The landscapes that Monet painted at Argenteuil during the 1870s have been widely hailed as a high point--arguably, the high point--of Impressionism. Paul Tucker has described Monet's oeuvre from this period as "one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art... and a touchstone for the development of Western visual culture" (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14). In January 1872, just weeks after Monet's arrival at Argenteuil, his friend and mentor Eugène Boudin wrote to a mutual acquaintance, the Paris dealer Pierre-Firmin Martin, "I have been seeing Monet frequently these days. He's settled in comfortably and seems to have a great desire to make a name for himself. I believe that he is destined to fill one of the most prominent positions in our school of painting" (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 53). Boudin's prediction proved spot-on. In the first two years that Monet spent at Argenteuil, leading up the watershed First Impressionist Exhibition in the spring of 1874, he consolidated the formal vocabulary of this revolutionary new manner of painting, producing a string of plein-air masterpieces that seem as fresh and vital today as they did when they were first made. As other progressive painters--Sisley, Renoir, Caillebotte, and Manet among them--joined Monet at Argenteuil, the town became the locus of the new painting, an alternative to Paris. Indeed, as John Rewald has noted, "Probably no single place could be identified more closely with Impressionism than Argenteuil" (The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, 4th rev. ed., p. 341).
When Monet moved to Argenteuil in December 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War, it was a burgeoning suburban enclave of around eight thousand inhabitants. Promoted in contemporary guidebooks as an agréable petite ville, the picturesque town was prominently situated on the right bank of the Seine eleven kilometers west of Paris, where the river loops again on its course to the English Channel. Two bridges, one for coach and pedestrian traffic and the other bearing the main train line between Paris and Rouen, connected Argenteuil to the smaller center of Petit Gennevilliers on the opposite bank. Just fifteen minutes from the capital by rail, Argenteuil had been a popular destination since the mid-1850s for middle-class Parisians who wanted to escape the capital for fresh-air holidays or Sunday outings. The town was particularly popular with recreational boaters, since the Seine is broader here than anywhere else in the environs of Paris (figs. 1-2). Monet was immediately attracted to the wealth of pictorial opportunities that Argenteuil afforded him, from the lively nautical traffic on the boat basin to the quaint village streets, from the tilled fields and vineyards to untouched corners of nature on the outskirts of town. In 1872 alone, he completed nearly sixty paintings, more than he had even attempted in the previous three years at Bougival, Trouville, London, and Holland combined, and he netted the extraordinary sum of 12,000 francs in sales, considerably more than the salary of a doctor or lawyer in Paris at the time.
The present painting is the largest in an important group of four closely related canvases that Monet produced in the spring or summer of 1872, just months after his arrival in Argenteuil, which depict the view downstream from the town (Wildenstein, nos. 221-224; figs. 3-4). On the right are the stately chestnut trees that lend shade and grandeur to the riverbank here, and on the left is the Ile Marante, a slender island that divides the Seine into two branches immediately west of the Argenteuil boat basin. In the distance is a turreted, Louis XIII-style manor house that had been built the previous year by Emile Michelet, a wealthy Parisian banker and vice-president of the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, an elegant yachting club that had its moorings at Argenteuil. Flanking Michelet's house are a pair of smokestacks and several low factory buildings. In the other three paintings in the group, Monet included part of the sandy promenade that ran along the Argenteuil bank; in the present canvas, he has moved his easel slightly further west, where the sandy promenade becomes a well-worn, grassy path. The various canvases in the group were painted at different times of day and in different weather conditions, allowing Monet to experiment with a range of lighting effects. He depicts the scene in golden midday sunshine (fig. 3), in cooler light beneath a dramatic layer of clouds (fig. 4), or--in our painting--in the richly colored glow of late afternoon, the sky and the water streaked with pale orange and pink and the trees rustling in the very faintest breeze.
That Monet turned his attention repeatedly to this particular site so soon after arriving in Argenteuil is not surprising, as it seems to exemplify everything one might want from suburban living. The natural and still unspoiled beauties of the town are amply in evidence in these tranquil scenes, with their placid waters, deserted riverbanks, and high, expansive skies. At the same time, the sailboats that drift gently on the surface of the Seine speak to the abundant opportunities for leisure that Argenteuil afforded, while the chimneys (shown here with no smoke, suggesting that the scene was painted on a Sunday) remind us that this site was distinctly modern. Tucker has written, "Of all the places he painted in Argenteuil, this was probably one of the most significant, as it seemed to embody everything positive that the town, and other suburbs like it, were supposed to possess--the ideal integration of the new and old, the natural and the human. This is a place where labor (in the form of the factory chimneys and small sheds on the right) happily co-exists with leisure (as represented by the sailboats on the river), where the presence of the human in the landscape in the form of the turreted house seems not only appropriate but desirable... Evocative and inviting, this is the suburban paradise that was sought after in the 1850s and 1860s but made all the more precious and desired after the disasters of 1870-1871. Its order was exactly what was needed in post-war France, its calm the restorative balm for the nation as a whole" (op. cit., 1995, p. 61).
