In this post I take a closer look at Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Key Facts About A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
- 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. I wrote more about pointillism here.
"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).
- 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).
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:
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.
It is a very busy painting, with many people, animals, boats and trees. Seurat did a great job balancing all this activity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet).
Thanks for Reading!
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