Georges Seurat is famous for the painting techniques known as Pointillism, although he falls under the label of French Neo-Impressionist. He is best known for the iconic A Sunday On La Grande Jatte (1884), so fascinating that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote a musical about it. But, the beautiful Bathers At Asnières, has a rich history also.
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 24-years-old.
Bathers At Asnières (1884) captures the working-class in a moment of well-deserved rest along the Seine. Leisure time for the working-class was a relatively new concept, and Seurat was innovative in portraying men in a peaceful moment of quiet dignity.
The bowler and straw hats and their casual posture are clues to the men’s class status. The smokestacks in the background are a reminder that they will have to return to work tomorrow.
Pointillism was Seurat’s method of using millions of dots to create people and places in his paintings. Bathers At Asnières dabbles in the still evolving technique. Crosshatch brushwork blends with his patches of dots.
Measuring 6.5 feet by 10 feet, Bathers at Asnières is a size that was usually used for paintings of great historical scenes. Using such a large canvas to display anonymous men lounging around, confounded the critics at the time.
Bathers At Asnières was rejected for the esteemed Paris Salon exhibition, so the disappointed Seurat joined a group of artists to found Groupe des Artistes Indépendants, who held their own show that summer. Unfortunately, Seurat’s work didn’t make much of an impression, and Bathers at Asnières’ placement in the event’s beer hall didn’t help.
In 1886, it was shown at the National Academy Of Design in NYC, where Bathers At Asnières befuddled the viewers.
The critic of the NYC newspaper The Sun wrote:
“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.”
In 1889, Seurat passed away of unknown causes. He was just 31-years-old. He never lived to see Bathers At Asnières embraced by art lovers. Today, it is recognized as a masterpiece.
The bathers now live at London’s National Gallery where they are much loved, still enjoying their day off in the 21st Century. It’s one of my favorite paintings and for me it evokes the real meaning of America’s Labor Day, honoring the contributions that workers make for our nation by giving them a long three-day weekend to lounge around.