Bathers at Asnieres: The Social Connection of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Morgan Mucha , Staff Reporter

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnieres, oil on canvas, France ca. 1884, The National Gallery, London. Georges Seurat was an extremely influential painter active during the Post-Impressionistic movement. He created many pieces, such as Bathers at Asnieres. Seurat’s earliest significant painting was the colossal image, measuring 79.1 by 118.1 inches, created before he turned 25. His intention when producing Bathers at Asnieres was for it to emphasize a major proposal that he would make at the official Salon in 1884. The composition shows many boys and young men adoring the sunshine on the edge of the Seine, placed between the bridges toward Courbevoie and Asnières. This was a popular area northwest of Paris. Behind the main scene lays a railway bridge, concealing both the chimneys of the factories and gas plants near Clichy and a road bridge. Clichy was an area in which many men worked. Sailboats, some cradling individuals, are seen floating in the river. During preparation, Seurat analyzed the location in which he wanted to portray. At the time, the area held a path along the lake, lined with lower-class housing, eateries, workshops, and boatyards. The reasoning behind the exposed sand toward the middle of the piece is contributed to its alternative title, Une Baignade, translating to a bathing place. It symbolizes the lower class’s usage of the bank for recreational purposes and an area of labor. An influence on Seurat’s barren portion of the sand was the maps detailing the surrounding area, where animals may be cleaned and given water. This and the usage of boats sparked the image in the artist’s mind. Although he was considered a Post-Impressionistic painter, Seurat also utilized similar color values and subjects as those pondered by the Impressionists. His techniques varied extremely. Many Impressionists, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, painted outside to both spark inspiration and portray realism in their works. On the other hand, Seurat executed his compositions in a studio indoors. His works are also extremely large when compared to those made by traditional Impressionistic artists. Contrary to the spontaneous nature executed before, Seurat’s paintings were planned and hoped for perfection. This can be seen in many surviving sketches placed in galleries around the world. 10 drawings and 13 oil sketches have survived. In particular, he executed oil and life sketches based on the site that Seurat wanted to include in the piece. Conté crayons were one of his major mediums used in his preparatory practices. Two oil studies for the Bathers at Asnieres can currently be seen at the National Gallery in London, which houses the completed composition as well. The clothing of the men, such as the footwear and hats, and particular manner, such as the

saddened slouch of the boy toward the middle, symbolizes the lower-middle class’s attitudes and attire. Labor is absent in the composition, as no men are seen partaking in masculine actions, such as sports. The two boys in the water are only standing and playing, not swimming. Swayed by the social culture of the period, a bourgeois couple, dressed in proper attire, is seen traveling along the river. The only working individual is the oarsman of the two higher-class people. Seurat hoped to convey a message depicting working-class society. The men sit extremely stiff along the riverbank. Seurat composed frozen side profiles to convey nonmovement. Their bodies are undisturbed by the painted lines. Each figure acts as a sponge, despite sitting in the same area. They soak in their thoughts, remaining unengaged. The painting is doused in a peculiar shade of sunlight, proposing an eerie feeling to the viewer. Although all paintings and pieces are frozen in time, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres brings this view to a different level of severity. Many of his pre-compositional sketches contain horses being bathed, though none appear in the final piece. Unlike many artists of the period, Seurat held an academic background from the École des-Beaux-Arts in Paris. This is where he was educated on the process of sketching classical figures and sculptures, which can be seen in many individuals in this piece. Toward the bottom right, a young boy stands still in the rippling water with both hands cupped to his mouth. Based on Seurat’s past education, he is believed to symbolize the Greek god Triton, who protected the water and blew on a conch shell, an action which the boy mocks. France was, and still is, a hub for art history, as it contains many museums and galleries. Seurat took an opportunity to study art housed in the Louvre. The simplicity, skin tones, and usage of strange shapes in the Bathers at Asnieres were influenced by Piero Della Francesca, particularly his Arezzo frescoes. There are not only classical but contemporary admirations. Puvis de Chavannes, with who he was often compared, was an influence on Seurat’s work. Chavanne’s piece Doux Pays, exhibited during the 1882 Salon, predicted details of Seurat’s image. He discovered harmony and extreme grandeur in modern France. Pointillism, a technique utilized by Seurat, uses miniature dots of complementary color tones to produce an image. Bathers at Asnieres doesn’t utilize this style like his other pieces, such as The Channel of Gravelines. Regardless of the composition’s classical aspects, Seurat applied modern tone and paint. He used different techniques to convey this, such as the usage of brushstrokes for water. He took aspects of art done by popular artists, such as Renoir. For example, the bridge toward the back is extremely like the one present in Renoir’s The Skiff, a painting also utilizing complementary tones. When submitted to the Salon, Seurat’s work was rejected, and he soon later exhibited it at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants. The most influential work of his career, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, painted in 1885, portrays the same river shown in Bathers at Asnieres, but from the opposite side. Many of the figures shown are categorized as the upper-middle class, contradicting the other side’s economic status. It is currently housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. The greenery, particularly the trees, toward the right behind the bourgeois couple seated in the boat is set as the tip of the island. This may have been added to connect the two and their meanings. Seurat’s usage of both meaning and technique has changed the way French Post-Impressionism, and even Impressionism are thought of today.