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Georges Seurat, a Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

About the Artist

Born in Paris in December 1859 into a middleclass family with enough income to support him throughout his life, Georges Seurat began his artistic career at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After a year and a half, Seurat quit school. Following one year of compulsory military service, he returned to art, producing small-scale paintings and drawings. The early talent evident in his drawings blossomed into a highly refined and unique style of painting by the spring of 1884, when he undertook La Grande Jatte. Georges Seurat was only twenty-six when he first showed his work at the final Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886. Seurat died at age thirty-one of diphtheria.

About the Artwork

It took Seurat two years to complete this painting of a relaxed summer day in a park. Seurat began visiting the island of the Grande Jatte, near the Paris suburb of Neuilly, in the summer of 1884. His first studies for the composition were probably small oil sketches painted inside the tops of his father's discarded cigar boxes. The artist used very small brushstrokes to cover this large canvas with tiny spots of color. This method was called pointillism.

While La Grande Jatte was only rarely seen in the three decades following Seurat's death in 1891, its visibility was dramatically increased in 1924, when Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased the picture and placed it on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has been there ever since. Seurat's first major painting to enter a public collection, La Grande Jatte has become an icon, one of the art world's most recognizable images.

A Closer Look

Seurat used a small section of the elongated island in the Seine just beyond the Paris city limits as his setting. The island in the Seine was a popular spot for boating and leisure activities. The many dining and dancing establishments, wine shops, and shipbuilders' yards located at different points on the island did not make their way into his work, nor did the factories across the river, which undermined the island's social atmosphere. Seurat focused instead on the park at the far northwestern tip of the island, facing the town of Courbevoie.

Seurat's canvas, which is over ten feet long, incorporates three dogs, eight boats, and forty-eight people who congregate on a Sunday to enjoy and parade around in nature. The cast of characters includes soldiers, boaters, the fashionably and casually dressed, the old and the young, families, couples, and single men and women.

Seurat's stated ambition was to "make modern people in their essential traits move about as they do on [ancient Greek] friezes and place them on canvases organized by harmonies." He introduced an element of irony by suggesting a sense of timelessness in the frozen quality of the figures while also insisting on a very up-to-the-moment awareness of fashion. The couple in the foreground presents a striking and elegant silhouette, but they can also be seen somewhat comically as puffed-up fashion plates involved in the ritual of self-display.

Over the past several decades, many scholars have attempted to explain the meaning of this great composition. For some, it shows the growing middle class at leisure. Others see it as a representation of social tensions between modern city dwellers of different social classes, all of whom gather in the same public space, but do not communicate or interact.

Seurat worked on La Grande Jatte from the spring of 1884 until the spring of 1885, covering its surface with small brushstrokes of complementary colors. He did not return to the work again until October 1885. He wanted to introduce more vivid oranges, greens, and yellows into the painting to give it the brilliance it seemed to lack. To achieve this result, Seurat developed a dot technique to key up and intensify large areas of the canvas without completely repainting it. He added petit points, or tiny dots, of complementary colors that, through blending in the viewers' eyes, form a single, more brilliantly luminous hue. To add even more intensity, Seurat later restretched the canvas and added a border of painted dots.

Noted ninteenth-century color theorist, Michel Eugene Chevreul observed that just as dark and light oppositions enhance each other, color is likewise heightened when placed beside its "complement," the color located on the opposite side of the color wheel. When the complements red and green are put side by side, for instance, the red will seem redder and the green, greener. Seurat was also aware of how the mixture of colors in the eye was different from their mixture on the palette. Juxtaposing related shades of a color on a canvas (yellows and greens, for example) will create a more vivid and luminous effect than if the colors had been blended on the palette. The grass in the park looks green--but if you look at one of the details of the lawn, you can see that it is made of separate spots of color; orange and blue along with green. At a distance, these different colors appear as vivid green.

Resources

Web

www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/seurat/seurat_themes.html

www.artic.edu/artaccess/AA_Impressionist/ www.artic.edu/artexplorer

Art Institute of Chicago Teacher Manuals

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Teacher Manual. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995.

Classroom Activities

Elementary

Ask students to describe the painting and answer these questions: How many animals do they see? Can they locate the butterfly? What can they learn about the people in the painting from looking at the activities, clothes, gestures, and expressions of the figures? Why are most of the people gathered at the edge of the river? Are they enjoying themselves? Ask students to find France, Paris, and the Seine on a map. Divide the class into groups and ask them to make a collage by gathering images of French culture.

Middle School

Explain the color wheel and discuss complementary colors. Start with complementary colors found in nature. Ask students to create their own color wheel. Then, create a large-scale collage as a class, depicting a group leisure activity (such as attending a music festival or participating in a sport). Discuss how the location will be depicted and what collage materials will be used (for example, cut-out pictures from a magazine). Pay particular attention to the distinction between the foreground, middle ground, and background.

High School

Discuss color theory used in La Grande Jatte. Research the work of the French chemist, Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889), author of On the Harmony and Contrast of Colors; the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), author of Perception of Color; and the American artist and color scientist Ogden Rood (1831-1902), author of Modern Chromatics. After studying these theories, ask students try to determine which theories were utilized by Seurat in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Ask students to use complementary colors to paint different squares of colors near each other to practice the color theory findings they researched.

Erin Hersher, E-Learning coordinator, department of museum education, The Art Institute of Chicago.
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Title Annotation:All Levels: Looking and Learning
Author:Hersher, Erin
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:1171
Previous Article:Artopia: the arts at your fingertips.
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