The huge work found in front of us here focuses on the working-class residents of the city. They line this picturesque spot in the city, looking out across the river whilst enjoying some rare and hard-earned leisure time. There are around five figures in the foreground some of whom are topless, which underlines their less formal lifestyle. Further down the bank we see some other people enjoying the sunshine, with some boats in the background, plus a cityscape behind that. We can spot some plumes of smoke, be it from the industrial age or perhaps a train passing across the bridge. All of the buildings are low level which ensures that they do not take too much attention from the figures nearest us. There is also a number of trees which cover both sides of the river, though Seurat deliberately selects open areas in which to capture these portraits. Much can be learnt about these two related paintings by comparing their differences.
This depiction of Bathers would actually come first of the two major artworks, with A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte then being started straight soon after. Many of the learnings from the initial work could then be carried over into that more ambitious follow-up. The two together are considered his two masterpieces and both came whilst he was still in his twenties. Sadly, his life would not last much longer and so we will never no what sort of direction his style might have taken in the next decades, but we should always be grateful for what he was indeed able to achieve in this shortened lifespan. The success of the two paintings has led to a good amount of research being completed on them in the years that have passed since. Scientific investigations have sought to uncover the technical approaches used by Seurat, whilst others have attempted to learn more about the items within the composition for those unfamiliar with the city of Paris.
Seurat wanted to mark his arrival within the art world with Bathers at Asnières. He was just 24 at the time and sought to produce a large painting that would get him noticed within the Salon. He knew that size would need to be met with technical brilliance and so he set about the idea of using small dots of carefully planned colour in order to achieve a stunning luminosity. This technique was influenced by colour theories that he had been studying in recent years and they also allowed a bright palette to be used within his work. Additionally, whilst the depictions of the working classes was nothing new in French art, it was a shock to see these figures spread across such large canvases. They were also portrayed in a positive light, effectively enjoying their lives just as much as the figures found on the other side of the river in a more wealthy part of the city. Art can often tell us so much about the society of the time, and as we moved into the 19th and 20th century, more and more artists were starting to include the lives of those on lower incomes within their work.
"...I had been in Paris for three years, I had been to all the museums, to Durand-Ruel's gallery and to all the last exhibitions of the old guard impressionists, when Seurat's art was revealed to me by The Bathers (Une Baignade) (Asnieres), which I saw in the canteen of the Salon des Artistes Independants. Although I did not commit myself in writing, I then completely realized the importance of this painting; the masterpieces which were the logical consequences of it followed without bringing me again the spice of surprise. I think it was at the famous Eight Exhibition of Paintings in the rue Laffitte that I first saw and became acquainted with Seurat and the painters he influenced..."
We now understand that the location of this painting was between the Asnières and Courbevoie bridges, in the North West of Paris. It is indeed a railway bridge that we can spot in the far distance, which would have run alongside a road bridge during that time. There was a good amount of industry at that time within this part of the city, and we can spot a numer of chimneys from an area known as Clichy. It is quite probable that some of those relaxing in front of us here would have been employed within that district. Perhaps we can therefore see a comparison between their working lives in the smoke of industry, against the free and fun leisure time being spent undressed by the side of this beautiful river. Many of the boats that make their way up and down this scene are included in the sister artwork as well, which provides a touch of consistency between the two. The shadows found in this painting are relatively subtle, with just a few stretching out to the left to allow us to understand the direction of the bright sun on this sunny day.
