Bathers at Asnieres
1883-84 (retouched 1887)
79 x 118 1/2 in
National Gallery, London
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Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.
THERE ARE MOMENTS on hot summer days when we are prepared for a miracle. The stillness and the gently vibrating haze give to our perceptions a kind of finality, and we wait listening for some cosmic hum to enchant, like Papageno's bells, the uncouth shapes and colors which surround us, so that they all dance to the same tune and finally come to rest in a harmonious order. In life the miracle doesn't happen, and it is rare enough in art, because great painters have usually created imaginary worlds, outside the range of our ordinary visual experience. But it happens in Seurat's Baignade. As I catch sight of this large canvas at the end of the gallery, framed by a door so that the illusion of reality is increased, I feel that the haze and stillness of summer have at last fulfilled their promise. Time has stopped, everything has become its proper shape, and every shape is in its proper place.
it is this aspect of the Baignade that first attracts my attention. I start by looking at the heap of clothes and boots beside the central figure, and am fascinated by the way in which these commonplace objects have been given a monumental character, and have been set off against one another, light against dark, so that each area has its full value both as tone and silhouette. The same is true of the bowler hats, panamas and wrinkled trousers which proceed in orderly sequence up the left hand side of the canvas and end in an austere construction of walls and trees. At this point my eye has penetrated into the distance, and once there it moves with exhilaration through the shimmering summer light till it is arrested by the dark head of the principal figure.
However often I look at the Baignade. this figure gives me a slight shock of surprise. How did Seurat come to put this monolith, as grave and simple as one of the ancients of Arezzo, in front of an impressionist landscape? It is the kind of synthesis which ambitious young painters often set themselves and seldom achieve. Everyone knows that Tintoretto wrote on his studio walls 'the drawing of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian. He was hardly more ambitious than the young man of twenty-four who set out to reconcile an analysis of vibrating light with the calculated grandeur of a fifteenth-century fresco.
Seurat was born in 1859 and at the age of eighteen became a student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. His teacher was Henri Lehmann, one of Ingres' best pupils, and his earliest surviving works are copies of Ingres, Holbein and other masters of precision. He was a serious, diligent young man, but when, in 1879, he left the Beaux Arts he had risen only to forty-seventh place, and no one prophesied for him a brilliant future.
These were the creative years of Impressionism, but there is no evidence that the young Seurat showed the faintest interest in open air painting till after he bad spent his year of military service at Brest; and it is characteristic of him that the revelation of light should have come to him as he gazed on the sea during the hours of sentry duty. The solitude, the patience, the immobility and the discipline allowed something in his nature to grow which would have shrunk in the cheerful picnics of Monet, Renoir and their friends at Argenteuil. He saw men not as sunny and convivial presences, but as lonely silhouettes against the horizon; and I believe that this determined his style when he was once more free to be a painter. A complete change was necessary. As a disciple of Ingres he had learned to turn perceptions into line. He now set about a series of drawings in which there should be no lines at all, but only areas of tone. It was one of those moments of revelation when an inarticulate man suddenly finds his own language. Through the medium of conte crayon on rough grained paper Seurat felt able to simplify the most complex subjects and give monumental stillness to the most ephemeral impressions - his father eating dinner or the last seconds of a winter sunset. At the same time he painted in the suburbs of Paris a few prosaic landscapes in which the element of design was achieved by walls and windows and factory chimneys arranged with austere frontality. Like his drawings, they depended on juxtapositions of tone and were executed with thick square brush strokes in a few simple earth colours. On the basis of these two exercises he set to work, calmly and methodically, to paint a masterpiece.
All this we can learn from the books on Seurat, and it goes some way towards making the Baignade comprehensible. But as we contemplate these large forms arranged so majestically in a single plane, we cannot fall to think of fifteenth-century Italian frescoes and I used to spend a lot of time wondering how Seurat, who bad never been to Italy, could have achieved this strange similarity with Piero della Francesca. Of course, coincidences exist in the history of art, but historians do not like them, and I confess to a feeling of relief when I read a footnote in Professor Longhi's book on Piero to the effect that in 1874 copies of the Arezzo frescoes were placed in the chapel of the Ecole des Beaux Arts by the order of that exceptionally intelligent professor, Charles Blanc. There they are still, together with some excellent copies of Giotto, and no doubt Seurat, who admired Charles Blanc, had been encouraged to look in this unfashionable quarter for a solution to his problems.
The remarkable thing is how completely he has assimilated this influence to contemporary vision. In the 1880's Puvis de Chavannes was perhaps the only living painter who commanded the respect of both academic and revolutionary painters, and a young man anxious to achieve the qualities of a fifteenth-century fresco would normally have turned to Puvis' tasteful and serious translations. But at this date Seurat still believed in the faith of the Impressionists, the primacy of visual sensations, and he based his great construction on small colour notes painted on the spot. Thirteen of these survive, and show us that the root idea of the Baignade was the interplay of black and white units in the foreground, a sparkling expanse of river, and, in the distance, the severe lines of the railway bridge and the factory chimneys.
