Georges SEURAT | Study for 'A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' [Etude pour 'Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte']

Georges SEURAT
France 1859 – 1891

Study for 'A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte'
[Etude pour 'Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte']
oil on wood panel
panel 15.5 (h) x 25.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Thérèse and Georges-Henri Rivière in memory of their parents 1948
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Before he embarked on creating A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte 18861, Seurat saw Puvis’ The sacred grove, beloved of the arts and Muses 18842 at the Paris Salon. Set on the banks of an Arcadian stream, the deliberately ordered figures, the intense stillness and the monumental size, all sparked the young artist’s interest.3 Two years later, Seurat’s contemporary version was exhibited at the 1886 Impressionist exhibition.

Seurat had made his largest number of preparatory drawings and sketches for this work. His approach was painstaking. He subdivided the composition, classifying it according to its elements. He then started the synthesising process, revising and joining the parts together. With not only immense skill, but an enormous amount of patience, Seurat slowly assembled the composition piece by piece.

The surprising variation we see between these two studies is due in part to Seurat’s newfound interest in the effects of different hues, and in divided colour theory. Seurat also experimented with different paint application processes, using a wider brushstroke in these studies than the fine brush points used in the final work. He also tested diagonal brushstrokes, before rejecting them in favour of dots.

In these two studies, differences in the figures’ poses, combined with a deep perspective, create considerable vertical movement. Seurat was extremely precise and methodical, ensuring no haphazard placement of figures in the relationship to landscape or to each other. For the most part the landscape remained fixed, and served as a stage for testing figurative combinations. His early panels show tiny figures enveloped by the landscape, whereas these two later studies have larger characters with a sense of their final positioning and authority.

Seurat spent six months sketching on La Grande Jatte, observing it under various light and seasonal conditions, and eventually opting for summer. Nature could never provide Seurat with precisely what he envisioned. Instead, it furnished him with snippets of visual information, which he selected and adapted. Angrand described Seurat’s approach: ‘He wasn’t a slave to nature, certainly not, but he was respectful of it.’4

Known as croquetons—literally ‘sketchettes’—Seurat’s studies were all made on small wooden panels. Extraordinarily proud of them, he hung many in his studio. He also exhibited them regularly, demonstrating the significance he felt they had in his oeuvre. Seurat called the panels his ‘constant joy’.5

Simeran Maxwell

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
  2. 460 x 1040 cm, Musée des Beaux-arts, Lyons.
  3. Richard R. Brettell, French Salon artists: 1800–1900, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; New York: Harry N. Abrams 1987, p. 113.
  4. Quoted in Daniel Catton Rich, Seurat and the evolution of ‘La Grand Jatte’, New York: Greenwood Press 1969, p. 10.
  5. Quoted in Rich, p. 17.