‘The Bathers Asniėres’ by Georges-Pierre Seurat

‘The Bathers Asniėres’ by Georges-Pierre Seurat

by Charles Harris
article from Thursday 9, November, 2017

DEAR READERS, to explain so much confusion that arises from the use of artistic language that misleads today I am providing an excerpt from ‘Trust Your Eye’ which I hope helps address this fantasy of interpretation.

This painting shows a day of leisure spent on the riverbank, like a Sunday or a Holiday. It is a joy to behold because it is a pleasure we all can share and look forward to as a treat or a celebration.

This picture shows a group of people bathing and from the outset we realise the execution is superb. It is a large painting with strong three-dimensional drawing and has clear tonal and temperature values. Each person, plus the objects we see, exist in their own space and the space is created through tonality. This tonality is achieved by direct contrast with the person or object itself and the space behind. This is shown with a different tone and can be either the water, the riverbank or the sky.

Whatever anyone else may say, this is a huge traditional composition within a strong sense of French classicism.

The Impressionists always tried to paint the first impression and retain the freshness of this idea. Shelley said ‘Creation is a fading coal’, which helps us to understand how technically difficult this approach can be.

Seurat in some ways differed from other Impressionist artists with respect to his theoretical thinking regarding minor aspects of design and the way a painting is practically constructed.

In technical terms this refers to the way his temperature was used throughout the whole composition of a painting. In an attempt to apparently gain more precision within the discipline of temperature, Seurat deliberately emphasised a ‘hot area’ next to a ‘cold area’ in small often minuscule detail.

This has been called ‘Pointillism’ and this term has been afforded an importance that its title does not really merit with regards to the effect it has on the art of traditional painting as a whole.

Practically, if you look really closely at Seurat’s paintings, within any square inch, you may find ‘dots’ or small brushstrokes of red paint next to blue paint, or brushstrokes of orange next to green, or even yellow against purple etc. It does not really matter, for this is only his means to use temperature and temperature values throughout a painting. Seurat’s paintings still retained the traditional language because it was also completed within the disciplines of tonal values and strict three-dimensional drawing.

Artists can vary the emphasis upon which they place their choices in using traditional methods within the grand scheme of things. Indeed it was these choices that allowed artists to continue to use and enhance the Great Tradition with the painting subjects they chose. Traditionally the subject matter should be determined by how it is presented visually and the reality thereby achieved through paint becomes the traditional means of achieving and representing that reality. Focusing attention on small practical differences in technique, as if this was something entirely different to the Great Tradition, is irrelevant when the outcome of the painting remains the same.

In this painting and with respect to the language of painting, the effect we are seeing has been deliberately executed in a tonal sense that is very high key. If one imagines the tonal scale of a piano we are talking mostly in the higher register because it is painted out-of-doors and the light is coming from the sky, making everything seem bright. Tonally, it does drop to the darks, as seen with the shadows in the mens’ trousers, in the bushes and in some of the drawn outlines, but naturally this is a light subject rather than a dark one.

In practical terms, everything appears to be running from hot to cold, using that logic all the way through, while at the same time, the artist is employing very definite traditional drawing methods. It is big drawing. The composition itself helps to illustrate the scope of the image we are seeing. The manner in which the edge of the bank is shown dividing the river from the land is also a classic traditional idea, as well as dividing the picture into diagonals that help us to focus. 

The convention of perspective, in using both lines of the bank to converge into the distance, immediately gave the artist a very strong three-dimensional image upon which he could sit and pose the figures. This allows us to fully explore the picture. Seurat breaks the surface of the canvas in a traditional manner and we can walk and feel our way towards the back of the picture, thoroughly enjoying the content.

Historically, Seurat had gone to Asniėres, which was considered a working-class resort on the Seine. We see that in the 19th Century factory chimneys which are featured in the background.  Consequently it was claimed that this was a social statement and the chimneys are a social comment both on lifestyle and as a protest against the industrial revolution, the effects of its pollution upon the environment and the appalling social conditions of its workers.

When we look again at the painting however, this is not what we actually see. We can see a bright fresh view. It is full of life. It is also invigorating. It is a scene full of human beings who are calmly resting and enjoying their leisure and recreation. They are not protesting.

Instead this view is calm, serene, bright and cheerful. It is alive with summer sunshine and life on the riverbank. We can see boats on the river, people bathing, sunbathing and indulging themselves, calmly resting probably from the rigours of work. ‘After all’, as Kenneth Grahame said, ‘the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.’

© Charles harris from his book Trust Your Eye, available here.

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