The carefully crafted composition of the present painting underscores this sense of consummate order and beauty. All the pieces of the picture fit together like the interlocking parts of an ideally constructed world. The banks of the river and the edges of the grassy path produce a series of receding orthogonals that leads the eye gently but insistently into the scene. Together, the wedges of water and earth form a narrow, elongated rectangle that provides a stable base for the nearly square expanse of sky, which rises majestically from the low horizon. The turret of the château and the two factory chimneys create a trio of verticals that ascend from left to right toward the towering trees, which in turn close the scene with subtle authority. The triangular reflections of the sailboat and the château stretch across the placid, glass-like waters almost to the riverbank in the foreground, knitting together near and far, while the entire scene is unified and enlivened by Monet's broken, vibrating brushstroke. Tucker has written, "This meticulously ordered scene...possesses the air of contented discovery and seems to be the product of a focused individual in tune with the world around him. It is in many ways a picture of perfection. There is nothing extraneous in this painting, nothing that disrupts the flow of one area to the next, nothing that seems out of position... The composition could not be set down with more rigor or sensitivity" (op. cit., 2000, p. 60).
Around the same time that he painted the present picture, Monet also turned and looked along the length of the promenade in the opposite direction, producing a single canvas that captures the view upstream toward the highway bridge at Argenteuil (Wildenstein, no. 225; fig. 5). Whereas the present painting retains a palpable sense of the rural calm that characterized old Argenteuil, the view toward the highway bridge provides a veritable inventory of the pleasures that the modern suburban landscape offered to vacationers, from strolling on the promenade or lounging on the grassy banks to sailing, rowing, and bathing on the Seine itself. Compositionally, the painting is a mirror-image of the present scene, the high rectangle of sky now scudded with bright noontime clouds rather than streaked with the gentle pinks of late afternoon. As in the present painting, the low vantage point invites the viewer to walk into the scene, making everything appear easily accessible, just as the rich impasto produces a sense of the tangible and immediate. Tucker has written, "One moves effortlessly through the picture; the descending line of trees and the converging promenade and riverbank invite one in, while the graciously paced series of horizontal elements lure one gently left and right... From these kinds of perfectly negotiated relationships, it seems that Monet had found an ideal place to live and work" (op. cit., 1995, p. 62).
Over the course of the next three years, Monet drew seemingly limitless inspiration from his surroundings at Argenteuil, exhaustively documenting the public spaces and pleasure-seekers of the riverside town. Between 1872 and 1875, he painted more than fifty views of this stretch of the Seine, focusing in particular on three motifs: the boat rental area immediately downstream from the road bridge; the wide basin of the river, with its sandy promenades; and the idyllic Petit Bras encircling the Ile Marante. In three paintings dated 1875, he reprised the composition of the present painting, depicting roughly the same stretch of the river but from the opposite bank, at Petit Gennevilliers (Wildenstein, nos. 373-375; fig. 6); in another pair of paintings, he stood slightly further downstream, looking directly across the Seine toward the Château Michelet and the adjacent factory buildings (Wildenstein, nos. 327-328; fig. 7). Although they range in mood from secluded to worldly, reflective to high-spirited, these views all offered Monet the opportunity to paint essentially the same subject: "a well-ordered suburb where nature and humans met in agreeable harmonies," to quote Robert Herbert (Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 234).
By early 1876, however, Argenteuil's appeal for Monet had begun to fade. In the four years since he had arrived there, the town had undergone enormous changes, becoming more populous and aggressively modern. A third iron works was set to open across the street from Monet's house, and plans were being made to bring a second railroad through town to accommodate the increased commuter and commercial traffic. Disheartened by these developments, Monet chose to spend much of 1876 away from Argenteuil. He undertook a brief campaign in Paris during the spring and early summer, painting the timeless, tranquil gardens of the Tuileries and Parc Monceau, and then retreated to Ernest Hoschedé's country house at idyllic Montgeron from July until December. In January 1877, he returned to Paris and made a complete about-face, tackling one of the most radically modern, urban subjects of his career: the crowded, steaming Gare Saint-Lazare. Finally, three months later, he made his way back to Argenteuil, where he virtually stopped painting for the remainder of the year, seemingly unable to reconcile the contradictions that increasingly characterized the burgeoning town.
Between April 1877 and January 1878, when he left Argenteuil permanently for rural Vétheuil, Monet produced just four depictions of the town--all of them painted from roughly the same spot and depicting the very same view as the present scene (Wildenstein, nos. 450-453; fig. 8). Tucker has explained, "When he finally took up his paints and brushes again he returned to the one place that had embodied all of the idyllic qualities of the town when he had first arrived--the promenade" (op. cit., 1995, p. 100). These parting views of Argenteuil, however, differ dramatically from the ones that Monet had painted at the very beginning of his stay. There is no longer an entrance to the scene, an invitation to stroll along the once-welcoming bank; instead, the foreground is completely blocked by a dense thicket of foliage. Indeed, the scene appears forcefully split in half, the agitated mass of bold, dark flowers in the foreground contrasting with the blurry forms and golden hues of the background. No longer is there a logical delineation of spaces, a sense of each part in the painting being integrated with the next; instead, we see the junction of two separate worlds, no longer reconcilable. Tucker has concluded, "Just as the flowers that touch the background have lost their petals, so too had Monet lost his faith in the myth of progress... The idyll of the other views along the promenade has now become a clash of opposites" (ibid., p. 100; Monet at Argenteuil, New Haven, 1982, p. 183).
