George Seurat: Harmonious Discord

October 22nd, 2009

On my first day in London last month, I spent an hour or two drawing George Seurat’s enormous oil painting Bathers in Asnières, which is housed in the National Gallery. I’ve included my sketch below Seurat’s masterpiece.

George Seurat, 'Bathers at Asnières'

Seurat (1859-1891) used an analytical, painstaking approach to color that made his canvases sing. He studied the physical and scientific nature of the eye’s perception of color and incorporated it into his paintings and his theories of art. Seurat once wrote, “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of the contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color and of line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations.”

For Seurat, harmony was a complex idea. The word suggests a variety of notes composed to form a vibrant whole, and Seurat understood how to use discord and ‘contrary’ elements to achieve his harmony. In Bathers in Asnières, he employs a dominance of cool colors to portray summer heat and sunshine so strong that many objects are haloed with brightness. Likewise, he has used his harmonious color to illustrate a mood of pensive reflection, not one of joy or gaiety. All characters in his scene (except for the boy on the bottom right) seem to be isolated in introspective daydreams. The result is both luminous and brooding.

Dan's Sketch

Further Reading:
Bathers at Asnières at the National Gallery
Discussion of Seurat’s techniques at How Stuff Works

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