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Seurat and the Sewers

Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party 21, 1996- February 9, 1997.

exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., September, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Eliza E. Rathbone, by Katherine Rothkopf, by Richard R. Brettell, by Charles S. Moffett
Counterpoint, 264 pp., $29.00 (paper)

Seurat and the Bathers

exhibition at the National Gallery, London, July 2-September 28, 1997., Catalog of the exhibition by John Leighton, by Richard Thompson
National Gallery/Yale University Press, 168 pp., $50.00

Seurat and the Avant-Garde

by Paul Smith
Yale University Press, 211 pp., $60.00


In 1857 Charles Daubigny went to Asnières, on the northwest outskirts of Paris, and bought himself a flat-bottomed rowing boat which had been fitted out as a ferry, and which he could use as a traveling studio. Together with a friend, and with his son as cabin boy (for the boat was large enough to need at least two oarsmen), he took a trip down the Seine, which he recorded for the amusement of family and friends in a series of drawings, some of which he later worked up into etchings, published in 1862 as Voyage en bateau. The series begins with the dinner before departure from Asnières, which is shown as taking place in a modest, timeless-looking inn, under a vine or some sort of pergola.

And so the idyll begins—but it is a comic idyll, its adventures and discomforts being the whole point of the story. The most familiar of the etchings, “Le Bateau-Atelier,” may hardly seem comic when taken out of context. The painter is seen from the depths of the covered section of the boat, framed against the light, working with a portable paintbox-cum-easel at one of the riverscapes for which he became famous. However, the objects around him—the bedding, the water jug, the string of onions, the frying pan, the coffee pot—are all part of the developing story (we have seen several of them before, earlier in the series) and contribute to the novelty, the cozy incongruity of the improvised boat-studio. On the back of one of the stacked canvases is written the word Réalisme. These are the lengths you have to go to, the etching says, in pursuit of the realist motif. This is what goes on in the artist’s world, as it were behind the scenes. This is what you don’t see in the finished picture (as Daubigny conceived it).

Satire and burlesque have often provided a home for realistic observations that could not somehow be accommodated in the “higher” forms of art. It was not that Daubigny was utterly averse to depicting modern life. In 1860 he published an admirable, detailed etching of a steam-powered threshing machine, with a publisher’s note to the effect that “M. Daubigny sees in agriculture, in work, in a word, the vigorous and virile expression of truth in art.” In 1866 he drew the Crystal Palace. He painted the grimy tugboats of London and Le Havre. For the Seurat show currently in London, the organizers have borrowed from Brooklyn a Daubigny view of The Seine at Mantes which clearly shows, in the distance, a smoking factory chimney. But this is not a typical Daubigny riverscape.

Typical rather is a sense of nature modified, but only gently so, by human effort; of architecture, where it features at all, well patinated by time; of rural labor seen, if not sub specie aeternitatis, then at least in its traditional aspect. It is not that one should forget about the history of France when looking at Daubigny or the landscapes of the Barbizon school. On the contrary, one should be aware of what is being sought out on these idyllic excursions. It is pointed out in Impressionists on the Seine that since Paris was provided with running water (a process completed by the time of Baron Haussmann’s resignation in 1870),

the need for bathing and laundry establishments in the river decreased every year. Consequently it becomes clear why the washerwomen of Daumier who trudged toward the Seine with huge bundles of clothes and linens were replaced in the 1870s by Degas’s laundresses who worked indoors in establishments that were fed by piped water….

But Daubigny seemed to find no difficulty, in his potterings up and down the Seine and its tributaries, in finding women washing their clothes in the river. The countryside is seen as custodian of practices that are dying out in the city.

The etchings of Voyage en Bateau achieve their comic effect by being more frank about the vicissitudes of modern river life than the paintings were able to be. In “Gare aux Vapeurs” (Watch out for the steamboats) we see how the little studio-boat is rocked in the wash of the new-fangled paddle steamers. Having been privy to the discomforts of the trip, we are finally shown, in the last of the etchings, how the artist surrenders to modern comforts by making the return journey by railway, while the boat-studio gets tugged back to Asnières by steam. There would be no question of rowing the thing all the way back upstream.

And what of Asnières itself, the point of departure? One would hardly guess from Daubigny’s etching that it was (and still is) only ten minutes by rail from the Gare St.-Lazare. A couple of cartoons by Doré, published the year before Daubigny’s view, show what was happening to this part of the Parisian outskirts. Both depict the same view of Asnières railroad station. In the first (“L’Arrivée à Asnières”) the stationmaster is almost knocked aside by the rush of weekend trippers, eager to sample the delights of the river—the boating, the dancing, the drinking. In the second (“Le Retour à Paris”) the visitors are so fagged out at the end of the day that the same stationmaster has to bark orders at them to get them back on the platform as the Paris train approaches.

