“Monet painted this exquisitely lyrical and radiant scene of the Seine at Argenteuil–a place that has come to be virtually synonymous with the origins of Impressionism–during the summer of 1874, just weeks after the epoch-making First Impressionist Exhibition.
Since moving to Argenteuil in December 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, Monet had been consolidating the revolutionary formal vocabulary of this new modern movement, as well as actively militating for an independent alternative to the Salon. Now, both efforts bore fruit.
From April to May 1874, in the former studios of the photographer Nadar in Paris, Monet exhibited a selection of new work alongside that of ten like-minded colleagues–the first time that artists had banded together to show their art publicly without the sanction of the state or the judgment of a jury. History had been made, and the show became the touchstone for all such future modernist efforts.
Public response to this novel venture, though, was decidedly mixed. Some critics had no doubt that the participants were creating the most avant-garde and important work of any artists in France.
After the exhibition closed, Monet returned to Argenteuil even more strongly committed to the New Painting. During the ensuing summer, he painted more pictures than he had ever completed in a similar amount of time–nearly forty vibrant and light-filled scenes, including the present work.
When Monet moved to Argenteuil, it was a lively suburb of some eight thousand inhabitants, located on the right bank of the Seine just eleven kilometers west of the capital.
Parisians knew it as an agréable petite ville, all the more convenient because it was only fifteen minutes by rail from the Gare Saint-Lazare, and trains ran every half-hour. The town had some factories, and several smokestacks punctuated the skyline among the stretches of tall trees that lined the Seine.
Two bridges, one for coach and pedestrian traffic and the other for the train line, connected Argenteuil to Petit Gennevilliers on the opposite bank. Visitors, however, could easily disregard these encroachments of the industrial age and focus instead on the picturesque aspects of the town.
As a result, Argenteuil beckoned as a congenial destination for middle-class Parisians who wanted to escape the noise and grime of the city for fresh-air holidays and Sunday outings.
The town was especially popular among leisure-seekers devoted to the newly fashionable sport of boating, since the Seine is deeper and broader here than anywhere else near Paris. From the mid-century onward, town leaders encouraged the development of Argenteuil as a sailing hub, permitting the establishment of mooring areas and boathouses along the banks and promoting the near-perfect conditions of the river among sports enthusiasts.
Their efforts paid off, and by the later 1850s the most stylish yacht club in Paris had its headquarters there. The sight of sailboats and larger vessels flying before the wind in regattas and other fêtes nautiques attracted numerous spectators, and in 1867 the town was even chosen as the site for the sailing competition during the Exposition Universelle. By the time Monet arrived, Argenteuil had become a postcard town for suburban leisure.
Although Monet explored a wide range of motifs during his years at Argenteuil, it was the river that provided him with the greatest wealth of pictorial enticements.
Between 1872 and 1875, he created more than fifty paintings of this stretch of the Seine, focusing principally on three motifs: the boat rental area immediately downstream from the highway bridge, as in the present scene; the wide basin of the river, with its sandy promenades; and the Petit Bras, a diversion of the Seine by the Île Marante where larger boats sometimes moored.
Although they range in mood from reflective to high-spirited, these views all offered Monet the opportunity to paint essentially the same subject: a well-ordered, modern suburb where man and nature met in agreeable harmonies.
‘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,’ Paul Tucker has written, ‘its calm the restorative balm for the nation as a whole’.
To paint the present scene, Monet worked from a boat that he had outfitted as a floating studio, anchoring it near the Petit-Gennevilliers bank looking downstream–exactly as Manet showed in a remarkable 1874 painting of his friend at work.
Paintings like this one appear so soothing–and have become so iconic–that it can be hard to appreciate how radical Monet’s approach to form was in his day. In Au Petit-Gennevilliers, he has replaced the dark, saturated hues of Corot, Courbet, and the Barbizon school with a heightened palette of blue, green, ochre, and most notably, copious white, which brilliantly conveys the sensation of the open air.
The paint is applied in a vibrating tissue of broken brushstrokes–small horizontal dashes for the surface of the water, lively comma-shaped marks for the trees and sky–that evoke the gentle rustling of the breeze and the flickering play of sunlight over the scene.
This transparent brushwork, a revolutionary departure from Salon norms, also explicitly inscribes the presence of the artist, bearing witness to a central tenet of Impressionism as well as one of its most persuasive myths: the plein-air master before nature, rapidly transcribing his immediate sensations.”