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Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884”

Video transcript

(Music plays) ( ♪♪ ) ( ♪♪ ) Hello, I'm James Rondeau, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today, I would like to talk about one of my favorite works from our collection, "Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. Georges Seurat has created a scene of leisure set on a small section of an elongated island in the Seine River just beyond Paris's city limits. Seurat's canvas is filled with figures, including three dogs, eight boats, forty-eight people and, oddly, one monkey, who gather on a Sunday afternoon to enjoy and parade around in nature. "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" was painted in 1884 and is generally considered to be Seurat's masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest paintings of the nineteenth century. Like many of his Impressionist contemporaries such as Claude Monet, Seurat embraced the subject matter of modern life. Seurat, however, went beyond their prevailing concerns for translating in paint the qualities of light in the city or in nature. Seurat, inspired by recently published research in optical and color theory, developed his own "scientific" style called Pointillism, from the French word for "point" or "dot." Tackling the issues of color, light and form, Seurat's method juxtaposed tiny dabs of color, often complementary colors, to create hues that he believed, through optical blending, were more intense and luminous. In 1886, Seurat debuted the painting at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition. He was only twenty-six years old. It shocked the Paris art world when it was first shown. "Bedlam," "scandal," "hilarity" were among the epithets used by critics to describe what is now considered to be the artist's greatest work. Recognized for its unusual technique, simplified figure types and enormous scale, this monumental work is a manifesto of a new style of painting that broke with Impressionism and would open the door for a more expansive European Modernism employed by the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. This picture was only rarely seen in the three decades following the artist's death in 1891. When Art Institute trustee Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased the painting in 1924, he wrote to then museum director Robert Harshe, exclaiming that he had attained, and I quote, "almost by a miracle the finest picture in France," close quote. So the picture was placed on loan here at the Art Institute and gifted to the museum in 1926. For nearly a century, this innovative and enigmatic painting has continued to intrigue, elude, and inspire - drawing millions of visitors to see it. Georges Seurat was born in Paris in December 1859 into a family that supported him throughout his life as an artist. He studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, receiving a classical training in the arts. After a year and a half, Seurat quit school. Following one year of military service, he returned to painting. It is extraordinary to think that just four years after abandoning art school, Seurat was poised to begin the two-year period of intensive preparation that culminated in this landmark achievement. The flickering color creates a sense of vibrancy that belies the actual stillness of the scene. Of all the figures, only one girl in an orange dress appears to be in active motion. The other figures seem almost frozen in place. Seurat sought to evoke a sense of permanence in his depiction of the figures by recalling the art of the past, especially Egyptian and Greek sculptural friezes and even Italian Renaissance frescoes. As he explained to the French poet Gustave Kahn, and here I quote Seurat, "I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color," close quote. Two or three years after it was exhibited in 1886, Seurat restretched the canvas. To make the experience of the painting even more intense, he surrounded the canvas with a frame of hand-painted dashes and dots, which he, in turn, enclosed with a pure white wood frame, similar to the one with which the painting is exhibited today. Unlike many of his fellow Impressionists, drawing was also a foundational part of his process. During the years 1884 and 1885, Seurat was hard at work on "La Grande Jatte." The genesis of this large canvas, seven feet by ten feet, involved approximately twenty-eight drawings, twenty-four oil panels and three larger canvases. Within the Art Institute's collection, we have drawings related to two of the foreground figures. In drawing, for example, Seurat developed the expressive contours of the seated female figure holding a parasol that would ultimately occupy the center of the finished painting. He also worked through the proportions and the stance of the "Woman Walking with a Parasol." A small oil on a thin, wood panel in our collection is one of the twenty-four painted studies the artist made. These panels show the enormous changes to the composition as he worked out the placement of the figures. For example, the now-iconic man in a top hat and a woman oddly walking a monkey were not included in the early sketch. Instead, the artist depicted two seated, elderly figures assuming the central right placement, with a bustled female figure approaching them. A 2004 exhibition at the Art Institute devoted to the making of "La Grande Jatte" shared numerous discoveries by painting conservators, showing how Seurat transferred and altered figures from studies to the final canvas and elucidated the exact nature of his pigments and brushwork. Color scientists also examined how some of the pigments have changed over time on the surface, such as the yellow of the sunlit grass, which has darkened over time. This painting has inspired many, not only in painting, but in music and theater, notably the epic and iconic Broadway musical "Sunday in the Park with George" by Stephen Sondheim. The painting's become a cultural touchstone, appearing in movies such as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and referenced in television programs and, of course now even in memes. The experience of seeing this painting, live and in-person, has captured the imagination of millions of visitors, resulting in the countless references to it during the almost 100 years since it came to Chicago. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about "Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the piece with friends and family. And, please, visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a single moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.