This drawing is a study for the masterpiece of Seurat’s early years, the monumental figure painting entitled Bathers at Asnières. Completed in 1884, this magisterial picture now dominates the displays of nineteenth-century art at the National Gallery in London. Seurat made a whole sequence of studies for his Bathers which depicts men relaxing on the banks of the river Seine at the Parisian suburb of Asnières. The setting and the effects of sunshine on a hazy summer’s day were developed in small oil studies which were painted in the open air at Asnières. Our drawing is one of several studies that he made for all of the main figures in the composition using models posed in his studio.
Seurat is generally associated with a highly methodical approach to art, especially with regard to the rigorous ‘Pointillist’ style of painting using small dots of colours that he developed later in his career. In the Bathers, however, his approach was more intuitive. Technical examination of the finished painting at the National Gallery in London has shown that Seurat continued to modify his ideas as the picture evolved. Our drawing seems to have been made when the work was already well under way, allowing the artist to introduce some refinements to the seated figure at the heart of his composition. In our drawing, for example, he depicts the unruly wisp of hair at the boy’s nape as well as his aquiline profile which were then added into the corresponding figure in the painting.
Although this sheet is inextricably linked to the making of a painting that is now world-famous, like many of Seurat’s studies it can stand as a highly accomplished work of art in its own right. One of his contemporaries described Seurat as ‘a young man crazy about drawing’, and his highly distinctive tonal drawings have always been viewed as a major part of his achievement. Most of them date from the early 1880s when, after a brief period of study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Seurat began to follow his own direction. He gradually refined his drawing technique, not only in figure studies like this one but also in tenebrous cityscapes and suburban landscapes.
Typically, our study is in Conté crayon, a dark, slightly waxy crayon which is drawn on a paper with a prominent ridged texture. These materials allowed Seurat to develop very subtle but extraordinarily rich effects of tone. As with most of his drawings, the relationships of light and dark are carefully plotted so that the dark outline of the boy’s back is set against a lighter area of the background while the light on his arm is edged with a correspondingly darker tone. These shifts of tone and the lustrous, grainy effect of the crayon on textured paper lend the drawing a sense of sculptural solidity while still maintaining a soft, luminous quality. The boredom of posing as a model, evident here in the slightly slumped and languid pose, is translated by Seurat into a mood of quiet introspection and gentle melancholy.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.