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Georges Seurat. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884/86. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.
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15 Things You Might Not Know About A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884

May 1, 2015
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Georges Seurat. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884/86. The Art Institute of Chicago. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

At first glance, Georges-Pierre Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 seems a warm portrait of a sunny day in a lovely park. But a closer look at the Neo-Impressionist's most famous work reveals much more. 

1. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 is made up of millions of dots. 

Forging the new style with this first-of-its-kind painting, Seurat became the father of Pointillism and of Neo-Impressionism. However, he preferred to call his technique "chromo-luminarism," a term he felt better stressed its focus on color and light.  

2. It took Seurat more than two years to complete. 

This complicated masterpiece of Pointillism began in 1884 with a series of almost 60 sketches Seurat made while people watching at the Paris park. Next he started painting, using small horizontal brush strokes. After this initial work, he began the labor-intensive realization of his vision with tiny dots of paint—a process that would not be completed until the spring of 1886. 

3. Science was Seurat’s major muse for color choices. 

"Some say they see poetry in my paintings," Seurat said. "I see only science." The artist was fascinated by the color theories of scientists Michel Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, and he explored Divisionism in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884. This painting method utilizes colors in patches that essentially trick the human eye into blending them, creating luminance and shape.

4. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Phoenician art inspired the Parisian scene.

Seurat sought to capture the people of his Paris just as these eras immortalized their citizens. Or as he once put it to French poet Gustave Kahn, "The Panathenaeans of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes, and place them on canvases organized by harmonies of color."

5. Critics initially hated it.

Seurat's groundbreaking techniques were a major turnoff for some critics at the Impressionist exhibit where A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 debuted in 1886. Other observers sneered at the rigid profiles of Seurat’s subjects. Meant to recall Egyptian hieroglyphics, these poses were negatively compared to tin soldiers.

6. Sunday was revised in 1889.

Seurat re-stretched its canvas to allow for room to paint a border made up of red, orange and blue dots. 

7. Seurat was just 26 when he completed his best-known work.

Thanks to his involvement in the artist collective the Société des Artistes Indépendants, the daring young painter's reputation was growing before A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 debuted. But while his output was seminal, it was also cut short in 1891 when Seurat died of an undetermined disease at age 31. 

8. Sunday was largely unseen for 30 years following Seurat's death. 

The opportunity to view the historic painting returned in 1924 when art lover Frederic Clay Bartlett purchased A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 and loaned it indefinitely to the Art Institute of Chicago.

9. An American philosopher helped reshape public opinion on the painting. 

In the 1950s, Ernest Bloch's three-volume The Principle of Hope explored the socio-political interpretations of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, spurring a renewed interest and appreciation for the piece.

"This picture is one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing and the incongruities of a dolce far niente [idleness]," Bloch wrote. "The painting depicts a middle-class Sunday morning on an island in the Seine near Paris…despite the recreation going on there, seems to belong more to Hades than to a Sunday…The result is endless boredom, the little man's hellish utopia of skirting the Sabbath and holding onto it too; his Sunday succeeds only as a bothersome must, not as a brief taste of the Promised Land."

10. The painting is now displayed as Seurat intended. 

Once he'd added his painted border, Seurat reframed A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 in a specially-made wooden frame painted a crisp white. This display choice is still in effect at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

11. But its colors have changed. 

Seurat employed a then-new pigment in his painting, a zinc chromate yellow that he hoped would properly capture the highlights of the park's green grasses. But for years this pigment has been undergoing a chemical reaction that began turning it brown even in Seurat's lifetime.

12. It's bigger than you'd think.

Not just Seurat's most popular piece, but also his biggest, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 measures in at 81 3/4 inches by 121 1/4 inches, or about 7 feet by 10 feet. Its large size makes its every inch flush with tiny dots of color all the more remarkable.

13. This park scene may hold hidden sex workers. 

The titular locale was a favorite of prostitutes on the prowl, so some historians suspect that fish are not what the fishing-pole-toting woman on the left was hoping to hook. The same speculation has arisen around the lady on the right, with a monkey on a leash and a man on her arm.  

14. The painting was nearly incinerated while visiting New York. 

On April 15, 1958, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 was on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when a fire broke out in the adjoining Whitney Museum. The fire damaged six canvases, injured 31 people, and killed one workman, but Seurat's beloved work was whisked away to safety through an elevator evacuation plan.

15. It's one of the most reproduced and parodied paintings in the world. 

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 earns screen time in the Chicago-set comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the science fiction cult classic Barbarella, and on the crude cartoon series Family Guy. It's been parodied by Sesame Street, The Simpsons, the American version of The Office, and even the cover of Playboy. In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd invade the painting. And celebrated Broadway icons Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine made a musical about its creation called, Sunday in the Park With George.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
Original image
Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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