Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat
Bathers at Asnieres (1883-4)
It was probably his classical training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he learned traditional figure drawing under Henri Lehmann, a pupil of J.A.D.Ingres, that imbued Georges Seurat with his sense of classicism - a feature of his formal design as well as his statuesque figures. In any event, his appreciation of traditional painting drew him away from the transitory values of both Monet's Impressionism and Courbet's Realist painting, and towards a more enduring, intellectual style of modern art. Choosing to immerse himself in colour theory, he developed a new method of painting - dubbed 'Pointillism' (dottism) by the influential critic Felix Feneon (1861-1944) - which was based on the scientific theories of Divisionism, propounded by Michel Eugene Chevreul and Ogden Rood. Instead of mixing paint on his palette, as normal, and then applying it to the canvas, Seurat began applying small dots of pure colour directly to the canvas, knowing that the human eye mixes the colours for him when it views the picture from a certain distance. (The same technique that underpins the modern method of printing colour images.) Although Seurat purposefully adopted the airy freshness of Impressionist colour, applied in short, light brushstrokes, his use of pure colour pigments which were then optically mingled, gave his paintings a wonderful luminous quality. In addition, Seurat had little interest in the sort of plein-air painting used by Impressionist painters to capture fleeting impressions of light and colour. Instead, he preferred to plan and prepare his compositions in the studio, slowly working them up from drawings and other preparatory studies.
However, Seurat had not finalized Pointillism when he painted Bathers at Asnieres. The pointillist-style dots of pure colour, would not appear in great numbers until he painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6, Art Institute of Chicago). Nevertheless, Bathers exemplifies Seurat's broader style of Neo-Impressionism - the style that developed out of Impressionism but also reacted against it. Like Monet and the others, Seurat was also fascinated by light and colour; but while they were solely interested in capturing fleeting 'moments', he was interested in transforming such 'moments' into timeless grandeur. Note that some art historians detect strong similarities of geometry and stillness between Bathers and the work of Tuscan early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (c.1412-92).
In any event, historians now regard La Jatte and Bathers as pioneering works of both Post-Impressionism, and the Classical Revival (fl.1900-30). Although neither of these outstanding genre paintings was shown at the official Paris Salon, they transformed Seurat into a leading figure of the avant-garde, and one of the most influential representatives of Post-Impressionist painting in France. One can only wonder what he might have achieved if he hadn't died so tragically at the age of 31.
Bathers at Asnieres was Seurat's first major canvas. It measures 2 metres high by 3 metres wide and it shows a group of working men on their day off. When he submitted it to the Salon of 1884 it is unlikely that its rejection took him by surprise. The only subjects deemed appropriate for such a large painting at the time were religious, historical or classical subjects. Certainly not members of the lower orders lounging about on the banks of the Seine. So Seurat was making a deliberate political point. The Impressionists believed that it was not essential for a picture to tell a story. Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley all wanted to capture the fleeting 'moment' before the light changed. This was why they began to paint outdoors, something ridiculed at the time. But in capturing 'the moment' on such a large scale and in portraying working men, Seurat was challenging the right of the establishment to dictate what was or was not a suitable subject for art. It is also possible that there was a subversive political statement in the painting.
In the background is the bridge at Clichy, a suburb of Paris, and the factories there. Above the buildings are six tall chimneys. The one in the centre spews out smoke that turns to dark blue as it drifts away to the right. To that side of the bridge are trees with a stone wall dropping directly down into the river.
To the left of the bridge are taller trees and, half hidden among them, a couple of houses, white-walled, red-roofed. Then, occupying half the painting, the riverbank slopes down towards and almost across to the right of the canvas. Just below the bridge on the left of the river are a couple of sailing boats while, on the right, further towards us, is a third sailboat near the shore and, only half his skiff visible, a solitary sculler.
More importantly, there is a ferry with a tricolour hanging limply from its flagpole but with the red, white and blue clearly visible so we can't mistake what it is. In the ferry is a boatman, white-shirted and straw-hatred, pushing his paddle to take his passengers to the far shore. These are a lady, her back to us and to the men on the bank, mostly concealed by a white sunshade, and a dark-suited man in a top hat. The sunshade and the top hat tell us, I think, that they are a lady and a gentleman. Does the flag, an absurdly large one for such a small boat, suggest ironically that its passengers are representatives of France more valuable than the idling workers whom they are leaving behind?
Downstream of the ferry and closer to the near shore, a band of weed about the length of the boat and of much the same green as the grass floats on the water. On the main bank, which slopes down to the water's edge, are a number of working men on their day off - or that is at least a reasonable supposition, for else how could they be there? There are four older men on the bank, three younger ones in or near the water. The sun, as we can tell from the shadows of the men sitting on the grass, is coming from the right of the picture.
Furthest away from us, a man in a pinky-brown shirt, dark trousers and a straw hat is stretched out on his stomach. Next to him a man all in white and wearing a bowler hat sits gazing at the ferry. Then there's a cutting in the bank - perhaps made to allow boats to land. The earth must be chalky here because the soil exposed by the excavation is cream. On our side of the cutting a man sits on a brown cushion, barefoot, with trousers rolled up to his knees, a sleeveless vest and a straw hat, its band matching his cushion. He too is looking at the water.
