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Seurat's 'A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte' Set To Return To Display At Art Institute With New Frame

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It's one of the most recognizable paintings of all time – Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."

Seurat painted the masterwork from 1884 to 1886, and first arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago nearly a century ago.

The painting is now being restored and reframed. CBS 2 Photographer Scott Wilson got a behind-the-scenes look at the meticulous work of touching up a masterpiece.

"For the Art Institute, it's a destination piece," said Art Institute curator Gloria Groom. "Chicago has always been blessed with amazing collectors. When they see it, they can't believe they're seeing the real thing."

It's one of the most recognizable paintings not only at the Art Institute in Chicago, but in the world.

Groom said the painting is "the centerpiece of our modern collection."

"Amazing acquisition – it was very forward-thinking; very astute," said Art Institute associate conservator Kirk Buillemot. "You know, I think the Parisian government would love to take it back."

Groom said "La Grande Jatte" is also "kind of a perfect social distancing painting."

"You can see all of these people are with their pod, but they're not near the other people," she said.

The Art Institute notes on its website that "La Grande Jatte" was initially panned by critics, who used words such as "bedlam," "scandal," and "hilarity."

But it of course has become renowned as Seurat's greatest work.

"With what resembles scientific precision, the artist tackled the issues of color, light, and form. Inspired by research in optical and color theory, he juxtaposed tiny dabs of colors that, through optical blending, form a single and, he believed, more brilliantly luminous hue," the Art Institute says on its website. "To make the experience of the painting even more intense, he surrounded the canvas with a frame of painted dashes and dots, which he, in turn, enclosed with a pure white wood frame, similar to the one with which the painting is exhibited today."

Now, the Art Institute has an opportunity to give the painting a new frame once more.

"The Art Institute has always been stuck with the problem is, how would have Seurat liked to see the painting presented," said Buillemot, who is building the frame.

The new frame, Groom said, "will be a much closer frame to what the artist would have put on it."

"With Seurat, what's so humbling is that it's all on his terms, and that anything you do is going to affect the painting," Buillemot said. "Hopefully, we're just going to have something that will live peacefully on the side – not get in the way of the painting – and just let you enjoy what's inside the frame."

"La Grande Jatte" was purchased by art collector and Art Institute trustee Frederic Clay Bartlett in 1924 – more than 30 years after Seurat's death – and placed it on loan to the museum. It has left the museum exactly once in the 98 years since for a 1958 appearance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – where it escaped damage when a fire broke out at that museum.

As CBS 2's Charlie DeMar reported, the painting was created 150 years ago but still holds a place in pop culture. "La Grande Jatte" also, of course, was the inspiration for the 1984 Broadway musical "Sunday in the Park with George" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. It was also featured in the popular film Ferris Bueller's day off.

"La Grande Jatte" will return to display next Thursday. If you want to go and see it, note that the Art Institute has strict COVID rules in place.

You need proof of vaccination, non-members need to buy tickets in advance, and everyone must wear a mask.

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