Divisionism at the time (a term he preferred)  but now known as Pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes. The use of dots of almost uniform size came in the second year of his work on the painting, 1885–86. To make the experience of the painting even more vivid, he surrounded it with a frame of painted dots, which in turn he enclosed with a pure white, wooden frame, which is how the painting is exhibited today at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Paris, 23 Boulevard des Italiens, Exposition de La Revue Blanche, Georges Seurat: Oeuvres peintes et dessinées, March 19–April 5, 1900, cat. 17.
Paris, Pavillon de la Ville de Paris, VIIIème Exposition de la Société des Artistes Indépendants, March 19–April 27, 1892, cat. 1082.
Another optical trick evident in this painting is Seurat’s inclusion of an innovative painted “frame.” According to the Art Institute of Chicago, this Pointillist border is supposed to “make the experience of the painting even more intense” by adding even more colors, tones, and a textures to the composition.
In order to perfect his painting of the popular park, Seurat completed a collection of preliminary sketches and drawings. Taking a cue from the Impressionists, he created these studies away from his studio and en plein air. This approach enabled Seurat to capture the color, light, and movement of the scene before him, which he revisited several times before finishing the final large-scale painting in 1886.
Editors’ Tip: Seurat and the Making of ‘La Grande Jatte’
What makes this painting even more unique and mysterious is that the theme of the work is not some profound emotion or momentous event, but the banalest of workaday scenes.
Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon between May 1884 and March 1885, and from October 1885 to May 1886, focusing meticulously on the landscape of the park. He reworked the original and completed numerous preliminary drawings and oil sketches. He sat in the park, creating numerous sketches of the various figures in order to perfect their form. He concentrated on issues of colour, light, and form. The painting is approximately 2 by 3 meters (7 by 10 feet) in size.
In 1879 Georges Seurat enlisted as a soldier in the French army and was back home by 1880. Later, he ran a small painter’s studio in Paris, and in 1883 showed his work publicly for the first time. The following year, Seurat began to work on La Grande Jatte and exhibited the painting in the spring of 1886 with the Impressionists. With La Grande Jatte, Seurat was immediately acknowledged as the leader of a new and rebellious form of Impressionism called Neo-Impressionism.