seurat sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte
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.
For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte depicts a typical outing for Parisians living in the 1880s. Facing the shimmering river and relying on umbrellas and trees for shade, they appear to enjoy a brief escape from city life, whether they’re lounging on the grass, fishing in the river, or even admiring the ambiance in the company of a pet monkey.
Georges Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884-1886 (Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago Public Domain)
Seurat’s palette consisted of the usual pigments of his time   such as cobalt blue, emerald green and vermilion. Additionally, Seurat used then new pigment zinc yellow (zinc chromate), predominantly for yellow highlights in the sunlit grass in the middle of the painting but also in mixtures with orange and blue pigments. In the century and more since the painting’s completion, the zinc yellow has darkened to brown—a color degeneration that was already showing in the painting in Seurat’s lifetime.  The discoloration of the originally bright yellow zinc yellow (zinc chromate) to brownish color is due to the chemical reaction of the chromate ions to orange-colored dichromate ions.  In the third stage during 1888–89 Seurat added the colored borders to his composition.
In conceptual artist Don Celender’s 1974–75 book Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers and Collectors, it is claimed that the institute paid $24,000 for the work   (over $354,000 in 2018 dollars  ).
Seurat started his project in May of 1884 and intended it to be exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants of 1885 but the exhibition was cancelled. The change in plans meant that Seurat went back to add details to the work and these mainly consisted of his most recent thoughts on color and its use in paintings. Seurat also changed the shapes of some of his figures in order to create more sinuous rhythms.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Georges’ technique was subsequently called Pointillism and it’s known by that name to this day. However, the painter himself preferred to call his method chromo-luminarism, a term he felt better stressed the focus on color and light.
Executed on a large canvas painted in 1884, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte reveals everything magical about Seurat’s world – it’s beautiful and disturbing, sunlit and shadowed, silent and noisy, all at the same time. The painting’s dimensions are approximately 2 by 3 meters (7 by 10 feet), representing a truly huge size for pieces painted during this period.