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.
But it was mischievous of Clark to leave us with the implication that the boys are bathing in undiluted sewage. They are several hundred yards upstream of the collector, and their baignade, their bathing place, which is also a place for washing horses, is actually, as the National Gallery catalog makes clear, in Courbevoie rather than Asnières. Seurat’s bathers were taking advantage of the last (comparatively) unpolluted stretch of the Seine. It was the holiday-makers further downstream—at the resorts favored by the Impressionists, such as Argenteuil, Chatou, and Bougival—who were prepared to take whatever muck Paris could throw at them. But hygiene is very much a matter of perception. As we say in England: what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.
This practice of looking at paintings and asking questions about public hygiene, or town planning, or (shall we say?) the laws governing singing in public places, the history of the secret service, the nuances of class behavior—this broad approach to the elucidation of art through social history has given particularly rich results when applied to French painting of the nineteenth century. The social issues, the intellectual debates to be elucidated, the impact of revolutions and of revolutionary thought—the idea that at the heart of the matter is the birth of modern society—that is what makes these inquiries by Clark, by Robert Herbert or Linda Nochlin, so particularly interesting.
It is a type of inquiry which has been good for the fortunes of certain artists who, in addition to their intrinsic merits as painters, have extra evidential value: Caillebotte, for instance, has been favored by this type of inquiry, because his works tend to be socially illuminating in a way that a flower piece by Fantin-Latour is perhaps not. Certain artists demand examination because they were considered important in their own day. One is obliged to look at Puvis de Chavannes in order to understand why a contemporary observer thought that Seurat was copying him. But there are many more reasons for looking at Puvis. Rather more recherché is the figure of Jean-François Raffaëlli, who specialized in marginal figures. Paul Smith, in his study of Seurat, reproduces Raffaëlli’s Rag-picker lighting his pipe and juxtaposes it with a contemporary response by Robert Caze:
Here is a poor, exhausted man, who has been ruined by Poubelle but who nevertheless preserves the appearance of a citizen in a capital which is becoming Anglicized.
One can see at once that the painting is a considered display of sympathy for a poor man. What is fresh and unexpected is the radical point of view which mourns the fact that this man has been ruined by the introduction by Poubelle of regular rubbish collection, and that this measure is seen as part of the Anglicization of Paris (the sewers too were of English inspiration, with their ingenious, elliptical, friction-reducing cross-section pipes). To ask of Seurat’s bathers what is their political meaning, or whether they indeed ever had any political meaning, seems quite appropriate. I notice that the historians who ask these sorts of questions tend to trace their intellectual ancestry back to Meyer Schapiro, who wrote in his 1937 essay on Abstract Art:
Early Impressionism, too, had a moral aspect. In its unconventionalized, unregulated vision, in its discovery of a constantly changing phenomenal outdoor world of which the shapes depended on the momentary position of the casual or mobile spectator, there was an implicit criticism of symbolic social and domestic formalities, or at least a norm opposed to these. It is remarkable how many pictures we have in early Impressionism of informal and spontaneous sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation travel. These urban idylls not only present the objective forms of bourgeois recreation in the 1860’s and 1870’s; they also reflect in the very choice of subjects and in the new esthetic devices the conception of art as solely a field of individual enjoyment, without reference to ideas and motives, and they presuppose the cultivation of these pleasures as the highest field of freedom for an enlightened bourgeois detached from the official beliefs of his class.4
If this was the point of departure for T.J. Clark, he traveled a long way from it without necessarily losing the spirit in which those lines were written. Pictures of spontaneous sociability, indeed, but time and again one is struck by the ingenious contrivances by which those pictures of spontaneity are achieved. Herbert quotes Degas: “A painting is a thing which requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime; make counterfeits and add a touch of nature.”5
Impressionists on the Seine reproduces the old annotated photograph of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, which explains who the various models were. What no one can definitively explain is the relation of the models to their representation in the picture. It was certainly not painted in a single session, and is unlikely to represent an individual event. People seem to have come down to Chatou (twenty minutes from the Gare St.- Germain) and posed for the painter as and when available. One, a cocotte, was scraped out and replaced by Renoir’s future wife. The young man in the foreground is annotated as being Caillebotte, but a portrait très rajeuni. Was Renoir flattering his model (a potential purchaser) or simply using him as one would any model?
Eliza Rathbone in the catalog tells us that the young man talking to Charles Ephrussi in the background is Jules Laforgue. It would have been nice to be told where this identification comes from, since it seems to have been unknown to the late David Arkell,6 Laforgue’s biographer, or to any of the other sources I have been able to consult. Renoir began his painting in the summer of 1880, and had sold it to Durand-Ruel by February 14, 1881. Laforgue started working for Ephrussi five months later, and it is normally from that period that his acquaintance with Impressionism, on which he was to write so perceptively, is said to have begun. It makes rather a difference to our understanding of Laforgue’s experience if he had had the opportunity to see Renoir at work on one of his grandest compositions.