Standing almost submerged in the river is a blond adolescent, turned away from us. Like all the men, he is pale skinned - these are factory workers, only rarely exposed to the sun. The largest figure in the picture - though not the most prominent - is a teenage boy, sitting on the edge of the bank, dangling his feet in the water. He wears red bathing trunks and his clothes - a straw hat with band to match the trunks, dark boots, and trousers with a big white towel thrown over them which helps draw the eye to him - are beside him. He has badly cut auburn air and his face and neck are a darker colour than the pale skin of his body. He sits slumped and round shouldered, an unattractive figure with a big nose and a receding chin. You feel he's lonely, his mind vacant. Or perhaps the girl he likes will have nothing to do with him and he's enduring the misery of young love.
Behind him lies a black-haired man with his back to us, leaning his face on his hand. He wears a bowler hat and his shirt has been pulled out of his dark trousers, which provides a long length of white, mirroring the cream of the cutting beyond him. Behind him, looking at the river, sits an orange spaniel. Seurat is always good at animals.
Further up the bank, behind him, we see a pile of clothes - perhaps belonging to the final figure, a boy standing in the river. He is the figure closest to us and, due to Seurat's compositional skill, despite being at the extreme right-hand edge of the canvas, is the focus of the painting. He wears red swimming trunks and a red hat, a blaze of colour against the white of his skin, which helps to direct us to him. Fingers intertwined, he holds his cupped hands to his lips and his head is slightly raised. He is making some sort of whistling noise - is he calling to people on the other bank?
The overall impression is of green (the grass), blue (the sky, the water), cream and white (the bridge and buildings in the background, the sails of the boats, the chalk of the cutting, the white of the men's shirts). The feel is static, unanimated, as the only activities are the ferryman plying his oar in the distance and the boy whistling in the foreground. These are working men - maybe workers at the factories in the background, there's only one chimney smoking - and this is their day of rest.
But where are the women? In another picture of people on a day off, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte included many women and covered a wide social spectrum. This is just seven men on the banks of the Seine with members of the bourgeoisie being rowed away from them. One must assume this is a deliberate choice for, of course, the women are not tending the home as better-off middle-class girls do. Like their men folk, they have to work, which must be where they are today.
The composition of the painting, the way in which Seurat guides us where to look, is thrilling. There's a series of diagonals, sloping from left to right across the picture and Seurat's use of brown to red directs us unavoidably to the focus - the boy in the red hat standing in the water. Parallel and behind him are the adolescent's red trunks and behind that is the brown cushion, the same auburn as the young man's hair. The interruption in the green of the grass provided by the cutting also pulls our eyes down, away from the pale-blue sky, away from the white and cream bridge and factories. Below the cutting, the two piles of clothes and the long white shirt of the man with the bowler hat and the spaniel also move us diagonally down and right. And, of course, the three young men in and close to the water all have pale skins.
As mentioned above, Seurat had not perfected
his technique of pointillism when he painted this picture in 1883-84.
But the great adventure is under way: he uses a number of colours to produce
an overall hue. The green of the grass is made up of green, yellow, grey;
the teenager's swimming trunks contain orange, pink, blue, the odd streak
of black - but the paint is dabbed on. The tiny dots, for which he must
have used a fine brush, do not make their pointillist appearance until
two years later and he would use this technique for the rest of his short
The meaning of Bathers at Asnieres becomes clearer when viewed alongside 'La Jatte'. It is certainly no coincidence that the former depicts the working class sunning themselves on the left bank of the Seine, while the latter focuses on the more affluent middle classes enjoying a day out on opposite bank of the river. It is a tale, in other words, of two classes - both frozen in time, and both imbued with a timeless monumentality. Except that Seurat depicts the 'La Jatte' crowd as materialistic and immoral, while the working men on the left (as it were) appear to retain a superior sense of straightforward simplicity. Indeed, the working class boy in the red hat appears to be calling out to the people on the opposite bank, as if to say "Come and join us! We are the future!"
Seurat's influence, once he launched himself on pointillism, was enormous. Many modern artists outside the Pointillist group adopted the style, including Van Gogh (Self-Portrait, 1887, Art Institute of Chicago); Henri Matisse (Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904, Musee d'Orsay); Andre Derain (Boats at Collioure, 1905, Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf); and Jean Metzinger (Woman with a Hat, 1906, Korban Art Foundation). Meanwhile, Pissarro painted a number of his best pictures following Seurat's lead and wrote to his son: "I think Seurat has something new to contribute. I am personally convinced of the progressive character of his art and certain that in no time it will yield extraordinary results."
Tragically, in 1891, a year after Seurat completed Young Woman Powdering Herself, a portrait of Madeleine Knobloch, his mistress and the mother of his one-year-old son, the boy contracted an infectious angina. Seurat caught it from him and both he and his child died. So, tragically and prematurely, ended the life of one of the most innovative and influential painters of the nineteenth century. Three months later, an inventory of his estate was made by fellow artists, including Paul Signac (1863-1935) who - with Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910) - was to carry Seurat's innovations further. Madeleine Knobloch was given a number of paintings as her share and then, possibly to avoid or even to evade Seurat's family with whom she had quarrelled, she disappeared and was not heard of again. But all this was hidden in the future when Seurat painted this happy and affectionate picture.
Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.
Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-81) by Renoir.
The Large Bathers (1894-1906) London and Philadelphia; by Paul Cezanne.
Gare Sainte-Lazare (1877) by Claude Monet.
Water Lilies (Nympheas) (1897-1926) by Claude Monet.
For the meaning of other Neo-Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION