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Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

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London

Georges Seurat
1859 - 1891
ÉTUDE POUR UNE BAIGNADE, ASNIÈRES
Conté crayon on paper
32.4 by 24.1cm.
12 3/4 by 9 1/2 in.
Executed in 1883-84.
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The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by Brame & Lorenceau.

Provenance

Estate of the artist

Mme Ernestine Seurat, France (the artist’s mother; acquired from the above)

Henri de Régnier, Paris (a gift from the above in 1892)

Marie de Regnier, Paris (widow of the above. Sold: Paris, Hôtel Drouot, Etude Ader, circa 1965-68 (no catalogue))

Nourhan Manoukian, Paris, (purchased at the above sale)

Private collection, Paris (by descent from the above in 1993)

Acquired from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

London, The National Gallery, Seurat and The Bathers, 1997, no. 66, illustrated in the catalogue

Literature

The Artist’s Handlist, ‘Croquis et Dessins’: no. 366-372, titled Baignade

Seurat (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1991, mentioned p. 203

Catalogue Note

One of the most innovative and celebrated draughtsmen of the nineteenth century, Georges Seurat created works on paper of ineffable beauty that are technically dazzling and emotionally compelling. Étude pour une baignade, Asnières is one of the finest and most artistically accomplished drawings by the artist and relates to one of his greatest paintings, Une baignade, Asnières of 1883-1884. Seurat first showed his Une baignade, Asnières in 1884 during the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, where it met with admiration and shock in equal measure. The painting’s luminous colours, applied in regulated dots of colour, evoke the hot, hazy atmosphere of a summer afternoon on the bank of the Seine in the Paris suburbs. For this monumental canvas Seurat realised numerous painstaking studies and drawings. Each figure in the composition was studied independently of the others and related drawings are in the collections of major museums in Europe and America, including the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, among others. The present work is the most complete rendering of the figure of the boy wearing a red hat who stands up to his waist in the water of the Seine.

The present work was for decades unknown until shortly before the exhibition Seurat and The Bathers at the National Gallery in 1997, when the curators John Leighton and Richard Thompson were made aware of its existence. Discussing the studies Seurat produced for the oil Une baignade, Asnières, the curators wrote about the present work: ‘There are drawings that relate to all of the five main figures in the Bathers and one which depicts the discarded clothes in the foreground. All of these are in conté crayon on Seurat’s usual Michallet paper cut to sheets of approximately the same size [with the exception of the present work]. During the final stages of the preparation of this catalogue, a previously uncatalogued and unpublished drawing came to light [the present work]. This drawing appears to be Seurat’s first draft for the standing bather at the right (the so-called echo-boy). A detail of this pose was developed in the famous sheet now at Yale (fig. 3). There can be little doubt that the drawings for the Bathers were made from life in the confines of the studio. An easel appears in the background of one, a skirting board is indicated in another and in a further drawing, a languid nude seems to be seated on a box rather than a riverbank’ (J. Leighton & R. Thompson, op. cit. (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 1997, p. 64). The use of the models in the studio gave Seurat complete control over the lighting, and gave him an opportunity to analyse each figure with an attention to detail unlikely to be afforded on a river-bank. This advantage has suggested to Leighton and Thompson that: ‘In comparison to many other drawings by Seurat, those relating to the Bathers are notable for their less synthetic, more naturalistic treatment of the figure. The contours are often clearly defined and the individual figures have a considerable sculptural presence. Where Seurat’s broad, tonal style usually encourages generalisation, here he evokes an uncharacteristic level of detail; he takes care to carve out the intricate anatomy of an ear or to suggest the way the soft muscle gives way to bone in the forearm. Yet as Benedict Nicolson observed in the first detailed discussions of these works, the drawings still manage to combine intricacy with simplification’ (ibid., p. 64). However, another consequence of the use of studio models can be found in the drawings, whose figures perfectly capture the ennui of long poses and the personal introspection to which they lead. This sense of reverie emanates from the drawings, and was uncannily reproduced in the completed oil, which is characterised by an atmosphere of somnolent quietude and stillness.

