Why 'The Bathers' took so long

One hundred years ago, in 1883, the young Georges Seurat began to paint ''The Bathers, Asnieres.'' It was to be his first great work, and he set about it in the deliberate and confident fashion of someone who knows what he's doing and gets on with it.

But for all his confidence, Seurat was not an ''instant'' artist. He was not a painter who excitedly dabbed paint on a canvas for an hour or so and then stood back to admire his finished work and call it a day. The Impressionists had done that, and as much as Seurat admired some things about the Impressionists, he was determined to do things differently.

Seurat believed that a painting reflected the amount of thought and hard work that went into it. Art should have something of the eternal about it, he believed, and for him, capturing the eternal took a little time.

He worked on ''The Bathers'' for two years. Initially, he went to the scene of his subject and roughly painted possible approaches on planks of wood he idiosyncratically called ''croquetons.''

At one point, he considered including a rainbow in the composition; at another, he tried putting horses in the water.

But what Seurat was doing was distilling ordinary life into his peculiarly rarefied kind of art. He had to find the most harmonious composition, and rainbows and horses just didn't fit. As the art historian John Russell said of the eventual composition, ''Where life as revealed in the sketches was chaotic and unbiddable, Seurat introduced an element of total serenity in which the thing seen and the thing imagined became one.''

Seurat had a scientific turn of mind and believed he could practice laws of artistic harmony that would result in a beautiful and inspired picture. He studied scientific treatises on color and design that had been written in his day.

He agreed with theorists who had postulated that color expressed human moods: the warm colors (red, yellow, orange) were happy, active colors; the cool colors (blue, green, and violet) were contemplative, introspective, even sad. Line, too , had its meanings. A horizontal line, such as a horizon, was restful; a line pointing upward was cheering: but lines tending downward had a melancholy effect.

Seurat went on to develop his own ideas about color, culminating in his ''pointillist'' or ''divisionist'' technique. Pointillism involved dividing colors into their component hues and painting these hues onto the canvas in tiny dots, resulting in a stippled effect.

''La Grande Jatte'' (1884-1886), probably Seurat's crowning achievement, was the first canvas painted with the pointillist technique, though he was experimenting with the idea while he was working on ''The Bathers.'' In 1887, Seurat came back to ''The Bathers'' and overpainted a few areas of the canvas - particularly the hat of the boy in the water at the far right - in the divisionist style.

Critics have argued that Seurat's interest in the scientific aspects of art restricted his imagination. But as Seurat's friend Felix Feneon said of those who spent time worrying about the usefulness of Seurat's theories: ''If Monsieur X spent an eternity studying treatises on optics, he would never paint 'La Grande Jatte.' ''

Mood is what makes Seurat memorable. For this very secular painting of factory workers taking their rest on the banks of the Seine in the suburb of Asnieres has about it an almost religious calm.

Geometry clearly plays its part. The figures are lined up, in subtle procession, in diagonals that lead us ever deeper into the picture.

The strong horizontal which spans the background of the painting (with streamlined factories discreetly exhaling smoke) is like a sustained note on an organ anchoring the activity of a musical composition. It also provides a division between blue and blue: The sky and the water would otherwise meld as one.

The form of the man lying on his side reverberates in the undulation of the riverbank. A hat balanced intriguingly on its edge in the center of the picture hints at a perfect circle. The slouched posture of the central figure with the blurred face is an opportunity for the artist to emphasize the power of a curved line.

With the exception of the boy submerged to his chest in the water, all the main figures look outward across the water. It is as though they are waiting for something, searching the water of this river, which is as calm as a lake.

And then there is the size of the painting. Seurat boldly decided to make it huge, and its dimensions of more than 7 by 9 feet caused it to be relegated to the cafeteria of the building where it was first exhibited in Paris in 1884. (With almost predictable bad judgment of anything so new, the critics nearly all thought it was a terrible painting.)

There is no other painting remotely like ''The Bathers,'' though art historians detect influences in it from the Egyptians through Pierro della Francesca to Delacroix and Ingres. ''I painted like that because I wanted to get through to something new - something that was my own,'' Seurat said.

Seurat attempted to bring together science and art in his paintings. He was of a retiring, methodical disposition; and he had infinite patience in bringing his picture up to the level where it was right. In ''The Bathers,'' he has painted an atmosphere, a mood that makes the viewer long to step into the canvas and reside by that river for a while.

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