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The Impressionists at Argenteuil

A sun-dappled dirt road runs away from us, parallel to a shimmering body of water under a blue sky dotted with white clouds in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes, so some details are difficult to make out. The road moves back in space from the lower right corner of the canvas. It is lined with tall thin trees with narrow, dark green canopies to our right and with marshy grasses to our left. The road ends or curves in front of a row of terracotta-orange and gray buildings and smokestacks along the horizon, which comes about a third of the way up this composition. Two women and a child stand and sit in the shadows at the base of the trees to our right. Two sailboats drift on the glassy surface of the water. A row of celery-green trees on the horizon to our left and the sails of the boats reflect in the water. The artist signed the lower right corner, “Claude Monet.”



The town of Argenteuil lies on the banks of the Seine eleven kilometers to the northwest of Paris, a fifteen-minute train ride from the capital's Gare Saint-Lazare. With its railway line and factories, residences and river walks, it is in many ways typical of the suburban towns on the outskirts of Paris. Yet the contribution it made to the evolution of modern French painting sets it apart from neighboring villages. During the 1870s and 1880s Argenteuil became an important source of inspiration for the impressionist artists, who immortalized its river views, bridges, streets, and gardens in their groundbreaking paintings. Their depictions of Argenteuil, fifty-two of which are gathered together in this exhibition, constitute one of the most exhaustive representations ever made of a single place and present a panorama of the predominant themes and quintessential features of impressionist painting.

Claude Monet, Argenteuil, c. 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.42

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Two sailboats and a rowboat float on a glistening, azure-blue river spanned by a stone bridge to our right in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible strokes and dashes throughout so some details are indistinct. An area of asparagus and moss-green dabs creates a patch of grassy riverbank in the lower right corner of the painting. The rippling, sun-dappled surface of the river is created with short parallel strokes of pale pink, caramel brown, white, sage green, and light blue. An empty sailboat, with its sails tightly furled or removed all together, floats near us to our left of center. It has a single tall, pale wood mast. A similar pole rises from the bottom edge of the picture, presumably the mast of another ship below us or out of our view. Farther out on the water and to our left is another sailboat with full white sails catching the sunlight. The final vessel is loosely painted with a few swipes of goldenrod yellow, black, white, and pink to suggest two people sitting in a rowboat, one of them holding a pink parasol. The gray stone bridge is shaded on our side with denim blue along the faces of the four arches we can see. Several people, painted with a few touches of peach and black, stand at the railing. The bridge angles from near the upper right corner of the canvas to almost the middle of the composition, where it meets a narrow, three-story coral-pink and light gray building. A two-story, white building sits a short distance to its left. They bask in warm sunlight against a row of emerald and olive-green trees. A baby-blue sky scattered with puffy white clouds spans the upper half of the composition. The artist signed the lower right with dark red letters, “Claude Monet.”

Argenteuil is described in nineteenth-century guidebooks as an agréable petite ville. Dating back to the seventh century, when a convent was founded on the site, the community became well known for its superior agricultural produce--wine grapes and asparagus--and gypsum deposits, a source of the famous "plaster of Paris." By the 1870s, however, when the impressionists painted there, the picturesque village had developed into a thriving town. The transformation began in 1851, when a railway line connected Argenteuil to Paris, attracting many new factories and businesses and increasing the town's population. By the second half of the nineteenth century local industries included tanneries and chemical plants as well as the Joly iron works, one of the largest iron fabricators in France. Despite these developments, Argenteuil retained much of its rustic charm and during the 1850s became a popular destination for day-trippers from Paris, drawn there by the pleasant riverside promenades and boating activities. This spectacular stretch of the Seine, where the river reached its widest and deepest points, hosted a great variety of events, from sailing and steamboat races to water jousts and recreational boating. Argenteuil was therefore a town with many facets, a place that combined leisure and labor, fields and factories, rural beauty and urban life. These contrasts epitomized the modernity and change that the impressionists sought to embody in their novel landscape paintings.

