SEURAT, Georges
(b. 1859, Paris, d. 1891, Paris)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande Jatte

1884-86
Oil on canvas, 208 x 308 cm
Art Institute, Chicago

This painting, shown at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, served as the manifesto of Neo-Impressionism. Seurat adopted certain elements of the Impressionist tradition (he made outdoor colour studies and he retained the light tonality of the Impressionist palette), but his training took place well away from the protagonists of modern art, following a highly personal course from the outset. He took up colour by reading scientific books on optical phenomena. In the scientific literature a number of principles were formulated that subsequently formed the theoretical base of Neo-Impressionism: the distinction between hue and tone (or colour and value)), the idea of the optical mixing effected by the retina, and the coloured vibrations obtained by juxtaposing different tones of the same hue.

In Neo-Impressionism the conflict between representation and abstraction was glaring. The tendency to treat figures as coloured silhouettes reached its height in A Sunday Afternoon on the Ile de la Grande Jatte in which "the stiffness of the characters and the incisive shapes help to generate the sound of modernity."

In this best-known and largest painting, Georges Seurat depicted people relaxing in a suburban park on an island in the Seine River called La Grande Jatte. The artist worked on the painting in several campaigns, beginning in 1884 with a layer of small horizontal brushstrokes of complementary colours. He later added small dots, also in complementary colours, that appear as solid and luminous forms when seen from a distance. Seurat made the final changes to La Grande Jatte in 1889. He restretched the canvas in order to add a painted border of red, orange, and blue dots that provides a visual transition between the interior of the painting and his specially designed white frame.