Just weeks after he had exhibited The Bathers at Asnieres (National Gallery, London) in the spring of 1884, Seurat began work on a painting that is most often considered the masterpiece of his career, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Exhibited in 1886 at the final Impressionist exhibition, the painting created immense controversy and occupies a position in French nineteenth-century art equal to that of Manet’s revolutionary Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass of 1863, both now in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the artist began the painting as a mate to The Bathers at Asnieres. In fact, when it was begun, the Grande Jatte was identical in scale to the earlier canvas. (Seurat later added the dotted "frame" by restretching the original canvas to include part of the tacking margin). However, as he worked on its composition, the growing complexity and the number and variety of figures forced him to treat it as a completely separate composition. Seurat began visiting the island of the Grande Jatte, near the Paris suburb of Neuilly, in the summer of 1884. His first trials for the composition were probably small oil sketches painted inside the tops of his father’s discarded cigar boxes. These little sketches, as Seurat called them, were easily portable and could be thrown away or repainted with ease. The Art Institute’s oil sketch differs in so many ways from the final painting that it must have been executed relatively early in the young painter’s search for both a setting and interesting figural groups.
After Seurat determined his composition, he made detailed drawings of trees and figures, before painting two small studies on canvas — one of the landscape without figures, which is in the collection of Mrs. John Hay Whitney, and the other of the entire composition, now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Before he made either of those more finished canvases, Seurat executed the fine chalk drawing of trees reproduced here. It is not known exactly when he began to work on the final painting, but it was most likely during the winter of 1884-85, in preparation for the spring exhibitions of 1885. However, when spring came, Seurat did not exhibit. In October 1885, the artist showed the work to Camille Pissarro, who seems to have criticized the painting for its stiffness and found that, like the large version of The Bathers at Asnieres, it lacked the brilliance of the oil sketches. To correct those problems, Seurat reworked the painting between October 1885 and May 1886, when he finally exhibited it.
Seurat’s reworking took two forms. First, he altered the major figures in the foreground of the composition; their contours became fuller, more curvilinear, and more decorative, releasing them from their strictured confines and giving the whole a more relaxed, leisurely appearance in keeping with the theme of an afternoon’s recreation. His second change was to introduce more vivid oranges, greens, and yellows into the painting so as 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. As he worked on the painting, he became obsessed with the formal and theoretical possibilities of the dot, which preoccupied him for at least the next five years.
Many attempts have been made during the last generation to define the real subject of Seurat’s masterpiece. For some, Seurat painted the middle classes at leisure on Sunday as a complement to his earlier representation of the working class in his Bathers at Asnieres.
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