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How the 'Bathers' emerged - the painting 'Bathers at Asnieres' - Georges Seurat, National Gallery, London, England

In a recent show at the National Gallery in London, Seurat's early masterwork was displayed among scores of historical antecedents, related contemporary works and the artist's own preparatory studies. The effect, says the author, was to confirm that Seurat both assimilated and transcended his artistic context.

Executed when the artist was 24, Seurat's first monumental painting, Une Baignade, Asnieres (1884), is one of the treasures of the National Gallery, London. Measuring 7 by 11 feet, its outsize scale alone, traditionally reserved for historical epics, contributes to its compelling character. But here in whitened, opaque fresco colors, in blues, yellow-greens and tomato reds, is an enormous frieze of bathers and boats and figures in static poses seated and lying along a river bank. All is carefully observed, but the resulting composition is more than a stone's throw from Realism or Impressionism. The painting's very particular austerity, formality, even decorousness born of sharply considered order, mesh strangely with the recreational scene of contemporary life. The radically simplified depiction of figures poised in a landscape is governed by a keen feel for abstract form, which produces a sense of remove, even aloofness. This distancing is furthered by a crisscrossing of multicolored strokes of matte paint on the surface and the overall brightening and blanching of color, so the background railway bridge and factory with smoke stacks are all but phantasmagoric.(1) Because of its fragility, this large canvas is not loaned; but it fascinates now as it did when it was first exhibited and the public did not know what to make of it.


How the canvas came to be--its genesis and development as a pictorial entity--was the subject from July 2 through Sept. 28 of a wonderfully focused exhibition, "Seurat and The Bathers." The exhibition provided the context of images that engendered Seurat's work: on the one hand, art-historical and pictorial antecedents and somewhat comparable images of the social-historical theme; on the other, examples of Seurat's own procedures as an artist--his drawings, studies and oil sketches-- that indicate specifically how Bathers at Asnieres(2) took shape. The presentation also marked a relatively new effort at the National Gallery to recontextualize works among their contemporaneous brethren, before art history divided paintings between those made by innovative rebels and others by conservative Salon artists. This reconciliation put academically inclined artists near not-so-official artists taken by similar themes.

Ninety-one works were tellingly used to impart the story, of which 37 were by other artists. The latter ranged from Poussin, Millet and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes to Signac and van Gogh, and also included some notably accomplished, if lesser lights. Beautifully organized and thoughtfully installed in the lower galleries of the National Gallery's new Sainsbury wing, the paintings and drawings were wonderful and instructive, grouped to provide a better understanding of the circumstances of the making of Seurat's early masterwork. The Bathers itself was presented grandly, as it deserves, on its own wall, at the end of the central, longitudinal room: it was encountered frontally when the viewer first entered the exhibition and then repeatedly revisited, for each ancillary room adjoined it to either side. While the exhibition may have in some respects demythologized the Bathers by placing it in a contemporary context, this was not in the least to detract from it or from the act of painting generally. To the contrary, the premise, as with other shows in this superb "Painting in Focus" series,(3) was to take painting seriously, as an intelligent, careful and analytical, if inspired, act.

Bathing and the River Landscape

Bathing, usually by comely females, was an important subject in French 19th-century painting. There were provocative dips in exotic harem baths painted by official "Orientalist" artists from Ingres to Gerome; bathing maidens glimpsed in Arcadian pastorals with classicizing-mythological motifs; and unclothed young women at their bath in religious compositions.

Yet, from Michelangelo on, male bathers--and this is Seurat's theme have also made frequent enough appearances in Western art. One wonderful sequence of works in the exhibition, in an array of styles, served to indicate the theme's prevalence in 19th-century France. Here were Honore Daumier's unassuming, casual, eager, almost boisterous rustics of midcentury in The Bathers, cat 1846-48; on a panel of 10 by 12 1/2 inches, the work is approximately the size of Seurat's oil-on-wood studies, but at a considerable esthetic distance. Leon-Auguste Lhermitte's detailed, naturalistic charcoal drawing Bathers at Mont-Saint-Pere (New York, private collection), 1884, from the same year as Seurat's painting, is another kind of rural bathing scene with unclothed men and boys and two clothed women on the shore. Even more stylistic diversity might have been deployed had other works been included, such as Theodore Chasseriau's drawing Summer (Louvre) Frederic Bazille's large Summer Scene (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), 1869, and Gustave Caillebotte's Bather Preparing to Dive (private collection, New York), cat 1878. While the exhibition was devoted to French art, perhaps some affirmation of the bathing theme's attraction internationally would have further contextualized the Seurat painting. In the United States--famously and now even notoriously(4)--boys and young men skinny-dipping were depicted in Thomas Eakins's The Swimming Hole (ca. 1883-85, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth), a work roughly contemporaneous to Seurat's painting; and in Britain, in Frederick Walker the Elder's The Bathers, an imposing work of 1866-67.(5)

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