Today marks the 157th anniversary of Georges Seurat’s birth. Seurat is best known—by far—for the Art Institute’s iconic painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, so in honor of this day we wanted to share 8 fun facts about Seurat and the making of this pointillist masterpiece:
Seurat attended art school—Paris’s prestigious École des Beaux-Arts—for just a year and a half before he quit. He then completed one year of compulsory military service before working on his art full time. He began La Grande Jatte about two and a half years later.
Seurat worked on La Grande Jatte for two years and completed 28 drawings, 28 panels, and 3 larger canvases in preparation. Turn around when you’re in the gallery with La Grande Jatte to see one of these preparatory oil sketches.
In the painting, Seurat utilized newly discovered optical and color theories and was particularly influenced by M.E. Chevreul. A noted 19th-century color theorist, Chevreul observed that any color is heightened when placed beside its “complement”—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 used the island of la Grande Jatte and the opposite shoreline as the setting for a number of paintings, but he was not the first artist to find inspiration on or near the island. Earlier, Monet had painted several canvases there in 1878, which Seurat undoubtedly saw when they were shown in the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1879.
The painting includes 48 people, 8 boats, and 3 dogs. The cast of modern characters includes soldiers, boaters, the fashionably and casually dressed, the old and the young, families, couples, and single men and women.
La Grande Jatte's first public appearance was at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in May 1886 when Seurat was just 26 years old. Seurat had been invited by senior Impressionist Camille Pissarro, and his work appeared alongside Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas.
Seurat died at age 31. Although La Grande Jatte was only rarely seen in the three decades following his 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. It officially came into the museum’s collection in 1926 and was Seurat's first major painting to enter a museum.
La Grande Jatte is one of the very few paintings in the museum that does not travel. The last time it left the Art Institute was in 1958 when it was installed at the Museum of Modern Art. During its time there, a nearby gallery caught fire. When it arrived safely back to Chicago, museum trustees agreed that the risk of future travel wasn’t worth the potential cost.