La Grande Jatte

This is one of my favorite paintings of all time – Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, or Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat.


The painting is a very large canvas, dimensions 207.6 x 308 cm (81.7 x 121.25 inches). The unique thing about this painting is the technique:

Motivated by study in optical and color theory, he contrasted miniature dots of colors that, through optical unification, form a single hue in the viewer’s eye. He believed that this form of painting, now known as pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brush strokes.

This is essentially the same physical/optical principle by which CRT computer screens and televisions create the illusion of color; each “pixel” is actually a triplet of red, green, and blue which are selectively turned on or off. The mind’s eye integrates them into the full spectrum of color hues.

The painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, my home town. As a child, on numerous field trips I was always fascinated by it, I would go as close as I could and simply stare, trying to undo the illusion until only the dots remained. In fact, exactly as Cameron does in this clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

I was just like those kids at the start of that sequence… I think I went to the Art Institute nearly every year on one field trip or another from elementary school onwards.

I can’t exactly put my finger on why I like this painting. It doesn’t evoke any particular emotion that I can identify, though i am aware of others’ interpretations. For me it isn’t the scene that is depicted that is important, but rather the context and the technique. It makes it seem very real, somehow.

Then again, the stillness of that scene lends itself to contemplation. Its serenity makes you linger. The little girl is (if I recall correctly) the only one looking at you, the viewer, so after a while your roving eye settles on her, and you commune. But then you try to stare beyond. Or at least, I do 🙂

Here in Houston, there is presently an Impressionists exhibition from the Met in New York that includes some studies by Seurat for this painting. I would very much like to go but am unsure if I’ll get to it before it closes.

UPDATE: another lost study by Seurat for La Grande Jatte has been discovered. quelle surprise!

2 thoughts on “La Grande Jatte”

  1. “There are some things in painting which cannot be explained, and that something is essential.” –Pierre Auguste Renoir

    It’s here until May 4th. I must go again as well. I will pick a date and lock you in.

  2. oh, good – I thought it was gone sometime in early April! Of course had I simply bothered to google it I’d have known:

    “The Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800-1920”:

    Am I reading “this page”: correctly, that they will have the original “Bridge over a Pool of Water Lilies” by Monet there? I have no particular connection to that painting, but it’s like a celebrity; you can brag about being in the same room with it later 🙂

    at any rate, I await further instructions 🙂

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