Seurat's uniquely evocative technique as a draughtsman was developed early in his career, and became a crucial mode of expression for the young artist. As Robert Herbert has observed: ‘By 1882, Seurat had created his unique style of drawing in which individual lines have disappeared in favour of large shadowy masses. He moulded his velvety forms by delicately rubbing the rough textured paper with a greasy conté crayon, and by using the end of the crayon to form an even more dense scumble of lines which finally merged into greys and blacks’ (R. Herbert, Seurat: Paintings and Drawings (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1958). Seurat’s method had been greatly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Charles Blanc and Humbert de Superville who had published studies explaining how the direction of lines, associated with colours, could elicit different emotions in the viewer. According to Blanc, linear directions are ‘unconditional signs’ of emotion. Ascending lines are linked to feelings of joy and life, and, by association, expansion and voluptuousness. Using these theories as a foundation, Seurat developed a technique characterised by subtle tonal variations. Shapes are never defined, contours never drawn, figures are rendered through expressive shadowing of carefully modulated density, described thus by Gustave Kahn in 1929: ‘Seurat’s originality manifests itself through the simplified silhouettes of the figures and by the varying intensity of dark shadows which appear, as they move further away from the figures, to melt into white and black. One of the characteristics of Seurat’s drawings is that they are composed less for the sake of line than for atmosphere’ (G. Kahn, quoted in The Drawings of  Georges Seurat 1859-1891, New York, 1971, p. ix).

In the present work, the youthful form of the bather emerges from the midst of a dense haze of obsidian darkness – as Gustave Kahn put it: ‘modelled by means of the atmosphere’ (ibid., p. ix). The painter Henri-Edmond Cross recalled a conversation with Seurat in which he emphasised that ‘his vision made him conceive of values before lines’ and that it never occurred to him to ‘begin a canvas with a line’ (“Inédits d’Henri-Edmond Cross - V”, Bulletin de la vie artistique, Paris, 15th September 1922). By applying this method to drawing, the artist achieved outstanding contrasts of dark and light, which would lead critics to hail him as a worthy successor to Rembrandt, the clair-obscuriste par excellence (Charles Blanc, Grammaire des Arts du dessin, Paris, 1886, Chapter XII). At close inspection, the intensity of the manner in which the crayon is applied defines the figure with so little distinction between the body and the background that the figure becomes diffuse. At a distance, Seurat’s masterful technique allows previously indiscernible details to emerge. This phenomenon recalls the optic principles of Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Eugène Rood, which were at the root of Neo-Impressionism. Seurat strove to integrate these ideas not only into his paintings but also into his drawings, where he replaces colours with an infinite variety of shades of grey; the textured, granular effect of his drawings recalling the powdery haze of his Pointillist oils.

After Seurat’s death, his mother, counselled by some of his friends, gave a number of his works to artists, writers and critics who had supported him. The present drawing was given to Henri-François-Joseph de Régnier, the writer and art critic. Régnier was a gifted poet, who wrote symbolist poems and texts in the so-called ‘Parnassian’ manner, which undertook classical subjects and rendered them in flawless verse. In a letter dated March 1892, Henri de Régnier thanks Mme Seurat for the gift: ‘M. Luce has given me one of your son’s drawings, and this keepsake, from an artist of such great virtue and such noble character, is precious to me. I will keep it with the memory of him whose loss has saddened all who knew him and were aware of the bright future which has been interrupted’ (translated from French). Maximilien Luce was one of the compilers of Seurat’s studio inventory along with Félix Féneon and Paul Signac. The reverse of the sheet bears the inscription ‘366 Baignade’, which corresponds to the inventory of the artist's ‘Croquis et dessins’ . The present work remained in the Régnier family until 1965.

 

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

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London