Painting of the Month
Georges Seurat, 'Bathers at Asnières', 1884
When Georges Seurat painted this monumental picture he was still a young man in his early 20s.
It is a commonly held belief that Seurat ‘painted in dots’, but at this early stage in his career, his painting technique was more indebted to the work of Impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir. The calm waters of the River Seine at Asnières are painted in short horizontal dashes, while the spiky grass that the bathers rest on is painted using criss-crossed brush strokes.
The huge scale of this work (it is roughly the size of a small van) is less conventional than the way in which it was painted. Works of this size were usually reserved for ‘history painting’, tackling lofty, heroic subjects that were intended to morally elevate those who viewed them. Seurat has not chosen to paint the classical warriors or athletes traditionally depicted in such grand bathing scenes. Instead, his bathers are everyday men and boys, perhaps on a day off from the Clichy factories in the background.
The bathers sit or recline on the bank and bathe in the polluted river in strange isolation, while the blazing sunshine beats down overhead. The repetition of poses and anonymity of their faces seems to strip the figures of individuality. We can only wonder what their thoughts might be or what faces lie beneath the various hats and heavy fringes.
Only one boy is animated – our attention drawn to him by his surrounding ‘glow’ – as he appears to hail someone on the other side of the river. In fact, Seurat returned to this work some years later (after he had developed his pointillist technique) to repaint the hat of this young boy in complementary orange and blue dots.
However, the work requires you, the viewer, to finish it. The colours have not been mixed on Seurat’s brush. They are juxtaposed and only blend to form the intended colour once viewed from a distance.
'Bathers at Asnières' is this year's 'Take One Picture' display, the National Gallery’s flagship project for primary schools. The works in this display demonstrate the innovative ways in which schools have responded to Seurat's painting.