A Closer Look at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

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In this post, I take a closer look at Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I cover the following:

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884

Key Facts

  • It was painted between May 1884 and March 1886 and is one of Seurat’s larger paintings at 81.7 x 121.25 inches (207.6 × 308 cm).
  • It is a great example of pointillism, which involves placing small dabs of distinct color and allowing our eyes to visually blend the colors together. His use of pointillism was an attempt to make his colors appear brighter and more vivid than what is possible from the physical mixing of paints. For example, instead of painting green by mixing yellow with blue, he would use small dabs of yellow, blue and green and let optical mixing do the rest of the work. But this comes at the compromise of delicate drawing, strong edges or skillful brushwork.

“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.” Georges Seurat

  • With this painting, Seurat was recognized as a figurehead of Post-Impressionism.
  • In 1899, Seurat restretched the canvas to allow for a dark border of red, orange and blue dots. The idea was to emphasize the use of pointillism and contrast against the surrounding white frame (visible below).
I wrote more about pointillism here.Seurat was inspired by color theory and perception.
  • For highlights of the grass, Seurat used a zinc chromate yellow which has been gradually turning brown due to a chemical reaction.
  • It took over two years to complete, starting with numerous sketches and color studies of people in the park. Some of those studies are shown in the following section.
  • Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières was painted just before A Sunday Afternoon. It features a view from the other side of the river. The bathers in this painting are part of the working class, whereas the baths in A Sunday Afternoon are bourgeoisie (middle class).
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884
Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884

Sketches

Seurat created over 60 different sketches before painting A Sunday Afternoon. These studies provide insight into how Seurat worked through his initial idea and nurtured it into the finished painting. You can see him experiment with different compositions, color schemes and brushwork.

Here are just a few of his sketches:

Georges Seurat, Sketch of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1885
Georges Seurat, Oil Sketch for La Grande Jatte, 1884
Seurat Study
Seurat Study 2
Seurat Study 3
Seurat Study 4

Tip: This should give you an idea of just how much work goes into master paintings. People tend to think the master paintings were created out of spontaneous creativity, but many times they are carefully planned.

Composition

It is a very busy painting, with many people, animals, boats and trees. Seurat did a great job balancing all these activities.

My first impression in terms of composition is that you can break the painting broadly into two parts – the dark foreground in shadow, and the background mostly in light. The edge of the main shadow acts as a strong horizontal line in the painting, which contrasts against the many verticles lines (the people standing or sitting firmly upright, trees and boat masts).

The people all appear very rigid to me, whereas nature is providing most of the curves (the curve in the river, the curve of the shadows, the curve of the tree branches).

There is a strong sense of linear perspective, with everything getting smaller as it recedes into the distance. Atmospheric perspective is not a strong feature, mostly because the background is hardly visible except for the small area at the top left corner.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884

Brushwork and Detail

Seurat did not use thick, impasto paint, but the lack of blending did leave a subtle texture from all the distinct dabs of paint. Close-ups of the painting reveal all the distinct colors he used, which optically blend together from afar.

The leaves are painted with greens, blues, yellows. The branches are painted with oranges, purples, yellows, blues and greens. Overlapping colors allow the branches to gradually blend in with the surrounding leaves.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 (closeup 1)

In the close-up below, you can see the border on the left side. Notice how Seurat used a vivid blue to continue the subject’s leg.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 Close Up 2

The main compromise of using a pointillist technique is the sacrifice it requires of intricate drawing and brushwork. This is most evident in the faces of the subjects; however, Seurat did a good job with rendering the subjects using just dots of paint.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 - Close Up

I find the pointillist technique to be great for painting a background of high-key colors like below. It tends to produce a glimmering effect as your eyes dance between all the light colors, similar to what you see in life.

Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 (closeup 3)

Key Takeaways

Here are some of the key takeaways from A Sunday Afternoon:

  • If you want to make a mark in the art world, you should consider large-scale paintings like A Sunday Afternoon. They tend to have a much stronger impact than smaller works.
  • The pointillist technique can be used to paint with brighter colors, but at the sacrifice of intricate drawing and brushwork.
  • Great paintings take planning. Seurat created over 60 sketches before painting A Sunday Afternoon. If you are not satisfied with how your paintings are turning out, consider if you are putting enough planning into them.

Additional Readings

What You Can Learn From The Pointillism Art Movement

A Closer Look at Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

A Closer Look at the Mont Sainte-Victoire Series by Paul Cézanne

A Closer Look at The Oxbow by Thomas Cole

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you learned something new! If you found the post useful, please share.

Want more painting tips? Come join me in the Painting Academy.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

41 comments on “A Closer Look at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat”

  1. I like the way you discribe the painting for me. I learn a lot from your descibtion and it gives me an inspiration to paint.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. I’m fascinated by the way you can pick out the details of a painting and the history behind it! I never would have considered pointillism, but like John said at a much smaller size. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. I found your points on pointillism spot on! This is one of my childhood faves..I always thought there was a hidden joke in this painting, whose reproduction hung on my preschool bedroom wall. The woman with the ‘hooped out’ skirt!? There’s a monkey under it, but I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t put in the tail!?
    I guessed that was precisely the ‘underlying’ joke of the painting, and that’s why I loved it so!

    Reply
  4. I have to say way back in my early art school years I was not as interested in art history. Too bad because now that I am retired I see the tremendous value of studies of the masters. I truly enjoy reading your posts. Glad I stumbled on to your website. I paint in watercolor but still lots to learn in your comments. Thank you for this effort of enlightenment! God bless.

    Reply
    • Glad to hear Margo! Yes, a lot of the information I put out is about the fundamentals so even though you paint in watercolor, a lot of the information you can still apply to your paintings. Thanks Margo! Dan.

      Reply
  5. Dan, thank you for sharing your wonderful, detailed analysis of this painting. Since I joined your group I have learned more about art than I ever guessed I’d learn. Thanks again!!!

    Reply
  6. This morning I had the opportunity to read this excellent overview of this Seuret painting. This afternoon I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. To my surprise there was the Seuret painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette. I was able to share with my husband the wonderful information provided in your presentation. What an amazing coincidence. Thank you for your most enjoyable and educational presentations.

    Reply
    • I am jealous Renee! I have not had the privilege of seeing it in person… yet. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks! Dan

      Reply
  7. Thank you very much for your helpful and educational, brilliant little articles!! I look forward to each and every one. Someday , soon, my intentions are to take your classes…I love what you do. Please keep providing us with these greatly inspirational teachings!!

    Reply
  8. Have you ever seen the topiary garden at the old school for the deaf in Columbus, Ohio? It recreates this painting and is was quite impressive seeing it mature and change from 1996 to 2002. The sculptor was addressing the saying does art imitate life or does life imitate art.

    Reply
  9. You provide informative analysis and description. What painstaking effort to plan, practice and produce paintings like these.

    Reply
  10. Just beautiful!. I am very glad to follow you and really appreciate your efforts for all tips you share with us Thanks a lot!

    Reply

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