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 and Katherine Rothkopf and Richard R. Brettell and 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 and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.