The Seine, which looks quite purposeful on its way through the center of Paris, is in fact meandering, and it turns back on itself to loiter along the far side of the Bois de Boulogne, creating a series of islands, the last of which is La Grande Jatte, before passing Asnières on the one side, Clichy on the other. Asnières was thus the first of a series of riverside resorts served by the Gare St.-Lazare, and being the first it enjoyed the most fragile ecology. Within ten years of Daubigny’s etched idyll, when Monet sat down on the Clichy bank and painted what had happened to Asnières, the countryside had disappeared under villas (most of which have since made way for larger developments).

By now, the painters who came to Asnières did so in order to find the kind of industrial riverscape that interested them. They came like Monet in 1875 to paint men unloading coal from the barges. They came like Van Gogh, Signac, and Emil Bernard to paint the railway bridge (conveniently, the first such bridge along the western railroad line), the road bridge, or the coal crane at Clichy.

What they didn’t come for anymore was the bathing. After the days of Baron Haussmann, nobody who wasn’t desperate would have wanted to bathe at Asnières.


Just as the provision of piped water changed the lives of the washerwomen and the artists of Paris, so its necessary counterpart, the sewage system, has played its part in art history.1 Haussmann did not invent his system from scratch. He inherited a scheme in which the main collector sewer on the Right Bank followed the route of the rue de Rivoli. This main collector was the recipient of all the foul water from the houses and streets—carrying everything except the night soil, which was supposed to be collected from the cesspits periodically and carted off for use as fertilizer. The plan had been that all the Right Bank sewage would flow westward beneath the rue de Rivoli to the place de la Concorde, and then continue toward an outlet into the Seine, just opposite where the Eiffel Tower now stands. But the problem that exercised Haussmann for many months was that, since there was no great distance in height between the sewer and the river, whenever there was flood weather the sewer would back up. In London, this problem was made worse by the tidal nature of the river. A gravitational sewage system would have backed up all the time, and so Sir Joseph Bazalgette was obliged to devise a set of powerful pumping stations which sucked up all the effluent into high-level reservoirs, to release it only at low tide.

The solution for Paris came to Haussmann (he claimed) after a sleepless night studying the map. Because of that loop in the river, it would be possible to direct the sewage not in a westerly but in a northerly direction. Entering the Seine much further downstream, it would benefit from the seven-foot drop between the river in central Paris and its level at Asnières. Furthermore the Left Bank collector, which follows the bank of the river itself, could be diverted under the Seine by means of a siphon at the Pont de l’Alma, then up again on the Right Bank, along the Champs-Elysées to the place de l’Etoile. Meanwhile the Right Bank sewage, turning right off the rue de Rivoli at the place de la Concorde, would be nipping along to the Madeleine, and thence by means of the boulevard Malesherbes to a point at which, meeting up with its sister sewage from the Left Bank, it would form the Asnières collector, a kind of super-sewer, a veritable underground river to be kept dredged by boats, a river which, finally entering the Seine at Asnières, was found to be depositing annually 154,000 tons of solids and 77,000 tons of dissolved matter into the river: mud, sand, gravel from Haussmann’s macadam streets, and what David Pinkney describes as “organic matter, chiefly the leavings of curb side garbage collections and the less than perfect system of removing horse droppings.”2

This great collector sewer, which Haussmann (in order to flatter the imperial fantasies of Napoleon III) called the Cloaca Maxima of Paris, began to flow onto the pages of art history when T.J. Clark, in his admirable study The Painting of Modern Life, asked the question where are “the lumpish boys” supposed to be bathing in Seurat’s Une Baignade à Asnières (called The Bathers at the current London exhibition). He answered that they were opposite the mouth of the great collector sewer, and at a time when, quoting a contemporary source:

More than 120,000 cubic meters of solids have accumulated at the collector’s mouth; several hundred square meters are covered with a bizarre vegetation, which gives off a disgusting smell. In the current heatwave, the town of Clichy possesses a veritable Pontine Marshes of its own.3

Doubt has since been cast on the accuracy of this startlingly revolting thought, and I have taken the trouble to double-check, both at Asnières and in the Paris sewers themselves. Ever since the Franco-Prussian War, when the population of Paris became aware that the new sewers made them vulnerable to enemy attack underground, the map of the sewage system has been considered sensitive information; and when I asked the bookshop attendant in the sewer museum he informed me that he could not sell me such a map “for reasons of the security of France.” Nevertheless from the maps on display in the museum itself it is perfectly clear that the Asnières collector used to debouch into the Seine just by the railway bridge. That is to say, in the very center of Seurat’s composition, about six inches to the left of the head of the carrot-haired boy on the bank.

  1. 1

    See David Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton University Press, 1958).

  2. 2

    Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris, p. 140.

  3. 3

    T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Thames and Hudson, 1984).

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