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The Most Famous Picnic Grounds in Art History
A closer look 13 Apr 2022

The Most Famous Picnic Grounds in Art History

georges seurat sunday afternoon grande jatte
Georges Seurat, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, 1884-86

In 1886, Georges Seurat presented a scandalous work at the Salon des Indépendants. However, A Sunday Afternoon at l’Île de la Grande Jatte only depicts a few wealthy families enjoying the sun by the Seine. During that time, Impressionists represented very similar types of scenes. So why so much outrage? Artsper explains how Seurat’s iconic picnic grounds innovated and transformed 19th-century art history.

A singular impressionism

claude monet impression sunrise
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872

Around the end of the 1800s, the art world was marked by Impressionism. It is in 1872, for example, that Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, for which the movement is named. As its name indicates, Impressionism intends to communicate an impression of the depicted subject, with touches of bright colors and fast brushstrokes. Georges Seurat is himself part of the movement; just like his contemporaries, he makes his way to the place he wants to paint and makes a number of sketches of it each month, to form his impression of the area.

However, Un Dimanche Après-Midi, or A Sunday Afternoon, is drastically different from usual Impressionism at the time. One quickly recognizes a very precise and geometrical structure, which is quite uncommon for 19th-century art. The figures are completely static, whereas impressionism values the feeling of mobility as if we were part of the work. For this reason, Seurat is more considered as being part of post-Impressionism, a movement that mostly extended from 1886 to 1905.

From romantic to scientific

georges seurat study la grande jatte
Georges Seurat, Study for La Grande Jatte, 1884

The Neo-Impressionists mostly get their inspiration from Seurat and his ordered, almost scientific, impressionism. This movement had a great interest in color theories, and in the different ways to make a composition more meaningful through a thoughtful mix of different tones. Seurat adds to this attraction to color with his own technique, known as Pointillism. This way of superpositioning and contrasting different touches of colors was a revelation that led the art world to slowly let go of traditional impressionism.

When a critic commented on the “poetry” in Seurat’s work, he replied, “No, I simply apply my method”. He also preferred this method to be called “optical painting” rather than Pointillism. Seurat was thus meticulous, and the precise application of his colorful points was the result of advanced studies. He actually did about sixty studies over six months before finalizing his work. In this Study for la Grande Jatte, one can clearly note the thoughtful alignment of each spot of color.

A study of Parisian society through picnic grounds

georges seurat grande jatte picnic grounds
Georges Seurat, Detail from Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte

The decision to represent an everyday scene bringing together different social classes was common for paintings of that time. Indeed, Impressionist painters had a weakness for landscapes, but for contemporary Parisian life as well. The island of La Grande Jatte was known, at the time, for regrouping socialites and less wealthy families. Additionally, it was known for being an area of prostitution. The place chosen by Seurat is thus conducive to a study of the mores of the time. It has actually been suggested that the pet monkey, at the bottom right of the work, as well as the lady holding a fishing rod on the left, refer to the prostitution on the island. Through his attention to detail, Seurat allows us to guess the status of some of the figures in his work. 

Seurat’s post-Impressionism offers a nearly scientific perspective of 19th-century society. At the same time, the artist pays special attention to light and the tones of the composition. Seurat’s Pointillism thus managed to stay close to impressionist values, while also triggering a major artistic evolution. 

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