This large picture was Seurat’s first major composition, painted when he had not yet turned 25. He intended it to be a grand statement with which he would make his mark at the official Salon in the spring of 1884, but it was rejected.
Several men and boys relax on the banks of the Seine at Asnières and Courbevoie, an industrial suburb north-west of central Paris. Shown in profile, they are as immobile as sculptures and each seems absorbed in his own thoughts, neither engaging with each other nor with us. Suffused with bright but hazy sunlight, the entire scene has an almost eerie stillness to it, as if time has been suspended and all movement temporarily frozen. In the background there is a railway bridge that partly hides a parallel road bridge, as well as the chimneys of the gas plant and factories at Clichy, where some of the men may work.
This large picture was Seurat’s first major composition, painted when he had not yet turned 25. He intended it to be a grand statement with which he would make his mark at the official Salon in the spring of 1884. It shows several men and boys relaxing in the sun on the banks of the Seine, between the bridges at Asnières and Courbevoie, north-west of central Paris. In the background is a railway bridge that partly hides a parallel road bridge, as well as the chimneys of the gas plant and factories at Clichy, where some of the men may work. Recreational sailboats can be seen on the river.
When Seurat studied the location in preparation for the painting, there would have been a path along the embankment as well as run-down houses and villas, boatyards, workshops and lower-class cafes and restaurants. The exposed sand in the middle of the riverbank on the left is the reason for the painting sometimes being titled Une baignade (‘a bathing place’). The term did not imply a middle-class idea of recreation by the water, but instead signified a place of work. It was used, for example on maps of the river, to indicate places where horses and dogs could be bathed and watered. It was this practice, and the dragging of boats in and out of the water, that formed the sandy gully.
Although Seurat was often drawn to similar subjects and sites as the Impressionists, and employed the same colour theories, his treatment was radically different. Not only is this picture much larger than most Impressionist paintings, but it was executed in the studio rather than outdoors in just one or two sessions. In contrast to the spontaneity of Impressionist works, Seurat’s picture was meticulously planned. He completed a series of preparatory oil sketches of the site and numerous conté crayon life drawings of the figures. Of these, some 13 oil sketches and 10 drawings survive. Two oil Studies for Bathers at Asnières are also in the National Gallery’s collection.
The men’s clothing (the bowler hat, boots and sleeveless vest) and demeanour (for example, the slight slouch of the seated boy and his blunt profile) suggest that some of them are either workers or lower middle class. However, none are engaged in traditionally ‘masculine’ activities such as labour or sport – even the two in the water do not appear to be swimming. By way of social contrast, a bourgeois couple, complete with parasol and top hat, are being ferried across the river in a boat bearing a triclore flag. Their oarsman is the only person in the picture who is working. Although the painting does not convey an obvious political statement, Seurat’s depiction of working-class recreation – as distinct from Impressionist scenes of bourgeois leisure (of which the boating couple are a reminder) – was a challenge to artistic tradition, as the grand scale was more appropriate for history and academic painting.
The men and boys on the riverbank are as immobile as sculptures. Seurat also shows them in profile, as if in a frieze, their smooth bodies defined by unbroken outlines. Although they occupy the same small area of riverbank, each seems absorbed in his own thoughts, neither engaging with each other nor with us. Suffused with bright but hazy sunlight, the scene has an almost eerie stillness, as if time has been suspended and all movement temporarily frozen. Seurat has enhanced this effect by not showing activities one might expect to see – for example, no horses are being bathed (although several of the preparatory studies do include them) – and by presenting this stretch of the river as if it were a well-maintained park.
Seurat had a traditional academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he learned to draw from classical sculptures; several of the bathers’ poses reflect this. On the far right, the boy standing in the water with his hands cupped to his mouth evokes the Greek water god Triton blowing his conch shell. Seurat also studied paintings in the Louvre, and in this picture the simplicity of forms, use of regular shapes defined by light and the pale, almost alabaster skin tones recall paintings by the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca, especially his Arezzo frescoes.
But there are also more contemporary associations. Seurat admired Puvis de Chavannes (with whom he was compared), and aspects of his painting are also features of Puvis’s work: its scale (which recalls a mural rather than an easel painting), the semi-nude figures arranged in lateral planes like a classical relief and a composition based upon clear geometrical principles. Puvis’s painting Doux pays (‘gentle landscape’) (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne), which was exhibited at the 1882 Salon, particularly anticipated elements of Seurat’s picture. However, unlike Puvis, who kept modernity at a distance, Seurat found order, harmony and perhaps even a heroic grandeur in the modern world.
Seurat was soon to go on to create pointillism, a technique that employed tiny dots of complementary colours. This picture is not painted in the pointillist style of his later works, such as The Channel of Gravelines, although he did repaint parts of it using this technique – for example, the orange hat was reworked later with spots of yellow and blue. Despite the painting’s classicising features, Seurat’s application of paint is modern. For example, he used broad brushstrokes for the water. This follows the precedent of Monet and Renoir, who had both painted this part of the river – the railway bridge in the background is the same as that in Renoir’s The Skiff, a painting also based upon complementary colours.
Seurat’s painting was rejected when submitted to the Salon, and he subsequently exhibited it at the newly formed Salon des Artistes Indépendants. His second monumental picture, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte of 1885 (Art Institute of Chicago), shows the same stretch of river but looking across it from the other side. The clump of trees on the right behind the bourgeois couple in the boat (who may have been added later as a link between the two pictures) is the tip of the island. La Grande Jatte was a location for middle-class leisure from which the workers we see here are separated both spatially and socially. Two oil Studies for La Grand Jatte are also in the National Gallery’s collection.
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