In Bathers at
Asnieres not a cloud disturbs the relentless blue sky. The air and
water shimmer in the oppressive heat, and motionless stillness smoulders.
Only the boy in the water seems to be making a sound. Is he imitating the
boat siren, as has been suggested by some art historians? Or is he
shouting to a friend further out in the river?
was always a painter of summertime and summer light. He often travelled to
the countryside to sketch men and women harvesting gram, peasants mowing
fields with scythes, and labourers paving roads. Born in Paris in 1859,
was one of the greatest painters of Post-Impressionism: his work shows the
mark of the Impressionists' fascination with light but he took their ideas
in a new direction. He developed a painting technique called Pointillism
which relied on the optical mixing of colours. When a work was seen from a
distance, the small dots of colour which made up the painting, blended
together to create a lively, painterly surface.
It was summer when the poet Gustave Kahn visited the
artist in his cramped studio in Boulevard de Clichy.
was in the process of completing a painting, and Kahn observed that he
"worked so energetically, despite the oppressive heat and humidity, that
by the end of the day the artist was thinner than when he began".
was a loner, an extremely serious and taciturn person. The artist
used to call him "the solicitor" because he was always formally dressed
and wore a top hat. At the same time every evening "the solicitor" could
be seen leaving his flat, striding purposefully towards the Boulevard
Magenta to die with his parents.
enjoyed spending time at the waterfront and was a frequent visitor to the
wooded island of La Grande Jatte on the Seine, a popular outing
destination for the Paris bourgeoisie. His excursions took him as far as
Asnieres-sur-Seine, located about five kilometres north-west of Paris.
lifetime, factory smokestacks already marked the Asnieres skyline, as can
be seen in Bathers at Asnieres, and it was far from an ideal
place to bathe. As long ago as 14 February 1790, when the royal medical
Counsellor Boncerf tested the water he was overcome by a "biting, pungent
alkaline stench that impaired his respiratory system to such an extent
that his throat and tongue swelled mightily". Until recently the
Parisians' "favourite wench" was so polluted with sulphur and other toxic
waste that, at a depth of one metre, divers were unable to see their hands
when held directly in front of their eyes. For several years now the waste
from the vast city is treated in modern sewage plants and there are hopes
that Parisians might one day be able to bathe again in the Seine —
enjoying it more than they did when