Georges Seurat: Sunday on La Grande Jatte


The late nineteenth-century French artist Georges Seurat is best known for his large-scale paintings achieved using a technique called pointillism. Seurat studied the theory of color, and optical perception, and applied his studies to his painting.

Artists often think of color in terms of the color wheel: a convenient device for understanding color combinations. Pointillism is based on two insights from color theory. The first is that when complementary colors—those that are opposite on the color wheel—are placed next to one another, both colors become more intense. The second is that when dots of color are painted close together, the eye combines the dots and sees a single color.

Between 1884 and 1886 Seurat worked on perhaps his most famous painting: a scene of Parisian city dwellers relaxing on an island in the River Seine. This painting was titled Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The painting is large: more than 10 feet wide by almost 7 feet tall. It contains 48 people, 3 dogs, 8 boats, and a pet monkey.

Seurat prepared his great painting with meticulous care. He made 28 preparatory drawings. He also created 31 preparatory paintings, some of individual figures. Others were studies of groups of figures, and partial views of the scene.

Seurat also experimented with the overall composition. This study is composed very differently from the final painting, whereas this one is almost an identical, smaller-scale version of the larger work.

Seurat completed La Grande Jatte in March 1885, but he spent the winter of that year reworking the painting in a fully pointillist style. Yet still his work was not finished. From 1888 to 1889 Seurat added a pointillist border, framing the central scene.

All in all, he spent five years of his short life on his most famous masterpiece. Seurat died at age thirty-one.

Georges Seurat’s painting depicts the leisure time of city dwellers in late nineteenth-century France. Capturing weekend and vacation scenes in the countryside surrounding Paris was a popular theme for artists at the time. Claude Monet also painted La Grande Jatte, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicted rowers on the river Seine. Within the city, people were enjoying outdoor space too, in such urban parks and gardens as are shown in Edouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens.

Although Seurat’s career was short, he is considered a very important figure in modern art. His emphasis on the surface properties of painting and the optical effects of color have continued to influence other artists and inspire viewers for more than a hundred years.

© Thames & Hudson 2011