Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat

jatte

The term of neo-impressionism was invented by Félix Fénéon in 1886 when he was defending A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte. This movement followed the principles of the impressionism: they kept the divided brushstrokes and painting on the spot, among other characteristics. However, impressionists did not go far enough in the representation, according to the neo-impressionists. They decided to follow optical laws, especially Eugène Chevreul’s research published in 1839. The painters reduced brushstrokes to only one point per color in order to obtain a mix in the viewer’s eye. That’s what we call Divisionism. This technique was supposed to enhance the brightness, as according to Chevreul, when a color is placed next to its complimentary one, then the color is at its highest intensity. Seurat was the leader of the movement.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891) studied only one year in the Fine Arts school before he left because he wanted to create a painting that would be his. In 1883/4, he painted Bathers in Asnières which is the first painting where he tried out the dots system. From this painting was born A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte. This technique is  very time consuming, which explains his reduced production.

This big painting (2×3 meters) was made between 1884 and 1886. It is now in The Art Institute of Chicago. Seurat showed this painting in the second Salon of the Independent Artists in 1886. This was made possible by Pissarro, while Degas and his followers were against it. However, it was exposed at the end of the exhibition with the other artworks judged too innovative by the impressionists. This was ironic since this is exactly what the impressionists suffered a few years before. La Grande-Jatte depicts people relaxing on a Sunday afternoon in a park near Paris. Seurat painted directly on the canvas with tiny dots. The colors are not the real ones, but have been reimagined to look good as a whole. This painting doesn’t follow the rules of perspective, so that the woman in the foreground appears to be smaller than the sailboat in the background. The composition looks like a long and static frieze. The viewer needs to recreate the colors in his or her eyes. Even though this painting is probably the most famous in the neo-impressionist movement, it was not well received by the society of its time. Octave Mirabeau thought it was “a huge and terrible painting which seems to be an egyptian whim” while the poet Emile Verhaeren said “I talked about it to artists, in the evening; they rebuffed me with laughter and mockeries“.

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