All his life Claude Monet was fascinated by the subject of water. From his youth on the Normandy coast to his old age at Giverny, the artist made the depiction of water--and the life that surrounds water--a personal specialization. His first and last paintings are views of ponds, and in between he executed some of the most sublime images of ocean and river ever recorded. Certainly, this attraction is one of the forces that drew him in the 1860s and 1870s to the small villages along the Seine just west of Paris. He settled near Bougival in 1869 and painted a nearby restaurant and bathing establishment, La Grenouillère. He moved to Argenteuil in 1871, and lived there for five years, painting over two hundred canvases, most of which include views of the river.
When he arrived, Argenteuil was still a small village of eight thousand inhabitants. Although only eleven kilometers west of Paris, it retained its rustic charm. One writer in 1850 characterized the place as "a cheerful village...full of life and rich features" (G. La Fosse, Histoire des environs de Paris, Paris, 1850, p. 112) and another said that it had "flowers, large trees, green grass and a breeze; isn't that enough to make you forget everything?" (quoted in P. Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil, New Haven, 1982, p. 9). The pressures of modern life in the capital--and the long hours demanded by the rise of industrialization--led to an exodus every weekend as Parisians sought leisure and nature in the countryside west of the city. Argenteuil was a mecca for these tourists, especially those devoted to the popluar new sport of boating. The conditions at Argenteuil were particularly auspicious for the pastime: the Seine is deeper and broader there than anywhere else in the environs of Paris. As Le Sport wrote in 1855:
Nowhere in the immediate vicinity of Paris does the Seine present to the amateur boater a basin as favorable in length and breadth as well as current as that at Argenteuil. (Quoted in ibid., p. 90)
It was for this reason that the most fashionable yacht club in city, the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, had its moorings at Argenteuil. (Caillebotte, an impassioned sailor, was a member of that club and a successful competitor in amateur yacht races.) Argenteuil was even chosen as the location for the sailing competition during the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Although the Seine in this region was also used for freight, Monet, unlike Sisley, generally avoided depicting the industry and commerce along the river, instead portraying sailing as a pastime. He was drawn to this subject because it was fresh and enabled him to paint light, and no less importantly, because it signified the rapturous engagement with nature that Monet was to seek all his life. Between 1872 and 1875, Monet made dozens of paintings of sailing at Argenteuil.
In search of a viewpoint, the artist generally would cross the Seine on the new bridge connecting Argenteuil with Gennevilliers, and select a spot on the southern bank of the river opposite Argenteuil and downstream from Gennevilliers. He favored three motifs: the boat rental area immediately adjacent to the bridge (fig. 1), the boat basin slightly further down river (fig. 2), and the shores of the Petit Bras, a small diversion of the Seine by the Ile Marante (fig. 3). Generally, Monet chose to paint facing downstream, although on occasion, he would turn around to face the bridge, which had just been rebuilt, following its destruction during the Franco-Prussian war. He also did some views of the new railway bridge, slightly further to the north (fig. 4).
The present picture is one of three closely related views made in 1875 from a point midway between the basin and the boat rental area (Wildenstein, nos. 374 and 375; Private Collections); all three are strikingly similar in composition to the celebrated image of Argenteuil, painted three years earlier, which now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay (fig. 5). Of the three 1875 views, this one was made the furthest downstream; it does not depict the small dock that we see in the other two views, and so must have been painted from a point immediately adjacent to the dock. This dock is the same one featured in Monet's and Renoir's paintings of Canotiers à Argenteuil, both from 1874 (fig. 6 and Wildenstein, no. 324; Private Colleection). This area of the bank was also depicted by Sisley in 1872 in his painting, Le pont d'Argenteuil, which Manet owned (Daulte, no. 30; Private Collection). Down the sandy path that stretches along the southern bank of the river in the present work several figures can be seen en promenade. In the far distance, to the left of center of the compositon, is the Château Michelet, built in the Louis XIII style in 1871. (Its proprietor, M. Michelet, was a wealthy Parisian banker and friend of the artist Gustave Caillebotte, who painted the chateau twice (fig. 7 and Berhaut, no. 422; Musée Pissarro, Pontoise). It figures in four of Monet's works of 1872 (fig. 8 and Wildenstein, nos. 221, 222 and 224; Private Collection) and in two works of 1874 (Wildenstein, nos. 327 and 328; Private Collection) The present picture must have been painted in the morning, as the view is to the south and the sunlight falls from the left. The early time of day is also indicated by the cool light in the sky and the long blue shadows falling across the path. The foliage suggests that it was painted in late spring or early summer.
A contemporary journalist could have had this painting in mind when he described how:
Right away you notice this magnificent basin of the Seine, where in summer season, the happy boaters come to indulge their nautical pastime; then you notice some small houses serving as pieds à terre for their owners in the pleasant parts of the year. Then further, a magnificent promenade shaded by majestic trees. (Quoted in ibid, p. 9)
The horizon in this beautiful picture is set low in the composition so that the sky floods the scene with light, giving it an extraordinarily airy mood. Below the horizon-line each of the compositional sections is triangular in shape, making for a dynamic but balanced image. The palette is dominated by greens, blues and whites; the values are light, even brilliant.
