Who Are the People Out Strolling on Sunday?
By Sarah Ollove, Dramaturg for Sunday in the Park with George
The more you look at George Seurat’s masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, the less sense it makes. In a way, it’s a product of its technique: when you get close to the painting, it breaks into tiny dots of color. And when you take a second look at the subjects themselves, they get…well…spotty.
Who are these people and why are they there? And what’s with the monkey?
Seurat talked a lot about the technique of his famous painting but made little mention of the subjects themselvesand died without revealing his motive for drawing these people.
Art critics and historians have gallantly tried to pick up the slack. Everyone seems to agree that he created a commentary on bourgeois social life during the French Third Republic. We can all agree on this because of a famous quote of Seurat’s about his intention to ‘make the moderns pass by…in their essential aspect like figures on a Panathenaic frieze.’ But who these moderns were remains a mystery.
Even during his lifetime, the Symbolists tried to claim Seurat. They felt that the painting was filled with symbols of restrictive bourgeois values, citing the static nature of the figures and the mix of classes. They point to the factory in the background and the likelihood that this painting was meant to be paired with The Bathers at Asnières, who relax casually across the river in stark contrast to the stiff bourgeois figures of La Grande Jatte.
Other critics have felt that Seurat commented on fashion. They take their cue from the well dressed figures at the front and the fashionable lap dog. Everyone is puffed up in their Sunday best, but their desire to be fashionable restricts their movements. The monkey in this instance becomes a stand-in for trendsetting. If the fashionable woman in front has a monkey, you can be sure every young lady will have one within the year.
Still another more controversial contingent argues that the painting cannot be understood without acknowledging the racier side of the Grande Jatte. The Island was well known as a place where Parisian prostitutes plied their wares. Some feel that the well-dressed woman at the forefront of the painting is probably a coquette, or kept woman, because such women were always at the forefront of fashion. The monkey also buoys this theory because the French word for female monkey (singesse) was 19th century slang for prostitute. They also point to the young lady fishing on the left of the painting who might be angling for more than just fish. The word in French for fishing and sinning are very similar: pécher vs pêcher. Several French critics, by the way, feel this reading is a ridiculous modern invention of non-French speakers that says more about us than the woman in the painting.
Sondheim and Lapine had their own interpretation of the painting, but they drew on the established critics views to populate their work. The girl fishing might not be a prostitute, but she seems to have sinning on her mind. Dot might not be a coquette but she is very concerned with fashion. And they made sure to include people of all social classes from the domestic servants Franz and Frieda to the rugged Boatman to the wealthy Jules and Yvonne and the extremely wealthy American couple. But in turning their attention to the artist, Sondheim and Lapine give Seurat an additional motivation: to order the world the way he wants it, not the way it is. Unlike the art critics who try to put the man together from the painting, Sondheim and Lapine start with the man and find their way back to the painting.