In December 1871, Monet moved to Argenteuil, a small suburban town on the banks of the Seine that was a short fifteen-minute train ride from Paris. Over the next six years, a critical period in the evolution of Impressionism, he and visiting colleagues such as Renoir, Manet, Sisley, Caillebotte, painted in and around this agricultural village, documenting its transition into a working town with tanneries, silk mills, ironworks, and gypsum mines as well as an increasingly popular weekend destination for the bourgeois recreation of sailing. Inspired by the views in and around town, Monet was prolific during this period, painting about 180 canvases in total, or roughly 30 pictures a year. His works from the first half of the decade depict diverse and specific modern scenes, by 1876, when he painted the present painting, his works became more introspective and removed from any signs of modern life. Monet focused his attention on the translation of natural effects into paint, experimenting with different painterly techniques. He would continue this process after moving to Vétheuil in 1878, which provided him with an isolated and peaceful landscape removed from the modern world. Commenting on this transition, John House has written: "Monet's paintings of the mid-1870s suggest that he was feeling the rival claims between two different types of painting--whether to concentrate on modernity of subject matter, or on translating into paint fleeting effects of natural light. In these years there was a gradual change in the way he treated his subjects. Whereas around 1873 the separate items in his scenes were crisply, if economically, individualized, thereafter he began to subordinate them to the overall effect of the scene, to the play of textures and colors which gave the pictures their coherence" (in Monet: Nature into Art, New Haven, 1986, p.112).
The present painting depicts a calm backwater of the Seine near Monet's house in Argenteuil that is shaded by a canopy of willow branches from the trees growing at its banks. Sunlight from an overcast sky, which the painter depicts as an inverse triangle at the top of the canvas, reflects off of the placid water. Such secluded outdoor scenes, whether along the river or in the artist's enclosed family garden, dominate Monet's subject matter in 1876. Devoid of any contemporary references, the present scene mirrors Monet's images of the petit bras of the Seine from the same year (Wildenstein, nos. 427-430). The artist had initially painted this quiet tributary in his first two years at Argenteuil, and he now returned to this subject while avoiding local houses, recreational boats, and modern landmarks entirely.
Monet's handling in the present painting reflects his shift from creating distinct accents within the composition to coordinating the entire paint surface as a whole, a concern for overall effect that he shared at this point with Pissarro and Sisley. The willow branches fan out across the canvas, introducing echoes of touch and texture between different areas of the picture. The rapid, almost calligraphic lines that Monet uses to represent the willow leaves also suggest the influence of Japanese woodblock prints and perhaps even brush drawings. Monet spoke to painter Jeanne Baudot of his admiration of the Japanese ability to "express life with a stroke of the pen" (ibid., p. 79). Monet began collecting ukiyoe--prints at Argenteuil, and his insertion of a radically cropped tree branch into the foreground mirrors this depth--establishing device in images such as Ando Hiroshige's The Plum Garden at Kameido from 1857 (fig. 1). Monet uses the branch in the present scene to push the river back into pictorial space, but its spreading foliage also flattens the picture plane.
(fig. 1) Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Plum Estate, Kameido (Kameido Umeyashiki) (11th Month, 1857). From the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, circa 1856-58. Brooklyn Museum, New York. BARCODE 25003888