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The High ‘Point’ of a Play

I just recently saw Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago. The images are below, and please, excuse my inadequate cell phone footage. This is the artist’s most famous work and probably the most well-known example of pointillism (or, what my art history teacher used to call: the technique with all the little dots).

The High 'Point' of a PlayThe first thing that struck me was the mammoth scale of Seurat’s painting. It’s over ten feet wide, and just shy of seven feet tall. As you approach the canvas, you look at all of the miniscule brush strokes and wonder how Seurat had the patience he did to land each point, and the vision that it must have required to see the cohesive whole emerging from those thousands of “dots.”

It was especially fun to see Seurat’s piece right after attending the Broadway show it inspired: Sunday in the Park With George. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical, performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the characters of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte come to life. The riverbank, or grande jatte, we see on Seurat’s canvas, becomes the backdrop as these characters become unfrozen. The audience witnesses the days and hours leading up to this moment, the series of personal sagas that precipitate this infamous scene on that sunny island in the Seine.

The high point of the play comes when the characters, all going about their busy Parisian lives, momentarily pause at the end of the first act. The audience is staring into a life-size, breathing version of Seurat’s world, populated by the same figures we’ve come to recognize from the painting: the woman with the exaggerated hoopskirt, the monkey she walks, the lady with the red parasol, and all of the other men and women, staring out over the Seine.

Seurat wrote, at the time he was working on the painting, that he hoped it would be a nod to the past. He sought to imbue his characters with the balance and posture of the figures on the friezes of antiquity. His contemporaries saw his figures as thoroughly modern and rigid. I see them and I think how dreamy Paris and its park-goers appear. No one I know would ever don a hoopskirt and parasol to go walk a dog (or monkey) in the park in this day and age. Actually, there are a few people I know who would be perfectly willing to do that. Food for thought…

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