In the 1880s, the Ile de la Grand Jatte, a small island northwest of Paris, had become a popular playground for the working-class parisians. Sundays had been sanctioned by the Third Republic for workers to spend time with their families and to “avoid pubs and protest rallies and ensure order and stability through their upright behaviour”. Georges Seurat in his painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886) portrays these workers relaxing in a fictional Arcadia. Just a year prior, Seurat had painted this island in Bathing Place, Asinieres from the other side of the Seine, showing the relaxing activities of boating and swimming. For the first time, this area could be reached by train and therefore became accessible for all classes. In a guidebook written in 1885, the Ile de la Grand Jatte was described as:
“a rustic Eden which affords the youth of Paris charms which regularly prove irresistible.
On holidays and Sundays, people take lunch on the worn-out grass and swings, skittles, and
games of toad-in-the-hole spring up in place of the absent trees”(Louis Barron Les Environs
de Paris, L’ile de la Grande-Jatte, 30).
In La Grande Jatte, Seurat shows the nature of class distinction in this painting through the diverse ages, dress, activities of elegant men and ladies, soldiers, nannies, bourgeois and workers. It is a mixing of social class that had just begun to take shape in the modernity of Paris. Seurat’s work holds a balance between the diversity of these social classes with the uniform activities: fishing, reading, boating, strolling, watching sports (rowing), and relaxing. Notice the bourgeois couple with a pet monkey, in the foreground, approaching a worker (or perhaps boater) in his t-shirt and cap. Will the couple strike up a conversation with the man? In most city jardins of Paris, this mixing would not be allowed during this time period.
On the other hand, there is a contrast to the uniformity of activity with a distinct disconnect of his characters who are mostly in profile. The only exception can be seen in the center of the painting: a young woman with her parasol is holding the hand of a little girl dressed in a stark, white pinafore ( this painting represents a pivotal scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off recalling the angst of misunderstood youth, or more specifically, Cameron!). Who belongs to whom in this painting? It is not clear what these character’s next moves are. As they are walking towards the Seine, will they stop and talk with strangers? It is not likely that they arrived together, but will they begin to mingle in this small space and shade?
A framed print of this painting which I bought at the Art Institute of Chicago has hung in my bedroom since 1997. The original colors of the massive canvas of 207 by 308 centimeters have faded from when Seurat first painted it as he experimented with different pigments and style (pointillism), but the basic theme still fascinates me. I like to see Seurat’s women reading journals and novels showing the equality of intelligence and interests. I have tried to imagine which character I would be in the painting: the young woman reading, or fishing, or sitting with her friends chatting and laughing, or perhaps the little girl running freely through the park without a care in the world.
While studying abroad in Paris last year, I spent many Sundays after church at public parks and visiting museums (which are free on the first Sunday of each month), and thinking about Seurat’s painting. Even though the clothes and activities have changed ( and I’ve yet to see a pet monkey), one hundred and fifty years later, Parisians still enjoy their Sunday afternoons!
Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)