"Sunday in the Park with George"

From Canvas to Characters

Sunday in the Park with George inspiration
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. DEA Picture Library

Anyone who reads or plans to attend a performance of Sunday in the Park With George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine should first spend some time looking at an image of the this painting by Georges Seurat:  Its original French title is Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte – English translation: “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.” (Click on the painting title to view the online image.)

The first act of Sunday in the Park With George occurs with Seurat the artist creating and perfecting his painting. The creative musical theatre artists who were inspired by this painting drew the other characters in Act One from figures in the painting.

Looking Closely at Art

It would not be surprising to learn that Sondheim and Lapine used their own version of Visual Thinking Strategies to examine this painting that is 10 feet wide and 6 and a half feet tall. Visual Thinking Strategies provide ways to look closely at works of art by asking observers to respond to these three questions:

1. What’s going on in this picture?

2. What do you see that makes you say that?

3. What more can we find?

In fact, it would be excellent to begin a study of this play by engaging students in doing precisely that – looking at an image of “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte” and asking them to respond to those questions.

What’s Going On? According to Sondheim and Lapine

The painting’s setting is the island of la Grande Jatte, which is located northwest of Paris in the Seine River. In 1884 (when Seurat began working on his painting), the island was a pastoral place where people could go to get away from city life. The musical’s creative artists pulled their characters from the canvas.

Here’s a Who’s Who:

The most prominent figure is the woman in profile on the bottom right hand side. Sondheim and Lapine imagined her as Seurat’s mistress and they gave her the name “Dot.” Her name is significant and obviously so when you know that Seurat is credited as being one of the 19th century artists who developed the painting technique called Pointillism. In Pointillism, the artist applies tiny dots of distinct colors in patterns to form an image and to allow the human eye to blend those collections of dots and see not red dots and blue dots, but the color purple.

Not every figure in the original painting becomes a character in Act One of the musical, but almost every prominent one does. There’s the Boatman on the bottom left and behind him, two servants called Franz and Frieda. They are a couple that works for an artist named Jules and his wife Yvonne. Yvonne is the figure in the center of the painting holding a parasol in her left hand and the hand of her daughter Louise in her right hand. Jules is the man standing behind Dot with a cigar in his right hand.

Louis, the baker that Dot ends up marrying, is holding a baby to the right of a tree on the right hand side of the painting.

Two seated women visible between Dot and Yvonne are shop girls both named Celeste – Celeste #1 and Celeste #2. One holds a parasol and the other holds a bouquet of flowers.

The soldier stands next to another soldier in the distance over Yvonne’s right shoulder. To Louise’s right, an Old Lady sits facing a tree that blocks her view of the river. To her left, with her back to the viewer is the Old Lady’s Nurse. (Note: There are several additional minor characters that are less easy to distinguish and point out in the original painting.)

Sondheim and Lapine created back-stories for all of these figures, casting them as characters in a story that could have swirled around the artist Georges Seurat as he sketched the people and worked on the large canvas over the course of two years. Like people you might see and overhear in a public park, however, you get glimpses into the stories of these characters, but they remain incomplete.

Only Dot’s story gets fully told. The baby that Louis holds in the painting is named Marie. She is George’s child. Louis and Dot marry, leave France with the child, raise her in America, and Marie appears in Act Two as a 98 year-old woman, the grandmother of another artist named George.

To take a closer look at the painting and hear art critics provide additional insights, click here.