By Sarah Ollove, Dramaturg for Sunday in the Park with George
Here are five illuminating facts about Sunday in the Park with George and the painting that inspired it.
1) George Seurat hated the term ‘pointillism.’ He felt it was reductionist and missed the point of what he was trying to accomplish. He referred to his technique of using tiny dots of color to create a picture in the eye as chromoluminarism. Chromo meaning color, lumen meaning light. Color and light. Lapine and Sondheim adopted the term for George’s Act II artwork.
2) Since its acquisition by the Chicago Art Institute, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte has only been loaned out once: in 1958 to the MOMA. While there, a fire broke out. Hundreds of masterpieces were in peril, not only from the fire, but from smoke which is just as perilous to paintings as flames. Fortunately, Sunday made it out of the building without damage, but, unsurprisingly, has not left Chicago since. So if you’re interest in the painting has been piqued, you’ll have to plan a trip to Chicago.
3) For someone so obsessed with technique, Seurat left in a number of ‘mistakes’ in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. Several characters are completely out of proportion: people whose legs would be ¾ of their bodies if they stood up, or who have torsos that somewhat resemble an alien’s. One tree casts two shadows. And there is an unusual brown triangle sticking into the painting on the right side. The best guess is that it is a tree trunk root, but doesn’t look like any of the other trees in the painting and casts no shadow. No one has positively identified the square shape that Marie claims is a waffle stove, though the conventional guess is that it is a baby carriage.
4) When writing the book for Sunday, James Lapine tried to simulate the speech patterns of late 19th century France by avoiding contractions and Latin root words.
5) Initially, Sondheim was interested in structuring the musical as ‘theme and variation.’ The first act would focus on the creation of the painting (as it does now). The second act would be a series of scenes written almost like a revue that would comment on the painting or art in general. Eventually, Lapine convinced Sondheim to winnow the themes and variations down to two: one an imaginative look at what it is like for the figures to be trapped in the painting and the other a satiric look at the contemporary art world. However, the idea of theme and variation was not let go so easily—countless themes, characters, music, and even words are repeated and re-invented throughout the musical.