The sandy opening on this side of the bank would have been to allow horses and dogs to easily wash themselves clean. There was, therefore, a working element to this side, though on this occasion, the figures in front of us are there purely for their own enjoyment. It is likely that boats could also have been taken in and out of the water in this spot, which may well have widened this opening in the bank over time. Seurat would have studied many different spots along the river in order to get just the right look for his work, and in other places there would have been an abudance of small businesses to serve the needs of these local workers. His decision to make the grassy bank the main focus, with bridges and buildings very much in a supporting role, gives us a much more positive insight into the lives of these people and avoids labelling them as victims or the downtrodden as many other artists would previously have done. Perhaps it appealed to the middle class art critics to see those beneath them struggling, but Seurat saw a beauty and honesty in their lives, to the point where their level of happiness, with lower expectations, may actually have been higher than in comparison to the middle classes found on the other side of the bank in his follow up painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
European society was changing at a ferocious pace during the late 19th century and it became the job of artists to depict this. Industrialisation was the major influence upon this, but there was also a widening of opportunity for some, as well as a greater inclination for artists to look at all levels of society within their work. In England, for example, we were starting to find artists that were against some of the mass produced products that were now replacing the handmade production techniques of past generations, such as with William Morris, for example. There was also a freedom within French art that had not been seen before, where those of the Salon were more openly being challenged about their own expectations and new ideas were starting to flood in. Whilst Seurat's work would receive fairly polarised reactions at first, it was clear that these new ideas were here to stay, and that it was just a matter of time before academics grew to accept that. The Impressionists themselves would go through a similar process, ultimately becoming featured in exhibitions of work that had been rejected by the Salon, even though the public was starting to become interested in their new artistic approaches.
As mentioned elsewhere, Seurat was someone who bore some similarities with the Impressionists of this period, but who also had many unique characteristics to his work. For example, whilst he would sit outside for study purposes, he always preferred to construct each painting from the comfort of his own studio. He believed in a process to his work, rather than allowing his emotions to completely take over which was entirely at odds with some of the key beliefs of artist such as Claude Monet. He was more scientific in his approach, seeing each element as a separate entity rather than attempting to produce an overall 'impression' of what he was looking at. He liked to be fully in control of what was appearing on his canvas and items such as Bathers at Asnières were also much larger than the Impressionists would normally have produced. Perhaps his decision to avoid mixing paint and instead to focus on delivering colours via the eye's handling of neighbouring tones was an attempt to take an even firmer control on his work. There may not have been the same romance in approach, but the completed paintings were just as impactful, if not more than much of what the Impressionists delivered themselves.
In line with the intensive planning of his work, we do know that prior to completing Bathers at Asnières in 1884, Seurat had produced at least thirteen oil sketches and ten drawings as a means to planning out this particular artwork. They help us to understand his thought processes prior to commencing the final piece, and the intricate way in which he worked meant he had to be pretty sure about most of the painting before he started putting oils down. Any amendments whilst working with the Pointilist approach would have been near impossible to make, and he understood this entirely. The sketches used a variety of different angles around the Seine river which explains how the final piece may have been quite different, and in some cases he chose to focus on just a specific element of the final painting, such as a single group of figures with whom he was still unsure about. Whilst many oil sketches remain, the drawings were made using his favoured conté crayons, and some are likely to have been damaged or lost in the years that have passed since, such is the fragility of paper. Thankfully, a good number of them have been saved and are now only displayed on rare occasions in order to preserve them for future generations.
In both of these paintings the figures are shown in side profile, meaning we can only see one side of them. Essentially, there are almost like sculptures, with the outlines around them being sharply contrasted with the surrounding tones of the sea and grassy bank. They are almost entirely motionless, giving an alternative impression of how people from this level of society would behave. Yes, their clothes are strewn around in a carefree manner which the upper middle classes would never have done, but there is an innate calmness and tranquility to their lives which most viewing this painting would not have realised was possible. In terms of their own social standing, we can see their consistent fashion of bowler hats, boots and vests which places them somewhere around the working and lower middle class levels of French society at that time. A more wealthy couple, symbolically, is shown in the background being taken care of by a sailor who takes them down the river, whilst they relax in their much grander outfits. Seurat signed the painting in the lower left corner and had immediately started a conversation within French art circles about how the lower classes had previously been depicted within art and whether or not it was in fact accurate.
This huge canvas from 1884 can now be found in the collection of the National Gallery, London. It remains amongst the highlights to be found in this venue, even though their overall selection of works is extensive and takes in many of the world's most important artists. They actually hold several more artworks from Seurat's career, and at the time of writing these are all on display together within the same room. You will find several study sketches for both of his two key works here, mostly in oils but with a reduced level of detail so that he could focus on the general layout of the later paintings, but without committing too much time. There are also a number of completed artworks intended for display, such as Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe and also The Seine seen from La Grande Jatte. As the artist's life was cut short so early, so was his career output, meaning that to see more than ten of his paintings in one location is incredibly rare and makes a trip to the National Gallery entirely worthwhile, even before you consider its many other highlights.