Charles Ephrussi (often said to have provided one of the models for Proust’s Swann, although George Painter in his biography hardly gives much evidence for this proposition) was a collector and scholar, and at the time a collaborator on the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Laforgue in 1880 could only have been known for his aspirations as a writer on art, rather than any achievement; and he was yet to take himself seriously as a poet. Ephrussi did something which should cause us to raise an eyebrow at least: first he hired Laforgue to work as his secretary, when he was preparing his book on Dürer; then, when the book was out, he commissioned Laforgue to review it for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Laforgue obliged with some well-informed praise. It was his first appearance in Ephrussi’s journal.
Though Ephrussi was Laforgue’s patron, he was not sympathetic to his ambitions to write on aesthetics, and Laforgue’s efforts in this direction went into the bottom drawer. His celebrated essay on Impressionism was written not for Ephrussi but for some unidentified German magazine (and only published posthumously in French).7 For Laforgue, the Impressionist was an artist gifted with the ability to cast off ancient and tenacious prejudices to do with drawing, perspective, and the lighting of the atelier. The Impressionist could abandon these old ways of seeing, forget about contour and replace it with vibrations and contrasts of color; he could forget about perspective in favor of these same vibrations and contrasts, forget about studio lighting and go instead for plein air, by which he meant not what the Barbizon painters had meant but any object or being in its own proper atmosphere: rooms lit by candlelight, streets, corridors lit by gas. Laforgue wrote:
In a landscape bathed with light, in which entities are modeled as if in colored grisaille, the academic painter sees nothing but white light spreading everywhere, while the Impressionist sees it bathing everything not in dead whiteness, but in a thousand conflicting vibrations, in rich prismatic decompositions of color. Where the academic sees only lines at the edges of things, holding modeling in place, the Impressionist sees real living lines, without geometrical form, built from thousands of irregular touches which, at a distance, give the thing life.
Often when Laforgue is talking of the Impressionists, by whom he means preeminently Monet and Pissarro (he had his reservations about a certain porcelain effect in Renoir’s finish), one could be forgiven for thinking of Seurat:
…Everything is obtained by means of a thousand small touches, dancing off in all directions like so many straws of color—each struggling for survival in the overall impression. No more isolated melodies, the whole thing is a symphony, which itself is life, living and changing, like the “forest voices” of Wagner’s theories, each struggling for existence in the great voice of the forest, just as the Unconscious, the law of the world, is the great melodic voice resulting from the symphony of consciousness of races and individuals. Such is the principle of the Impressionist school of plein air.8
Laforgue and Seurat studied art under the same teacher, although well before either of them would have known how to express himself in this way. Seurat was the only painter present at Laforgue’s funeral. He was a year older than Laforgue, and survived him by less than four years. As far as I can see, they had little contact in adult life, and yet one could imagine them sharing more than a memory of art school. That feeling that the whole academic approach to drawing, to line, must be jettisoned in favor of the real living line, made from a thousand irregular touches—would not Laforgue have recognized at once what Seurat’s drawings set out to achieve, those drawings with no line but in the texture of the paper, those “irradiated” images, where the figure has no outline but rather a kind of halo establishing form, those Egyptian profiles of the figures on the Grande Jatte, Laforgue who spent most of his short adult life in Germany, where he studied the Egyptian antiquities in Berlin, where he imbibed Wagner and conceived for painting a Wagnerian ideal. Laforgue who, homesick in Baden-Baden, complained that “Nature here is posing too much. Oh how I long for the sickly Bièvre river, the thin vine-shoots and the vacant lots!” and who wrote to the artist Max Klinger: “Love Paris, I implore you, and especially the suburban landscapes like the Bièvre.”9
The Bièvre River is to Paris what the Fleet River is to London—but unlike the Fleet it was only covered over early this century. It was the last open sewer in the city that Laforgue was recommending. The Bièvre had already been diverted into that collector of the Left Bank, which was known in fact as the Collector of the Bièvre, and which thereby made its extraordinary underground journey from the southeast of Paris to Asnières in the northwest.
And Seurat chose for his masterpiece, the painting of bathers with which he hoped to enter the Salon, to confer grandeur upon a view of the gas works and the zinc factory at Clichy, and to treat them not as an encroachment on the scene but as a worthy subject for contemplation. As for his bathers, the London catalog calls them
extraordinarily equivocal. We are shown half-naked young men, stripped off for a swim. Yet they do not act in “manly” ways: running, diving, swimming. They are not strapping figures; there is nothing tactile, sensuous, or detailed about the rendition of their bodies. None of them attracts the viewer’s gaze by eye contact, for this is a bashful, bachelor, fundamentally decorous painting, pioneering a highly individual path between ideal and natural beauty.
One might say indeed that the indifference of the subjects seems welcome to the painter, that it is one of the things that makes the idyll possible. They demand nothing, and especially not our sympathy. Eerily enough, the painting appears to have no designs upon us.
September 25, 1997
See David Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton University Press, 1958). ↩
Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris, p. 140. ↩
T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Thames and Hudson, 1984). ↩
Reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art (Braziller, 1978), p. 192. ↩
Robert L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society (Yale University Press, 1988). ↩
David Arkell, Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography (Persea Books, 1979). ↩
Jules Laforgue, Textes de Critique d’Art, edited by Mireille Dottin (Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1988). ↩
Quoted and translated by Clark in The Painting of Modern Life, p. 16. ↩
Quoted by Arkell in Looking for Laforgue, pp. 95 and 135. ↩