Georges-Pierre Seurat 1859 – 1891
Oil on canvas, with squaring up in conté crayon 81 x 65 cm
The Provost and Fellows of King’s College (Keynes Collection)
The scene represents, in simplest terms, a group of contemporary Parisians at leisure on an island in the Seine . It is one of only three surviving large-scale studies in oil on canvas which Seurat used to prepare his painting, A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte (1884-6; The Art Institute, Chicago), first publicly exhibited at the 8th and last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886.
The finished painting earned him instant notoriety, due to its subject, scale (3.5 metres wide), and, especially, the pointilliste technique in which it was painted. This method of applying small touches of unmixed pigment in optical mixtures of complementary, or similar, colours reflects Seurat’s knowledge of 19th century scientific chromatic theory, although it may also have been influenced by contemporary notions of ideal colour and moral harmony.
The identity of the elegant couple that dominates this sketch has been much disputed. The fact that, in the finished painting, the woman holds a long-tailed monkey on a leash, has led to the suggestion that she represents a prostitute (‘singesse’, in contemporary Parisian slang), perched in the arm of her client. However Seurat’s intention may have been less anecdotal, simply to parody the stiff ‘cant britannique’ and fashionable pretensions of these promenaders, solemnly engaged on a quintessentially bourgeois Sunday afternoon activity.