Claude Monet, The Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.24

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From low on a hillside, we look up at a light-skinned woman and boy standing in tall grass against a sunny blue sky in this vertical painting. The woman stands at the center of the composition, and the moss-green parasol she holds over her head almost brushes the top edge of the canvas. Her body faces our left but she turns her head to look at us. Her long dress is painted largely with strokes of pale blue and gray with a few touches of yellow. Her voluminous skirts swirl around her legs to our left. She holds the parasol with both hands, and her brown hair is covered with a hat. Long strokes of white paint across her face suggest a veil fluttering in the breeze. The tall grass she stands in is dotted with buttercup yellow and plum purple, and she casts a long diagonal shadow along the grass toward us. The young boy seems to stand on the other side of the hill, since the grass and flowers comes up to his waist. He wears a white jacket and pale yellow straw hat. His arms are by his sides, and he seems to look off into the distance to our left. A sunny blue sky behind the people is dotted with bright blue clouds. The painting is created with loose brushstrokes throughout, and they are especially choppy in the clouds. The artist signed and dated the painting in royal-blue letters at the lower right: “Claude Monet 75.”



During the late 1860s and 1870s the impressionists developed a style of painting that departed radically from existing traditions of European art. Rejecting the notion that high art should represent elevated subjects from mythology, history, or religious sources, these avant-garde artists turned their attention to the people, sites, and scenes of their own age. One contemporary critic wrote: "To paint what they see, to reproduce nature without interpreting it and without arranging it, seems to be the goal of these artists." The impressionists wished to capture momentary effects, such as the flux and movement of modern life or the fleeting properties of light on forms in nature, and they devised new techniques of painting to achieve this aim. Their broken brushwork, irregular surfaces, heightened color, and sense of spontaneity gave physical expression to their perceptions of a particular time and place. Contemporaries regarded the paintings as crude and sketchy, and at the first public exhibition of these works, the artists were disparagingly called mere "impressionists" by the conservative art critic Louis Leroy.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.29

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The Impressionist Group Exhibitions


In addition to developing their technical innovations, the impressionists succeeded in breaking free from the constraints of the official art exhibitions of their day. At that time the Paris art world was dominated by the annual Salon, an enormous exhibition of contemporary sculpture and painting. The works were selected by a jury, which favored paintings that conformed to the principles of the academic art establishment--representing elevated subject matter and demonstrating the traditional artistic skills of draftsmanship and modeling. The thousands of paintings accepted each year were hung frame to frame from floor to ceiling in a large exhibition space, where small canvases, such as landscapes, were often overwhelmed. Frustrated by the Salon system, the impressionists set out to establish their own alternative art exhibitions, free from the dictates of an official selecting jury and giving greater consideration to how paintings were hung. Under the leadership of Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, they formed the Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, which held eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886.

Auguste Renoir, Regatta at Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.59

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A bank of flowering bushes, possibly roses, fills most of an enclosed garden in front of a white house in this horizontal landscape painting. The scene is created using visible dabs and strokes of scarlet red, pale yellow, rust orange, and shell pink for the roses and kelly, teal, and forest green for the greenery. The cloud of flowers fills most of the left two-thirds of the composition, and dabs of shamrock and moss green and delphinium blue indicate grass and other plants around it. To our right of the roses, a couple walks near a fence in the distance. Painted with only a few strokes and touches of paint, one person wears a white dress and hat, and the other a dark gray suit and hat. A celery-green tree grows up the right edge of the canvas and curves toward the ivory-white, three-story house. The upper story is tucked under a pitched, ash-brown roof, and aquamarine-blue shutters flank the windows. More trees surround the house and line the fence. Brushstrokes in white and nickel gray suggest clouds against the ultramarine-blue sky. The artist signed and dated the painting in black near the lower left corner: “Claude Monet 73.”

