Why Is This Famous?: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

On the fine line between a nice day in the park and a capitalist dystopia
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In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande JatteGeorges Seurat
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From Playboy to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Loony Toons, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, or, in English, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86), has been parodied and appropriated enough in our culture that many people know at least two things about the work: it is very large (nearly 7 x 10 feet), and it is made up of small dots. But how can these two facts—many paintings are very large, and many have produced in the name of Pointillism—make up for the rigid figures and bland, ubiquitous subject matter? A work so famous demands an unusual backstory, and A Sunday Afternoon doesn’t disappoint. What’s left out of the public’s common conception of the work is how it was conceived—possibly as a failed science experiment, possibly as a politically charged portrayal of France’s rapid modernization in the 19th century.

The Chateau des Papes, AvignonPaul Signac
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Georges Seurat developed Pointillism (at first called “Divisionism,” now a more technical term) along with Paul Signac as a reaction to both Impressionism and developments in optometric theory. Although Pointillism and Impressionism both contradict the rigid, skill-based values of Neoclassicism, the two movements are also, in some ways, complete opposites. Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir sought to capture fleeting, ephemeral moments of light by painting outdoors, not producing sketches or underpaintings, and using loose, thick brushstrokes. Seurat and Signac wanted, instead, to apply extremely precise, calculated, tiny dots of color, believing that the color could mix in the viewers’ eyes and brains instead of on the artist’s palate. (Of course, just looking at a Pointillist work shows that the color theory behind it does not exactly hold true.) Instead of using color to capture the quick, bustling nature of modern society, Seurat slowed down the contemporary subject like a Renaissance or Neoclassical painter might. In this way, his and Signac’s works rejected most contemporary avant-garde modes of painting, and instead, through the meticulous academic-ness of Neoclassical painting, forged a new avant-garde. This is all well and good, and explains why the movement’s artists have been canonized, but why is this particular Pointillism work so well-regarded?

“A world from which life and music are banished”

While a superficial glance at the painting might give the impression of, well, a lovely Sunday afternoon, critics have seen something more interesting. In the 1920s, Roger Fry, an art critic and painter who coined the term “Post-Impressionism,” wrote that A Sunday Afternoon showed “a world from which life and music are banished and all is fixed forever in its geometry,” solidifying a critical understanding of the scene as entirely dystopic. The painting demonstrates a tension in 19th century France directly resulting from capitalism: the emergence of a middle class allowed many people to afford newly reproducible fancy clothes, and days of leisure in the park. But the figures in A Sunday Afternoon have lost their identity, and show no joy in their newfound leisure-time. Furthermore, they do not interact with each other, and show no unity that a socialist utopia promises.

The Shepherd's SongPierre Puvis de Chavannes
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In the 1950s, Ernst Bloch took this reading further, arguing that along with the figures’ stagnant nature, the static, mechanical, and uniformity of the dots were used to critique the effects of modernisation on French society. Other critics have even noted that Seurat was likely inspired by symbolist, dream-like paintings that defy a time period or place, like those by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In Seurat’s work, however, the time period and location are aggressively clear, if not by the subject’s dress than by the painting’s title. By this logic, Seurat shows how an industrialized society inverts the utopic, timeless pastoral scene we often see in paintings.

There’s always room for debate

As with any work of art that’s been studied for over a century, there is no pure consensus on A Sunday Afternoon. The scholars who have ventured to publish their positions usually take nuanced, sometimes contradictory understandings of it. For example: if Seurat’s technique is meant to critique modern society, and represent something negative, why would he paint nearly every painting in this way? Without denying societal critique in Seurat’s work, Linda Nochlin argues that Pointillism actually functioned for Seurat as a democratized mode of painting—a scientific method that anyone could produce. Like the other works we’ve covered in this series, A Sunday Afternoon’s fame has as much to do with a long history of viewers debating and dissecting the work and the artist as it does with the actual quality of the work, or the visual joy it brings its viewers.

Model from the BackGeorges Seurat
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Further Reading: Quick’s Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry and Post-Impressionism (1985), and Nochlin’s Seurat’s Grande Jatte: An Anti-Utopian Allegory (1989).

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