So soothing are Monet's early paintings that it can be hard today to understand how radical his approach to form actually was. These works are a revolutionary departure from the traditional palette and values of French landscape painting. Gone are the more somber colors and deeper hues of Corot, Courbet, Daubigny and the Barbizon school. Whereas Courbet's landscapes abound in saturated blacks and browns, and Corot's mature scenes are often an essay in grisaille, Monet's views are shot with vivid color. Another new feature is the transparency of the artist's brushwork. In the paintings of Courbet and Corot the brushwork does not draw attention to itself, whereas Monet lays on the paint with energy and relish, hence the dynamism of the work. In his History of Impressionism John Rewald has commented on the revolutionary character of Monet's and Renoir's brushwork at Argenteuil:
They adopted a comma-like brush stroke, even smaller than the one they had chosen for their works at La Grenouillère, a brush stroke which permitted them to record every nuance they observed. The surfaces of their canvases were thus covered with a vibrating tissue of small dots and strokes, none of which by themselves defined any form. Yet they [sought] to recreate not only the particular features of the chosen motif but even more the sunny air which bathed it and marked trees, grass, houses, or water with the specific character of the day, if not the hour. Nature was no longer, as for the Barbizon painters, an object susceptible to interpretation; it became the direct source of pure sensations, reproduced by the technique of small dots and strokes which--instead of insisting on details--retained the general impression in all its richness of color and life. (J. Rewald, History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 284)
The content of Monet's landscapes are another departure from tradition. While Barbizon paintings tend to have an air of timelessness, Monet's are explicitly, emphatically contemporary in that they depict scenes of modern industry and leisure.
Despite their break with the past, Monet's Argenteuil paintings were enormously popular. For the first time in his career he enjoyed significant commercial success, and between 1871 and 1873 alone he made nearly 37,000 francs from sales, a considerable sum given that the typical salary of a lawyer or doctor in Paris was then around 9,000 francs a year.
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Le pont routier, Argenteuil, 1874
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Régates à Argenteuil, 1872
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Printemps à Argenteuil, 1872
Museum of Art, Portland, Maine
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Le pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil, 1873
Private Collection (Christie's, November 28, 1988)
(fig. 5) Claude Monet, Le bassin d'Argenteuil, 1972, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
(fig. 6) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Canotiers à Argenteuil, 1874
Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
(fig. 7) Gustave Caillebotte, Château au bord de la Seine, Argenteuil, 1891
(fig. 8) Claude Monet, La promenade à Argenteuil, 1872
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
La Seine à Argenteuil
Oil on canvas
THE SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART,
sold to benefit its Helen Crocker Russell Art Purchase Fund
Signed and dated bottom right 'Claude Monet 75'
Paris, 2e exposition des artistes indépendants (2e exposition des impressionnistes), April, 1876, p. 15, no. 149
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Exposition des oeuvres de Claude Monet, March, 1883, no. 13
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Monet-Rodin, June-July, 1889, no. 28 Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir et Sisley, April, 1899, no. 5
Weimar, Grosherzogliches Museum, Monet, Manet, Renoir und Cézanne, March, 1904, no. 16
Weimar, Grosherzogliches Museum, Monet, April-May, 1905, no. 4
London, Grafton Galleries, Pictures by Boudin, Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Sisley, Jan.-Feb., 1905, no. 126
Vienna, Galerien Miethke, Monet-Manet, May, 1910, no. 30
London, Grosvenor House, Art français, June, 1914, no. 50
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Oeuvres importantes de Monet, Pissarro, Renoir et Sisley, Jan., 1925, no. 28
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Paintings by the Impressionists, Dec., 1926, no. 12
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by Claude Monet, Jan., 1927, no. 6 (illustrated)
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Claude Monet, May-June, 1952, p. 20, no. 38 (illustrated, pl. XIV). The exhibition traveled to Paris, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, June-July, 1952, and The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, July-Sept., 1952.
Vancouver, Art Gallery, French Impressionists, March-April, 1953
St. Louis, City Art Museum, Claude Monet, Sept.-Oct., 1957, pp. 19 and 23, no. 29 (illustrated). The exhibition traveled to Minneapolis, Institute of Arts, Nov.-Dec., 1957.
San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Claude Monet, Paintings in California Collections, Jan.-March, 1974, pp. 11 and 16, no. 3 (illustrated, p. 23). The exhibition traveled to Santa Barbara, Museum of Art, March-May, 1974, and San Diego, Fine Arts Gallery, May-June, 1974.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Claude Monet, Oct.-Nov., 1976, no. 24 (illustrated in color)
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The New Painting: Impressionism, Jan.-April, 1986, p. 179, no. 30 (illustrated in color). The exhibition traveled to San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, April-July, 1986.
23½ x 31 3/8 in. (59.8 x 79.8 cm.)
E. Porcheron, "Promenades d'un flâneur: Les impressionnistes," Soleil, April 4, 1876, p. 3
E. Blémont, "Les impressionnistes," Le Rappel, April 9, 1876, p. 3
"A travers l'art," L'Art Moderne, April, 1883, p. 15
C. Mauclair, L'Impressionnisme, son histoire, son esthétique, ses maîtres, Paris, 1904, p. 76 (illustrated)
J. Meier-Graefe, "Uber Impressionismus," Die Kunst, Jan., 1910, p. 153 (illustrated)
G. Geffroy, Claude Monet, sa vie, son temps, son ouevre, Paris, 1922, pp. 59, 62, and 71
F. Fels, Claude Monet, Paris, 1925, p. 39 (illustrated)
C. Mauclair, Claude Monet, Paris, 1927, p. 61 (illustrated, pl. 19) D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1974, vol. I (1840-1881, Peintures), no. 373 (illustrated)
D.C. duPont, K.C. Holland, G.G. Muller and L.L. Sueoka, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: The Painting and Sculpture Collection, New York, 1985, p. 344 (illustrated)
Jean-Baptiste Faure, Paris (acquired from the artist in Sept., 1875)
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above in Jan., 1893)
Mrs. Henry Porter Russell, Hillsborough, California (1928)
Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Russell, Hillsborough (circa 1965)
Gift from the above to the present institution in 1974