In 1884, French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat began two monumental masterpieces. The better known of this pair is the iconic A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884. But the first, the beautiful Bathers at Asnières, has a rich history of its own.
1. BATHERS AT ASNIÈRES WAS SEURAT'S FIRST MAJOR WORK.
The oil on canvas painting was the first of his large-scale compositions. Though it would take decades for the world to catch up with his innovative style, Seurat created this career-defining work at age 24.
2. IT GAVE A RARE GLIMPSE INTO THE LIVES OF THE WORKING CLASS . . .
In stark contrast to A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884's dreamy depiction of the French middle and upper-middle class, Bathers at Asnières captured the working class in a moment of well-deserved rest along the Seine, in a suburb north-west of Paris. Theirs was a life of hardship, punctuated by demanding and dangerous work as shown in Claude Monet's 1875 painting, The Coalmen. Leisure time for the working class was a relatively new concept, and Seurat broke new ground by portraying these men in a peaceful moment of quiet dignity.
3. . . . AND THEIR CLASS IS SIGNALED BY DRESS AND POSTURE.
The bowler and straw hats are clues to these men's status as are their casual poses and slack posture. The background smokestacks remind the bathers—and their viewers—that their toil is never far off.
4. IT CONTAINS A SUBTLE CRITICISM OF CLASSISM.
Though the focus of Bathers at Asnières is undoubtedly on the working class, Seurat snuck in a critical depiction of the upper class. Far off in the water, you can spy a blue-green boat in which a man in a top hat and a woman with a parasol sit. Their distance deftly and delicately illustrates late 19th century France's class separation.
5. IT SHOWS THE BEGINNINGS OF THE POINTILLISM THAT WOULD MAKE SEURAT FAMOUS.
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 bore full tilt into Seurat's device of using millions of dots to craft people and places. A transitional moment captured in oil paint, Bathers at Asnières dabbles in the evolving technique. Crosshatch brushwork blends with patches of dots to build a sense of luminance into this idyllic scene.
6. MANY SKETCHES LED TO THE FINAL GRAND PAINTING.
During visits to the Seine's riverbank, Seurat drew on his classical training, creating a series of life study sketches that he later used as reference while painting in his studio. Today 14 oil sketches and 10 drawings that led up to Bathers at Asnières survive. Some are even on display in museums.
7. SEURAT MAY HAVE BEEN INSPIRED BY ANCIENT EGYPTIAN ART.
The bold lines of the red-headed man on the shore seem to mimic the strong profiles found in hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian sculptures.
8. PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA MAY HAVE BEEN ANOTHER MUSE.
The 15th century Italian Renaissance painter was famous for his employment of simple forms defined by light and shadow. It's an influence art historians believe can be seen in Bathers at Asnières.
9. IT ALSO BROKE FROM THE TRADITION OF BATHER REPRESENTATIONS.
Classically, bathers were depicted as timeless in their details and often romantic in their aesthetic, like Jean-Antoine Watteau's 1715 piece Diana at Her Bath. Seurat purposefully put his water-lovers in contemporary garb and gave them context with the painting's title. These—the viewer was meant to know—were real people of the working class, not pretty fictions.
10. ITS SIZE WAS UNCONVENTIONAL FOR ITS SUBJECT.
Measuring in at 79 inches by 118 inches (roughly 6.5 by 10 feet), Bathers at Asnières possesses a size usually reserved for historical paintings, which depict a pivotal moment in world events. By using such a large canvas to display anonymous men lounging, Seurat broke with convention in a way that confounded critics.
11. THE PAINTING WAS INITIALLY MET WITH LITTLE FANFARE.
Seurat had hoped Bathers at Asnières would make debut in Paris Salon's esteemed exhibition. Once it was rejected, he teamed with like-minded artists to found Groupe des Artistes Indépendants, who created an exhibition of their own that summer. Unfortunately, Seurat's work did not stand out amid the 401 other participating artists'. And Bathers at Asnières' poor placement in the event's beer hall didn't help.
12. EARLY REVIEWS WERE MIXED.
Between its debut and an 1886 exhibition in the National Academy of Design in New York, Bathers at Asnières drew both barbs and befuddled praise. French author Paul Alexis remarked, "What funny male and female bathers! But it is painted with so much conviction that it appears almost touching and I don’t quite dare poke fun at it."
New York's newspaper The Sun had no such qualms, declaring, "This is a picture conceived in a coarse, vulgar, and commonplace mind - the work of a man seeking distinction by the vulgar qualification and expedient of size. It is bad from every point of view, including his own.”
13. SEURAT DRASTICALLY REVISED THE PIECE.
X-ray imaging of Bathers at Asnières reveals the man on the left in the straw hat, the skiff and ferry were all later additions to the painting, as was the pointillism elements for which it has become revered. A controversial theory has arisen that these changes were made to better link the piece to A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte -1884. However, that painting was far from popular in Seurat's lifetime, and also underwent a revision at the hands of its fickle creator.
14. THE PIECE DIDN'T WIN RESPECT UNTIL AFTER SEURAT'S DEATH.
Seurat's passing at age 31 meant he never lived to see Bathers at Asnières or A Sunday on La Grande Jatte —1884 embraced by the art world. In the 1950s, American philosopher Ernest Bloch's love for the latter urged the critics and historians to reconsider the former. Today, Bathers is recognized as an important transitional piece as well as a "manifesto for modern art."
15. BATHERS AT ASNIÈRES IS PROUDLY ON DISPLAY IN LONDON.
In 1924, Lucien Pissarro, the eldest son of impressionist Camille Pissarro, convinced the owner of Bathers to sell his painting to the Courtauld Fund for London’s Tate Gallery. It hung at the Tate until 1961, when it was transferred to London's National Gallery. It remains a highlight of the collection today.