Thursday 29th September
Do you know what my favourite painting is? I first saw it when I was seventeen, and was overawed both by its’ beauty and by its’ sheer size; there is just something about huge paintings, the very scale being an important element, reducing the viewer in importance, you can almost wander around in the painting. It is in the National Gallery, have you guessed what it is yet? Well, you probably know that I have always loved the French Impressionists, and have written of my love for Manet’s ‘Les Nympheas’ in L’Orangerie, but that is in Paris. No, my very favourite painting is Georges Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres.’
The calm I always feel standing in front of it is quite amazing, time seems to stand still, and I can easily lose a half-hour of my day completely, just looking at the painting. It seems to have almost a magnetic pull to it, and familiar as I am with it; I must have viewed this particular painting hundreds of times, I always manage to see something new in it. Sometimes it is the little factories and chimneys in the distance, or the people on that small boat. But mostly I am drawn to the characters in the foreground; the bathers themselves; the one sitting peacefully on the edge with his feet over the bank (are they actually in the river) and the boy in the water, shivering with the cold. Or the two onlookers on the bank itself, who studiously ignore us, or the dog – and have you ever noticed – everyone in the painting is looking directly away to the right hand side of the picture, except for one boy in the water who has his back turned to us. I think that it is this feeling that the painting is a moment in time and we have almost crept up on the bathers that makes it so real, I feel as though I too have just sat down on the river bank and am quietly taking in the scene. And yet there is so much that is wrong with the painting, it really shouldn’t work; the colours are all so subdued and the green of the grass is just not a natural shade at all, the figures are awkward and in some cases the perspective is all wrong. Apparently Seurat painted each of the figures from various separate studies and put the whole picture together in his studio later.
The secret to the beauty of the painting though is in the subtle pointillism, those little dots and dashes of colour, giving that hazy but almost luminous feel to the work, apparently much of this was added later, after the painting had been completed, and I think that it works far better than his later pure pointillist style, where some of the pictures almost blur into obscurity.
So, whether you have never seen it before, or are a fan like me, go and see it again. You can’t miss it, just turn right in the National and through a couple of rooms, and there it is. It takes up a whole wall, and is easily my favourite painting.