At Large  December 29, 2022  Megan D Robinson

Who was Georges Seurat?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884, oil on canvas

Pioneering pointillist and founding Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-1891) painted one of the most recognizable and reproduced paintings in the world: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Born into a wealthy Parisian family, Seurat studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and he went on to exhibit at the official Salon. His Conté crayon drawings have very subtle tonal gradation that seem to shimmer, presaging the effect created by pointillism, a revolutionary painting technique he systematically developed in the mid-1880s. 

A follower of the latest scientific theories of color and vision, Seurat was inspired by Michel Eugène Chevreul’s discovery that juxtaposing two colors created another color when viewed from a distance. Seurat deliberately applied color utilizing the science of optics to create a new visual language he called Chromoluminarism.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat, 1889-90, Jeune femme se poudrant (Young Woman Powdering Herself), oil on canvas, 95.5 x 79.5 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art

Pointillism involves the careful application and juxtaposition of tiny dots or points of color. These mix at a distance, in the viewer’s eye, creating a wider spectrum of hues and luminosity, rather like how pixels in our screens create color and form now. Seurat preferred the term “divisionism,” but pointillism is the phrase that caught on.

While Impressionists such as Monet and Pisarro instinctively juxtaposed dots of color, Seurat was the first artist to use a systematic, scientific approach. Unlike the Impressionists, most of his work was done in his studio, rather than plein air.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat, Une baignade à Asnières (Bathers in Asnières), 1884, retouched in 1887, oil on canvas

His first major painting was Bathers at Asnières (1884), which synthesized Impressionism and scientific color theory. Rejected by the Paris Salon, the painting was shown at the Groupe des Artistes Indépendants in May 1884. Frustrated by the Indépendants poor organizational skills, Seurat created the Société des Artistes Indépendants with a group of artists that included Paul Signac, another strong proponent of pointillism. Seurat’s flatter, more linear structures and methodical use of color influenced many later painters, including van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. 

Started in 1884, the massive A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte took two years to paint. It has been resonating with viewers since its first showing, though at the time, it got a poor critical reception. Depicting a wide-ranging segment of the Parisian population enjoying the afternoon at a popular park along the banks of the Seine, the painting is staged like Egyptian or Greek friezes; Seurat wanted to imbue his modern-day slice-of-life scene with an air of antiquity.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Georges Seurat, Child in White, May 1884, Conte crayon on paper

His painting has had a huge impact on both the art world and popular culture; it has been featured in a number of movies and TV shows, including Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Sesame Street. The painting even inspired a popular musical by Broadway icons Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George.

Owned by the Seurat family until the turn of the 20th century, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte became part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 1925, where this celebrated work is displayed in a white frame specially constructed to Seurat’s original specifications.

Seurat died tragically early, at 31, from an unknown illness.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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