Famous Friday // A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

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Georges Surat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86, oil on canvas, 3079.75in x h2076.45in. Location: Art Institute of Chicago.

Over this past summer I took a writing intensive course for my degree about chess. The class culminated in a long research paper comparing and contrasting chess to something else. For my essay, I chose to write about chess and art. Long story short, I used Surat’s oil painting to help convey the similarities between art and chess – perks of going to a liberal arts school!

Anyways, on to the art we go! This work is Surat’s largest and most famous work of art, and one of the best examples of pointillism technique. The work itself depicts a relaxing afternoon on an island on the outskirts of Paris.

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See where the island is located outside of Paris!

Seurat spent many afternoons sitting and drawing in the park to perfect the form of his figures. At first glance we see a variety of individuals relaxing. To the right, a couple is on a leisurely stroll. To the left, we see a woman fishing, as well as people sailing along the Seine River. With further inspection, however, the viewer is able to see that not everything is as it seems in the painting. The woman who appeared at first glance to be on a leisurely walk with her husband is actually walking a monkey. It was uncommon for women of this time to go fishing, so the woman depicted fishing was possibly an euphemism for prositution. A young girl in a white dress stands in the center of the work. She is asking possibly the viewers what will become of the individuals, and the class of people who are represented in this image.

Seurat was highly influenced by scientific studies of color theory and in particular by the work of Michel-Eugène Chevreul. Together with several other artists, Seurat developed the technique of pointillism. Pointillism breaks down colors into their respective hues in order to simulate natural light in the eye of the viewer. This is the technique that Seurat used in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Pointillism makes Seurat’s work particularly interesting because of how he was able to manipulate color and light.

In most paintings shadows are depicted by using black, however this is not the case with Seurat’s work. Seurat was instead able to trick the viewers eye into thinking that it was viewing shadows by defining these darker areas with the colors that they come into contact with instead of a solid black.