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

15 Things You Might Not Know About A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884

Original image
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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES