At first glance, Georges-Pierre Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 seems a warm portrait of a sunny day in a lovely park. But a closer look at the Neo-Impressionist’s most famous artwork reveals much more.
1. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 is made up of a lot of tiny dots.
Forging the new style with this first-of-its-kind painting, Seurat became the father of Pointillism and of Neo-Impressionism. However, he preferred to call his technique “chromo-luminarism,” a term he felt better stressed its focus on color and light. The technique has also been called “Divisionism,” which, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, refers to “the principle of separating color into small touches placed side-by-side and meant to blend in the eye of the viewer.”
2. It took Georges Seurat more than two years to complete.
This complicated masterpiece of Pointillism began in 1884 with a series of almost 60 sketches Seurat made while people watching at the Paris park. Next, he started painting, using small horizontal brush strokes. After this initial work, he began the labor-intensive realization of his vision with tiny dots of paint—a process that would not be completed until the spring of 1886. One study estimated that Seurat’s painting is made up of around 220,000 dots [PDF].
3. Science was Seurat’s major muse for color choices.
“Some say they see poetry in my paintings,” Seurat said. “I see only science.” The artist was fascinated by the color theories of scientists Michel Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, and he explored Divisionism in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884. This painting method utilizes colors in patches that essentially trick the human eye into blending them, creating luminance and shape.
4. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Phoenician art inspired the Parisian scene.
Seurat sought to capture the people of his Paris just as these eras immortalized their citizens. Or as he once put it to French poet Gustave Kahn, “The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color.”
5. Seurat was just 26 when he completed A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884.
Thanks to his involvement in the artist collective the Société des Artistes Indépendants, Seurat’s reputation was growing before A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 debuted. It would become his best-known work. But while his output was seminal, it was also cut short in 1891 when Seurat died of an undetermined disease at age 31.
6. Critics initially hated A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884.
Seurat’s groundbreaking techniques were a major turnoff for some critics at the Impressionist exhibit where A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 debuted in 1886. Other observers sneered at the rigid profiles of Seurat’s subjects. Those poses, which were meant to recall Egyptian hieroglyphics, were negatively compared to toy soldiers.
7. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 was revised in 1889.
Seurat re-stretched its canvas to allow for room to paint a border made up of red, orange, and blue dots. This created, in the words of the Art Institute of Chicago, “a visual transition between the interior of the painting and his specially designed white frame.”
8. Seurat eschewed a traditional gold frame.
Seurat framed A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 in a specially-made wooden frame painted a crisp white rather than the gold that was popular at the time. What is thought to be the original frame can be seen in the artist’s 1888 painting Models (Poseuses), which has a portion of Grande Jatte in the background. That wide, white frame was likely lost when Seurat stretched the canvas to accommodate the new painted border. In 2022, the Art Institute of Chicago debuted a new white frame for the painting that “more closely match[ed] the artist’s original vision” and took a year to develop.
9. It’s bigger than you think.
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 isn’t just Seurat’s most popular piece—it’s also his biggest: The painting measures 81 3/4 inches by 121 1/4 inches, or about 7 feet tall by 10 feet long. Its large size makes its every inch flush with tiny dots of color all the more remarkable.
10. The painting was largely unseen for 30 years following Seurat’s death.
The opportunity to view the historic painting returned in 1924 when art lover Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 and loaned it indefinitely to the Art Institute of Chicago.
11. An American philosopher helped reshape public opinion on the painting.
In the 1950s, Ernest Bloch’s three-volume The Principle of Hope explored the socio-political interpretations of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, spurring a renewed interest and appreciation for the piece.
“This picture is one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing and the incongruities of a dolce far niente [idleness],” Bloch wrote. “The painting depicts a middle-class Sunday morning on an island in the Seine near Paris … despite the recreation going on there, seems to belong more to Hades than to a Sunday … The result is endless boredom, the little man’s hellish utopia of skirting the Sabbath and holding onto it too; his Sunday succeeds only as a bothersome must, not as a brief taste of the Promised Land.”
12. The colors of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 have changed.
Seurat employed a then-new pigment in his painting, a zinc chromate yellow that he hoped would properly capture the highlights of the park's green grasses. But for years this pigment has been undergoing a chemical reaction that began turning it brown even in Seurat’s lifetime.
13. The scene may hold hidden sex workers.
The titular locale was a favorite of sex workers, so some historians suspect that fish are not what the fishing-pole-toting woman on the left was hoping to hook. The same speculation has arisen around the lady on the right, with a monkey on a leash and a man on her arm.
14. The painting was nearly incinerated while visiting New York.
On April 15, 1958, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 and other Seraut works were on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when a fire broke out. The fire damaged six canvases, injured 31 people, and killed one workman, but Seurat’s works “were carried by connecting corridors to the adjoining office building and the Whitney Museum of American Art immediately northward,” according to The New York Times.
15. It’s one of the most reproduced and parodied paintings in the world.
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 earns screen time in the Chicago-set comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the science fiction cult classic Barbarella, and on the cartoon series Family Guy. It’s been parodied by Sesame Street, The Simpsons, the American version of The Office, and even the cover of Playboy. In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd invade the painting. And celebrated Broadway icons Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine made a musical based on the painting called Sunday in the Park With George. You can watch a scene from the show above.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.