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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Seurat, Bathers at Asnières

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884, oil on canvas, 6.6 x 9.8 ft (National Gallery, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Voiceover: We're in the National Gallery in London and we're looking at actually one of my favorite paintings. Voiceover: Mine too. Voiceover: It's a George Seurat and it's The Bathers. It's his early large masterpiece. Voiceover: It's important that it's the Bathers at Asnières. In the past artists paint bathers, timeless image of nudes bathing in water and here we have real Parisian people at a specific place just outside of Paris. Voiceover: And with specific people. I don't mean their identities so much as their social cast. Voiceover: Right. They're modern people of the working class and ... Voiceover: So, how do we know that? Voiceover: First I just want to say that the painting is really big. So the figures are over life-size or at least life-size, right? Voiceover: Absolutely. Voiceover: So that it's really kind of striking in it's size Voiceover: in the presence of the figures. Voiceover: I think actually slightly larger because Voiceover: he's set back a few yards and he's still the size of somebody in the gallery. Voiceover: How do we know they're working class? Voiceover: So, with the clothing we see for instance a bowler hat, we see a straw hat but more than that we see a kind of informality. And I think that that's one of the ways that Seurat really signals class status. Voiceover: We can tell that we're in some place that's not that fancy by the fact that we've got a kind of industrial scene in the background. So, we've got an industrial modern bridge, we've got smoke stacks, we've got buildings. We're not in the country side away from everything where it's really pretty and sort of suburban and more picturesque. Voiceover: In fact, in some of the sketches that were produced in preparation for this painting, there was a horse that was actually drinking in the river here Voiceover: Yeah. where the middle class or the upper class was bathing. And as if it wasn't enough in terms of what they're wearing, Seurat contrast this working class group with people of a higher status who are in the rowboat, Voiceover: With a top hat and a parasol. Voiceover: That's right. Fully clothed by the way despite the same heat that the working class are enjoying. And of course somebody in short sleeves who's working for them is doing the rowing. Voiceover: Exactly. Wearing very much the same kind of hat as the people in the foreground. Voiceover: That's right. Those, those symbols are really important ways of distinguising Voiceover: Yes. Voiceover: And in a way that's sort of what Seurat is doing, right? He's sort of reducing these figures. We don't see much about their faces but we know who they are by what they're wearing and how they carry themselves. The way we actually we really identify people in modern life in the city when you walk around. I think we should go back to the size thing for a second because we're kind of used to impressionist paintings looking and I'm looking in the room where we are being smaller, significantly smaller. Voiceover: That's right, iso paintings. Voiceover: Smaller iso painters. Voicover: Because they would take it outside, Voiceover: and paint them outside. He's painting it in a studio. There's something about it that looks more structured, more composed. He's rejecting the kind of spontaneity and informality of impressionism almost like he's trying to bring something kind of more rigorous to impressionism. Voiceover: A kind of classicism? Voiceover: Yeah, something more thoughtful. Something more academic. Voiceover: I think it's really interesting the way that Seurat displays a series of cultural clues that help us in the 21st century understand the way in which society functioned. On the other side of this river there is an island which is the subject of probably Seurat's most famous painting. Sunday Afternoon the Island of La Grande Jatte. That painting is a depiction of middle class and the upper middle class and it's very, very different. The figures are far less informal. They tend to be fully clothed and there are set of signals that really place them in a upper echelon in the social structure. This is across the river and although they're sharing a body of water, although they're all there for the same thing which is to relax and cool off in the summer. The way in which they're portrayed, the way in which they're framed is important for us in terms of understanding the way that 19th century social structures were built. But also I think it's really interesting. Seurat wasn't painting for us. He was painting both as a display and in some ways I think a critique of 19th century social structures. He was deliberately making these structures obvious to the people of that time. Voiceover: There is a definite kind of social critique here of class and [unintelligble], also a kind of I think awareness of what was new about life in the late 19th century and giving that to us in this giant scale, you know? The idea of leisure time. The idea that you know, you could work in those factories down the river. You clocked in, you clocked out and then you had your separate leisure time where you went and did something kind of specific in your leisure time, the way that we all still do today. And so, all of these kind of way of living is relatively new in the 19th century. And Seurat is drawing our attention to it. Voiceover: One of the things that Seurat is most well-known for is for his style, for the style that he develops. For his color, for his application of paint. Many people will refer to him as a pointillist. Voiceover: Right, so those little dots. Voiceover: Right, those little dots. Now this is a little early for the little dots. Instead mostly what you have are little cross hatchings which are achieving much the same thing which is to say a much more complex construction of color. by putting colors next to each other rather than trying to mix them on a palette. Voiceover: So that they mix in the eye actually called optical mixture. Voiceover: It is based on a 19th century scientific understanding of color and color theory. Voiceover: It's bringing science and thought and rigor to impressionism. So, we've got this like wonderful combination of a composition that looks thought out, right? It's got that diagonal line. It's got figures who look very carefully placed within the composition. He's bringing that kind of thoughtfulness to that interest in light and outdoor sunlight and modern life that was the impressionist. Voiceover: So, do you think like the impressionist he's still trying to, in a sense invent a kind of modern beauty? A kind of urban beauty? Voiceover: No question. I think in fact he's trying to create a timelessness to say it's not just the ancients who could have timeless beauty but we in our own lives, in modern day Paris, in the 1880's have an eternal beauty of our own. (piano playing)