The Impressionists and the Paris Suburbs


Although the impressionist exhibitions took place in Paris, most of the core members of the group spent the 1870s living and working in smaller towns surrounding the capital. Monet moved to Argenteuil in December 1871 and stayed there for six years. During this critical period of impressionism his house was an important meeting place for his friends and colleagues. Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne all visited him at various times, either to share a meal or to paint and discuss their artistic goals. Argenteuil had much to offer Monet and his fellow impressionists: conveniently located with respect to Paris, yet less expensive than living in the city, it also presented them with a wide range of motifs for their landscape paintings. The views in and around the town were a great inspiration for Monet throughout his stay, making his years in Argenteuil among the most productive of his career.

Claude Monet, The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil (A Corner of the Garden with Dahlias), 1873, oil on canvas, Gift of Janice H. Levin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.27.1

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Impressions of Nature


In their depictions of the natural world the impressionists focused on ephemeral qualities such as the nuances of sunlight and shadow. They sought to represent these passing effects as truthfully as possible and, in doing so, to capture the immediacy of experiencing nature at first hand. To this end they adopted the practice of painting outdoors, which enabled them to work from close, direct observation and record their perceptions without delay. A portrait by Renoir presents Monet as the archetypical impressionist: standing at his portable easel en plein air, palette and brushes in one hand, gazing intently at the flowers in the garden while holding his other hand poised before his canvas.

Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Argenteuil Garden, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell

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Monet also had a studio boat built when he was living in Argenteuil, making it possible for him to paint virtually from the surface of the river and to create compelling pictures that represent the shimmering effects of light on water. The exercise of painting in the open air was not new; for centuries landscape painters had made studies directly from nature. Yet such works were previously regarded merely as preparatory for larger-scale compositions, whereas the impressionists elevated what most of their contemporaries regarded as sketches to the level of finished works of art, worthy of being framed, exhibited, and sold.

Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1874, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

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We look slightly down onto a woman and a young boy, both with pale skin, sitting together on a grassy lawn with a chicken standing nearby in this horizontal painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes throughout. The woman sits with her body angled to our left, her legs stretched out in front of her. She turns her head to face us as she leans forward to rest her chin on one hand, with that elbow propped on her lap. She looks off to our left with dark eyes, and her coral-pink lips are parted. Her chestnut-brown hair is pulled up under a white bonnet, which is topped with a pink flower and a touch of black. A black ribbon tied around her neck hangs down her back. She wears a long-sleeved, full-skirted white dress, and swipes of yellow, blue, and brown could be shoes peeking out from the bottom hem. The unfolded fan she holds in her far hand is cream white along the center has rose pink to one side and indigo blue to the other. The boy leans against her torso, his legs coming toward us, and he looks out at us with dark eyes. His cheeks are flushed and his pink lips are closed. He has short blond hair with bangs under a short-brimmed, straw-yellow hat. His suit is baby blue with navy-blue swipes across the shoulders and a white streak at his neck, perhaps a neckerchief. There are dark bands at the cuffs and around his waist. The blue pants are rolled back over bare knees, and he wears gray socks and red and white shoes. A spindly tree trunk grows behind the woman’s back, and the grassy lawn nearly fills the painting. A bed of flowers with dark pink blossoms runs along the curving line of grass in the upper left corner. A chicken stands and looks at the pair, to our right. The bird has a vibrant red comb, buttercup-yellow, white, and dark brown feathers. Its feet are covered with white feathers.

Impressionist Techniques


In their attempts to recreate the vivid colors of nature as convincingly as possible, the impressionists invented painting techniques that differed radically from those of their immediate predecessors. Mid-nineteenth-century landscape painters Jean-François Millet and Thèodore Rousseau, who painted the rural landscapes around the village of Barbizon south of Paris, were a strong influence on early impressionism, notably in their choice of humble subject matter and in their intimate views of nature. At the same time, the Barbizon painters followed traditional methods of landscape painting, building their images with carefully blended hues and controlled brushwork on a dark-toned ground. The impressionists, by contrast, used bright, unmodulated colors, applied in bold, irregular brush strokes on a light-tinted canvas. Their deft application of paint created the appearance of spontaneity, as if their images were captured in a single moment. This was the desired effect, but these works of course took longer than an instant to paint: Renoir and Monet often returned to the same location on successive days to observe the effects of light at a certain hour, and all of the impressionists usually finished their canvases indoors.

