By the early 1880s, a number of artists began to express dissatisfaction with the Impressionist aim of rendering transient effects. Among them was the young Georges Seurat, who, after a brief stint at the Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris, set himself the daunting task of reconciling rigorous idealism with recent developments in contemporary art, including Impressionism.
Seurat’s first important canvas, Bathers at Asnières (London, National Gallery), exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Indépendants in 1884, shows men and boys from the artisanal and working classes lounging by the Seine just west of the capital. Although the work is quasi-Impressionist in color and handling, its matte surface, serene rhythms, and large scale align it with mural painting, especially as exemplified by the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
Seurat studied Eugène Delacroix’s way of intermingling different shades of a single color to create a "woven" effect. Yet, as the Art Institute’s oil study demonstrates, he modified the Romantic painter’s technique by adding vivid, contrasting colors: for example he used occasional touches of pale orange and cream, in addition to three tints of green, to render the grassy bank. The varied size and direction of the brush strokes give this small panel a vitality absent from the ten-foot-high, final canvas, which is hauntingly stilled.
Seurat’s decision to portray laborers and craftsmen on a monumental scale was a response to the depictions of bourgeois leisure produced in the 1870s by artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir. But if there is any element of social critique in Bather at Asnières, it is oblique, as it would be in Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, an image of a more decorous, largely middle-class pleasure spot just off to the right of the site depicted here, toward which the boy in the red hat calls.
- Shop Online
- Join and Give