The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, La Grande Jatte, by the artist Georges-Pierre Seurat. This painting, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, was painted by Seurat over a period of two years; he completed it in 1886 at the young age of 26. It is a very large oil painting on canvas and measures approximately 7 feet by 10 feet (81.7” x 121.25.) The scene is of a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the sun enjoyed by 48 people, 3 dogs, and a monkey, although they seem to be a little more solemn than one would think; particularly the children. It could be that it was really a very hot day in Paris, so that’s why there is not much frolicking going on. The setting is on La Grande Jatte Island in the Seine River which runs through Paris. During Seurat’s time, the island was a retreat from the city site. At one time this island became an industrial site, but then was restored with a public garden and housing complex.
The overall style of this painting is Impressionism, using the Pointillist method, one that was pioneered by Seurat. Seurat believed that this technique, the painting of miniature dots, would produce more brilliant colors than the use of standard brush strokes. He was intrigued by his studies in optical and color theory, and knew that through the phenomenon of “optical mixing”; the viewer’s eye and mind would “mix” the colors and produce secondary hues.
Finally, Seurat surrounded the painting with a border of a mixture of dots, and then framed it in white for an even more powerful color effect. It is still framed in white today. One interesting thing to note is that Seurat used a new pigment called zinc yellow to areas in the lawn to show bright highlights, but sadly that pigment has darkened to a brown. I think it would be easy to replicate what Seurat had planned if you processed this painting through Photoshop and restored that color to its intended hue.
Seurat looked to Eugene Delacroix, a Romantic artist, to understand the character of juxtaposing complementary or related hues, and then to Camille Pissarro, an Impressionist, for his bright color palettes. On a side note, Pissarro, after meeting Seurat, practiced pointillism himself from 1885 to 1888, so they really influenced each other. Pissarro went from being the “Dean of the Impressionists” to a Neo-Impressionist painter himself. Seurat’s other influences included the Impressionists Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir. When La Grande Jatte was first shown, it was a bit of a scandal, and seen as a challenge to Monet and Renoir. It was pivotal and a precursor to change in the course of painting styles and was eventually classified as Neo-Impressionism.
This painting is a good example of one which can show comparisons between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The similarities of the two styles include the use of real-life subjects, distinctive brushstrokes, thick dabs of paint, and bright colors. The difference between the two styles is that Post-Impressionists added more form and structure to their compositions and included emotion and action to their paintings. I guess you could say a quick moment like an atmospheric setting that changes from minute to minute where you get just a sense of a mood, versus an hour or two where there is more to contemplate as to what is happening and how the subjects are feeling.
Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh is another example of Post-Impressionism. It has more distinct forms and specific details like the reflection of the city lights in the water, and two persons, their gender obvious, a male and a female.
Sunrise by Claude Monet is an example of Impressionism. It is a looser style with less form and structure. There are two figures on a boat in the foreground, but the details are not specific as to their gender. The background is very loose, implied and focuses on the sunrise.
In summary, my personal impression of Impressionism for the most part, is one of enjoyment. I like the loose styles, the softer colors, the capturing of a fleeting moment in time; ones that were mostly pleasant in nature. However, I find that I love Post-Impressionism much more, with artists like Vincent Van Gogh being a favorite. Paintings like La Grande Jatte are also my favorites because I prefer detail; one can examine each character and imagine how they are enjoying this beautiful day. Although this painting is not really a loose style, but a painting of painstakingly placed dots that were planned meticulously, it still leaves that impression of a gauzy, dreamy, sunny afternoon. I particularly like the way the surface of the water seems to shine as it reflects the sun’s rays. I was surprised to learn how large this painting is, and understood why it took two years for Seurat to complete. Sadly, Seurat lived for only 31 years.