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Sunday in the Park


Sunday In The Park
by Kenneth Lyen

It's been a while since I visited Chicago. But the moment I arrived one crisp winter morning several years ago, I made a beeline to the Art Institute of Chicago. And the main reason was to pay my respects to George Seurat's painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."

George Seurat started painting Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte in 1884 at the age of 25 years, and finished it two years later. He employed the theory of colors, and by juxtaposing tiny dots of color, he could painstakingly create an entire picture. This technique was known as "pointillisme." The painting caused quite a stir when it was first exhibited in Paris. Viewers sneered at it, calling it "bedlam," "a scandal," and "hilarity." That was 120 years ago. It is now considered one of the finest post-impressionist works.

Inside the art gallery, the first thing that struck me was how large the painting was. I spent a long time studying it. The composition seemed a little off balance, tending to tilt slightly to the left. Everything looked so still and silent. I savored the painting dot by dot. At a certain distance from the canvas, I experienced that shimmering staccato effect caused by his pointillist style. A bizarre thought flashed through my mind ... what if it were a gigantic jigsaw puzzle ... how long would it take for me to assemble it?

The human figures are slightly out of focus and seem rather stiff. The picture is much too stylized to even consider it as a photograph. From a distance, you can see a crowded scene of Parisians enjoying a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the small island in the middle of the River Seine. On the right is an aristocratic couple with no interest in each other. The lady is holding a parasol, inexplicably, because she is already standing in the shade. Her dress has a pronounced posterior hump that accentuates her bottom. The man is holding a lit cigar with one hand, and a monkey on a leash with the other. The monkey is interested in a small brown dog, which in turn is running toward a larger black dog. Sitting on the grass are three isolated figures on the left, a manual worker smoking a long-stemmed pipe, a lady having a solitary picnic, and a man wearing a top hat staring into the river. Two young ladies are seated in the center, one looking at a small bunch of flowers, and the other holding a parasol. Facing the viewer are a mother and child standing in the sun, but they look immobile. In the distance are sailing boats, a small steamboat and a skiff.

The entire picture feels static. There are no expressions on any of the faces, and they look dehumanized. None of the people are interacting with each other, and all appear terribly lonely in this crowded park. Even the River Seine looks like a calm lake, with the reflection of the boats visible on the water surface.

When I got too close to the painting, all the figures disappeared, and all I could see were millions of tiny dots. The effect was quite astonishing. I continued looking at the picture for a while, and it did have a strangely profound emotional effect on me. Despite depicting a rather prosaic view of Parisians relaxing in a park on a Sunday afternoon, the painting transcends the mundane and I entered that joyous, sunny, and silent world of Seurat's Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte.

This transformation is what makes it such a wonderful masterpiece!

Many years later, I watched Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George", based on Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte. Suddenly all the paralyzed figures burst into life. And I then realised that the painting possessed a hidden depth. The characters had an aura of mystery, they each had a life story to tell. After watching the musical, I feel as if I've known many of these weekend visitors. I now have a different perspective of the painting, and it remains one of my favourites.

[Published in BlogCritics]