In the earliest sketches the foreground units are horses, black and white contrasted, as in Piero's fresco; but gradually the horses recede into the background and finally disappear, their place being taken by men in black waistcoats and white shirt sleeves. It was a change of more than pictorial importance; for it meant that a motive with romantic overtones was discarded in favour of a normal episode in popular life. Even in the penultimate sketch the boy seated on the left was clothed and wore a bowler hat, but the blacks outbalanced the whites, and Seurat finally hit on the ingenious solution of dressing the figure in a white vest, but situating him in a patch of shadow, so that he could reflect the surrounding colour.
When all the protagonists had taken their places on the lighted stage of his memory, he made studies in conte crayon from nude models posed in his studio. As a result he was able to give these simple masses a remarkable suggestion of relief, all except the man lying in the foreground who, in order not to create a new focal plane, was left as trite as a tailor's dummy.
He sent his picture to the Salon of 1884 and, inevitably, it was refused. Circumstances had changed since Titian painted for the Palace of Mantua and Velasquez for the Alcazar, and the Baignade was first seen in Barrack 'B' of the Tuileries, which the Artistes Independants had hired for their exhibition. It was not thought worthy of a place in the proper rooms, but was hung in the buffet. Even so it did not go unnoticed, and one of Seurat's fellow painters, Paul Signac, was so moved by it that he became thenceforward Seurat's indefatigable propagandist. "The understanding of the laws of contrast," he said of it, "the methodical separation of elements and their proper balances and proportion give this canvas its perfect harmony." With this early and excellent criticism of the Baignade in my mind, I return to look at it more closely.
My first thought is how little can one tell about any picture painted after 1870 from a black and white reproduction. The Baignade is conceived in colour; for example, the clothes and boots, which look as black as truffles in a photograph, are actually horse chestnut colour, and are quite fully modelled. And, of course, we cannot guess that the boy in the panama is coloured like a prism. As with Delacroix, one must look closely at the Baignade to realise how colouristic it is, and in fact we know that Seurat himself had looked very attentively at Delacroix's decorations in St Sulpice and had learnt from them how to associate complementary colours so that they add to each other's resonance. But although the influence of Delacroix has been much cracked up, the general tonality of the Baignade is entirely different. Almost any detail cut out of the background would pass as an impressionist picture, less brilliant than Renoir's La Yole (which had been painted in the same place four years earlier), and more precise than Monet's Courbevoie. This newly won mastery of light, with all that it implies of technical skill, Seurat has taken in his stride while pursuing a different end.
Finally my eye passes down to the boy halloing. He is the most poetic image left in the Baignade, and I have a feeling that some day I shall find his prototype in antique painting. But for the moment my attention is absorbed by the little dots of blue and orange with which Seurat has modelled his cap. I see that there are similar dots of pure colour in the water surrounding him, and I begin to find them scattered all over the right hand side of the picture and even on the waist of the principal figure. Seurat adopted this method of painting in dots of spectrum colour a year or so after exhibiting the Baignade, so he must have added these touches later, perhaps when it came back from exhibition in New York in 1886; and this leads me to meditate on the strange evolution through which he was to pass in the remaining seven years of his life, and to wonder how much was gained and lost when the poet of Une Baignade became the theorist of Le Cirque.
Perhaps it was inevitable. The extraordinary firmness of will with which Seurat had attained his end in his first large picture was almost bound to mean the suppression of certain poetic impulses which are of their nature disorderly and vague. An admirable method can easily become an end in itself. Seurat was, by all accounts, the perfect type of Cartesian Frenchman for whom tidiness is the first of all virtues.
If he had lived till 1940, as he might easily have done, for he was strong and abstemious, instead of dying of diphtheria in 1891, would he not have anticipated the purest phase of Cubism? Compositions in the manner of Mondrian, carried out with Seurat's distinction of mind and eye, would have provided the seeker after Platonic beauty with something very near to his ideal. Some of this is implicit in Seurat's later work, and gives us a peculiar and rarefied pleasure. But already in the Parade the sacrifices involved have been very great. His sensitive response to things seen has been suppressed in favour of quasi-symbolic shapes, diagrammatically gay or sad. His gift of seeing masses of tone in a happy relation to one another has been lost in pursuit of a system of colour which impressed his contemporaries as scientific, but which turns out in retrospect to have been as arbitrary and self-imposed as the rules of chess. All this was a deliberate sacrifice, and was perhaps due as much to moral as to intellectual scruples. It was Cistercian rather than Cartesian. Much as I admire this feeling of total obligation, I am unregenerate enough to prefer an art from which the first impulses of perception, sympathy and delight have not been altogether removed, and so I return gratefully from Seurat's circus pictures, hieratic, angular and unreal as the mosaics of Torcello, to the harmonious democracy of Une Baignade.