A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1886
To give you some background on one of the most prolific artists to ever hit the world stage, here are five interesting facts about Seurat.
Seurat took a scientific approach to his work
What does this mean exactly? Well, artists use what’s called color theory, a science in its own right and Seurat took the eye’s ability to perceive color one step further. As we learned in elementary school art class, certain primary colors can be combined to create certain secondary colors, and so on. This is basic color theory and something painters use constantly.
Artist PSA (Pastel Society of America): The primary colors are actually cyan (instead of blue), magenta (instead of red), and yellow, despite what we’ve always learned as young children.
What Seurat did was paint with tiny dots using pure colors versus mixing colors on the canvas. He relied on the eye’s natural ability to create colors that weren’t there, an incredible feature of our cones and rods.
The technique was called pointillism or chromo-luminarism and gave his paintings an almost glowing feel. He was a master of light and had an understanding of the physics behind things and, combined with his color theory, you can see that his artwork is indeed scientific.
Seurat wasn’t fond of the conventional art world
Seurat studied art at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he spent most of his time sketching in black and white. These sketches and drawings benefitted him in the future and influenced his meticulous approach to painting.
Yet, his disdain for convention showed up early and he left the school because of its strict academic standards. He continued his studies at local libraries and museums since, in Paris, he was surrounded by some of the best in the world.
Later, when submitting his work to the Paris Salon for a second time, he was refused again. In response to this and further proving his distaste for tradition and convention, Seurat and a group of fellow artists created the group called the Societe des Artistes Independants to exhibit art by foregoing the Salon.
The exhibitions had no jury and awarded no prizes with its only aim to create and explore modern art. It was in this group where he befriended painter Paul Signac who was instrumental in helping Seurat develop his pointillism style.
It took Seurat two years to complete his greatest work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Seurat’s first major painting Bathers at Asnieres was finished in 1884 and soon after he began work on what would become his most famous piece. After almost 60 drafts, the ten-foot canvas was named A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The painting was shown at the last Impressionist exhibition and its large physical size made it difficult for onlookers to appreciate the work. Pointillism doesn’t tell the whole story up close. You have to stand back from it to see the colors and get a full understanding.
Because of this, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was at first considered messy. But after further consideration, it was deemed his most prized work and was the most popular image of the 1880s, revitalizing what we now know as the neo-impressionism movement.
Impressionism was in decline and Seurat’s work helped to bring the style back to the forefront of people’s minds. But, as opposed to capturing fleeting moments like most of the earlier impressionists would do, he opted to choose subjects he saw as unchanged and essential to life.
Seurat died young
Although the exact cause of his death is unknown, Seurat died at 31 years old due to an illness, probably either pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, or infectious angina. Then, even more sadly, his son contracted the same disease and also died, two weeks later.
His short life and even shorter career left us with far fewer works than many other great artists of his time – only seven full-sized paintings and about 40 smaller paintings. But, he did complete hundreds of sketches and drawings.
Perhaps knowing the end was near for him, Seurat exhibited his last painting The Circus even though it wasn’t completed.
Though his time was cut short, Seurat still managed to challenge the way painters paint, create one of the most famous paintings to come out of the 19th century, and express a take on color theory and the use of light that would change the art world forever.
Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte almost burned in a fire at the Museum of Modern Art.
In the spring of 1958, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte was on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On April 15, electricians working on the second floor took a smoke break that turned into a major fire.
It destroyed five paintings in the museum including two of Claude Monet’s Water Lillies and sadly, one of the electricians was killed. Luckily, Seurat’s masterpiece was spared after a close call as it was safely moved to the Whitney Museum of American Art next door. It is now permanently located at the Art Institute of Chicago.
You can view some of Seurat’s work at MoMa and they’ve since replaced the burned Monets with another of his paintings on the same subject. Since Seurat had such a short time on earth, art lovers everywhere are grateful that the painting survived.