Auguste Renoir, Madame Monet and Her Son, 1874, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.60

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Landscapes and Modernity


In addition to representing the natural landscape, the impressionists were eager to explore the ways in which industrial and technological developments were changing the world around them. Argenteuil, like many suburban towns near Paris, underwent rapid transformation in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1863 a new iron railroad bridge was built over the Seine, bringing trains directly into town; previously they only reached the opposite bank of the river. Monet painted several views of this monumental bridge, situated boldly within the natural environment, its smooth columns gleaming in the sun. Argenteuil's highway bridge, dating back to 1830, also attracted the artist's attention.

Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, 1874, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John G. Johnson Collection

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Caillebotte, too, was fascinated by the modern structures that dotted the landscape around Argenteuil. With unabashed candor he rendered both bridges as well as the huge factory complex of the local distillery along the Seine, its geometric forms dramatically reflected in the water below. Both artists fashioned harmonious relationships out of the new and the old: industrial chimneys appear next to church spires, steamboats beside sailing vessels, massive bridges springing over the iridescent surface of the river.

Gustave Caillebotte, Factories at Argenteuil, 1888, Private Collection

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The impressionists' interest in scenes of modern life also led them to focus on Argenteuil's leisure activities and urban visitors. Its pleasant river walks, recreational boating, and famous sailing races were depicted in many of their works. Renoir's vibrant Sailboats at Argenteuil, which shows the boat basin filled with activity, suggests the popularity of these events. The impressionists often set up their easels along the paths that lined the banks of the Seine. From such vantage points Monet painted expansive views that presented the range of Argenteuil's attractions: its broad, sunlit promenades, its tall avenues of trees, its calm waters. Monet, according to the contemporary novelist, Emile Zola, "brings Paris to the country....He loves with particular affection nature that man makes modern."

Auguste Renoir, Sailboats at Argenteuil, 1874, Portland Art Museum, Oregon, Bequest of Winslow B. Ayer

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Other artists, including Manet and Caillebotte, also focused on visitors from the city, who had become a ubiquitous feature of the Argenteuil landscape by the 1870s. In Manet's radiant painting, a mother and child stand on the banks of the river with their backs to the viewer, alone before an array of unmanned sailboats and low-lying laundry houses.

Edouard Manet, The Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, Private Collection, on extended loan to the Courtauld Gallery, London

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Caillebotte depicted one bourgeois gentleman in his black hat and long coat striding purposefully along the Seine with his spirited dog at Petit Gennevilliers (just across the river from Argenteuil), where the artist owned a house.

Gustave Caillebotte, Richard Gallo and His Dog Dick at Petit Gennevilliers, 1884, Private Collection

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Group Dynamics


One of the most unusual aspects of the impressionists' work at Argenteuil was their communal approach. On numerous occasions Monet stood alongside one of his artist friends, and both painted the same scene. Sisley was the first to visit Monet in Argenteuil in 1872, and they initiated this custom. Together they painted four different views, the earliest of which were the renderings of the Boulevard Hèloïse, one of Argenteuil's main thoroughfares. In 1873 and 1874 Monet continued this practice with Renoir, painting five pendant views, among them the paired versions of the celebrated Sailboats at Argenteuil. Such close cooperation was quite rare and gave the painters many opportunities to discuss their artistic strategies and to share information, observations, and technical innovations. When Manet visited Monet in Argenteuil in the summer of 1874, the older artist was encouraged to adopt the impressionist discipline of painting en plein air. In addition to working side by side, the artists also made portraits of one another during their stays with Monet. Renoir, for example, painted his host on four occasions, not only avoiding the expense of hiring a model but also deepening their friendship. As a group, the impressionists tried to put shared goals before individual differences, and common concerns before personal gains. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their paintings of Argenteuil.

Alfred Sisley, Boulevard Héloïse, Argenteuil, 1872, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, 1970.17.82

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