Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was a momentous work of art to impact every realm of society in the nineteenth century. This was the time of the rise of the ‘petit-bourgeoisie’ society and the introduction of a new middle class that began to blur with that of the haute bourgeoisie class which was a dominant force in French society at the time. The combination of these two realms served to develop the new capitalist society, as well as create a transitional class, in Karl Marx’s terms. Seurat helped incorporate this into many of his works by displaying the leisure activities of this new middle class as they were vastly different from those of the wealthier classes, though held a dominant pull on social forums. His neo-impressionist art form was a largely influential genre that worked its way into the art world of the nineteenth century.
The Bathers was one of Seurat’s works which featured working class men taking a mid-afternoon break in which to take a dip in the nearby body of water. All the men pictured are still clothed in their work attire as is illustrated by the many hats and long coats which are visible in the painting. Seurat chose to illustrate the leisure activities of this new, transitional class, rather than the harsh realities illustrated by many of his colleagues at the time such as Millet’s The Gleaners, depicting the lowest class of society, or Courbet’s Stone-breakers. Seurat chose instead to focus on this new light-hearted realm of the nineteenth century in which the middle class enjoyed a newfound break from the daily work which had plagued them for so long.
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was also a break from the norm because Seurat illustrated the many social classes enjoying the same leisure time in the same way. The painting itself depicts many obviously bourgeoisie women walking with their umbrellas and small children equally dressed; one woman even has a pet monkey on a leash. A man also sits on the foreground with a cane and top hat, obvious signs of wealth, while sharing his space with a typical working class man, leaning back and simply enjoying his break from work. The fact that Seurat has placed these different classes so close together is an obvious example of the blending of classes which Marx later commented on. The fact that mid-nineteenth century France could produce this type of blending of classes is a type of foreshadowing of the world to come, in which many classes become intertwined through the rise of the middle class. Seurat was able to witness this first hand, though he came from a seemingly wealthy family of France, and respected the working class in a way that was unforeseen within his family.
Seurat’s paintings have remained a great representation of French society and the neo-impressionist movement that occurred as a result of the Salon’s painters and his colleagues. Nineteenth century France remains a spectacular time period in art history and displays a plethora of different art genres which have transcended into the modern day art world.
This post was contributed by Meredith Walker, who writes about the BachelorsDegreeOnline.com. She welcomes your feedback at MeredithWalker1983@gmail.com