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Georges Seurat - An afternoon on the Ille de la Grande Jatte

by Alexandra Tuschka

A critic once described this major work of pointillism as "a mosaic of boredom". And indeed - one cannot make out much action here. It is a warm summer afternoon, and numerous people have gathered in the park. Couples can be seen, women with children, friends sitting together. A lake supports the idyllic impression. Hardly any communication can be discerned between the people. Almost all of them are seen in profile, looking out from the left edge of the picture.

Defying academic training, he broke new ground in representation early on. He called his style Divisionism, but his fellow artists preferred the term Pointillism, which examined the relationships of light and objects with geometric rigor. In this, the choice of everyday ephemeral motifs departed entirely from the lengthy painting process, which was based on the simultaneous contrast of adjacent colors. This is because the entire painting consists of small dabs of pure color placed next to each other, which only merge from a certain distance in the eye of the viewer due to the additive color mixing.

The painting shows people of different social classes on the approximately two kilometer long Seine island Île de la Jatte under a bright summer sky in the late 19th century. Between trees and meadow numerous residents, dogs and ducks cavort on the shore strip, even a monkey was brought by the upper class. Divided into a shadowed foreground and a light-filled background, the dotted oil painting plays with the colors depicted, possibly symbolizing class distinction. The work forms a textual counterpart to the Bathing Place in Asnières, which depicts the working class on the opposite shore. It took Seurat almost two years to complete the two-by-three-meter image, avoiding overlaps of the sitters, who thus appear like silhouettes.

In his painting The Models, he used the right-hand part of the picture of Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte as a background for the nude poseurs, which once again makes the dimensions of the work clear. Today the painting is in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Seurat's work became world famous not for the subject but for his technique. The painter resolved the colors into vibrating, juxtaposed dots. These are modeled on the prismatic refraction of light. This creates color patterns that only merge into a motif at a slight distance from the picture background. This makes the colors appear more lively and fresh. This contrasts with the almost statuesque stiffness of the subjects, which was to become Seurat's trademark.

Georges Seurat - An afternoon on the Ille de la Grande Jatte

Oil on canvas, 1884-1886, 207, 5 x 308.1 cm, Art Institute in Chicago


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