In the present painting, however, all is peaceful and harmonious, a summer idyll, a veritable poem of tranquility--albeit painted in a vigorous and distinctively modern manner, the vibrating tissue of broken brushstrokes and the heightened palette of the late afternoon sky far removed from Barbizon norms. Recognizing its beauty and sensitivity, the dealer Durand-Ruel snapped up the canvas from Monet almost before the paint had dried; it was later purchased by the Parisian collector Maurice Masson and was featured in an exhibition of his Impressionist holdings at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1911.
Claude Monet, 1877. BARCODE: 28855286
(fig. 1) The Seine at Argenteuil, late nineteenth century. Viewed from the Petit Gennevilliers promenade looking upstream. BARCODE: 28855309
(fig. 2) The Château Michelet at Argenteuil, late nineteenth century. BARCODE: 28855293
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, La promenade d'Argenteuil, 1872. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE: 28855156
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, La promenade d'Argenteuil, 1872. Sold, Christie's, London, 24 June 1998, lot 18. BARCODE: 28855170
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Le Bassin d'Argenteuil, 1872. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE: 28855149
(fig. 6) Claude Monet, La Seine à Argenteuil, 1875. Sold, Christie's, New York, 14 May 1997, lot 20. BARCODE: 28855163
(fig. 7) Claude Monet, Coucher de soleil sur la Seine, 1874. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE: 28855132
(fig. 8) Claude Monet, La Seine à Argenteuil, 1877. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 30. BARCODE: 28855187
Argenteuil, fin d'après-midi
Oil on canvas
Please note the additional literature citation:
M. Tompkins Lewis, ed., Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology, Berkeley, 2007, p. 127 (illustrated, fig. 5.21).
PROPERTY OF AN ESTATE
Signed 'Claude Monet' (lower right)
Claude Monet , 19th Century, Paintings, oil, France, Impressionist, landscape
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Collection Maurice Masson, 1911, p. 26, no. 22 (illustrated, p. 27; titled Argenteuil).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles County Museum, Claude Monet, Seasons and Moments, March-August 1960, p. 60, no. 12.
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Olympia's Progeny, October-November 1965, no. 11 (illustrated).
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Claude Monet, October-November 1976, no. 11 (illustrated in color).
Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum and Tokyo, The Bunkamura Museum of Art, Monet and Renoir: Two Great Impressionist Trends, November 2003-May 2004, p. 149, no. 1 (illustrated in color, p. 26).
Brescia, Museo di Santa Giulia, Monet, la Senna, le ninfee: Il grande fiume e il nuovo secolo, October 2004-March 2005, p. 256, no. 57 (illustrated in color, p. 257; titled Argenteuil, tramonto).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
23 5/8 x 32 in. (60 x 81.3 cm.)
C. Mauclair, Claude Monet, London, 1927, p. 61 (illustrated, pl. 13; titled Argenteuil).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1974, vol. I, p. 210, no. 224 (illustrated, p. 211).
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1991, vol. V, p. 26, no. 224.
D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. II, pp. 99-100, no. 224 (illustrated in color, p. 99).
R. Kendall, ed., Monet by Himself, London, 2004, p. 213, no. 52 (illustrated in color, pl. 52).
M. Tompkins Lewis, ed., Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology, Berkeley, 2007, p. 127 (illustrated, fig. 5.21).
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired from the artist, 1872).
Maurice Masson, Paris; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 22 June 1911, lot 22.
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie. and Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Galerie Bernheim Jeune et Cie., Paris (acquired from the above).
(possibly) Isidore Montaignac, Paris.
Comtesse Joachim Murat (Thérèse Bianchi), Paris (1912).
Marquis de Ludre-Frolois (Frédéric-Louis-Marie-René), Paris.
Comte de Chaumont Quitry and Claude de Ludre-Frolois, Paris (by descent from the above).
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 1955).
Mr. and Mrs. Bernard F. Combemale (née Pamela Woolworth), New York (1956); sale, Christie's, London, 27 November 1964, lot 42.
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York (acquired at the above sale).
Jack Ladson, New York (1964).
Acquavella Galleries, New York.
Lawrence Lever, New York; Estate sale, Christie's, New York, 15 May 1979, lot 12.
Mr. and Mrs. Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., Michigan; sale, Christie's, New York, 14 November 1990, lot 13.
Private collection, Switzerland (acquired at the above sale); sale, Sotheby's, London, 8 February 2011, lot 15.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.