‘Claude Monet loves water, and it is his especial gift to portray its mobility and transparency, be it sea or river, grey and monotonous, or coloured by the sky. I have never seen a boat poised more lightly on the water than in his pictures, or a veil more mobile and light than his moving atmosphere. It is in truth a marvel’ (Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in C. Stuckey, ed., exh. cat., Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, p. 61).
With its sumptuous brushwork and rich tonalities, Saules au bord de l’Yerres, 1876, eloquently captures an impression of the lush, idyllic atmosphere of life on the river Yerres which had so enchanted Claude Monet during his stay in the small, quiet hamlet of Montgeron during the second half of 1876. Recorded in passages of sharp, staccato strokes of paint, the scene depicts a calm, tranquil stretch of the river where the glass-like surface of the water generates a series of reflections that perfectly echo the verdant, green foliage along its banks. Blurring the boundary between water and dry land, these reflections create a dramatic mirroring effect that transforms the appearance of the river as it moves gently downstream. The interplay between light and shadow, water and sky, reality and refection, perfectly illustrates the deftness of Monet’s technique and compositional structuring as he reached a new maturity in his impressionist style. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the painting’s creation provides an insight into the important network of devoted collectors, patrons and friends that provided unwavering support to Monet during the early years of Impressionism, as he realised his groundbreaking creative ambitions.
Monet had travelled to Montgeron during the summer of 1876 at the invitation of his close friend and patron, Ernest Hoschedé, who had commissioned the artist to paint a series of large-scale works to decorate the dining room of his lavish country residence, the Château Rottenbourg. At this time Hoschedé was the managing partner of a prosperous wholesale fabric firm in the Parisian garment district, and split his time between a luxurious home on the Boulevard Haussmann in the capital, and the vast countryside estate that his wife had inherited from her father, twenty kilometres outside of Paris. A pre-eminent early collector of Impressionism, Hoschedé had begun purchasing works from Paul Durand-Ruel in 1873, and within three years had amassed an unrivalled collection of masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Sisley and Pissarro. Often seen in the Café Guerbois conversing with the leading figures of the Parisian avant-garde, Hoschedé quickly developed a reputation as a determined supporter and enthusiast of this new artistic movement. Monet was invited to stay with the Hoschedé family while he completed the project, and the artist spent six months ensconced in the château’s opulent accommodations, observing life on the beautiful country estate, studying its landscape under different atmospheric effects, and travelling to the banks of the nearby river Yerres to record its peaceful, untouched character. Delighted with his new surroundings, the artist produced four canvases for the château, each more than six feet in height. The paintings focused on subjects ranging from a group of wild turkeys gathered on the lawns outside the grand house (Les dindons, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) to a view of the sumptuous manicured gardens that surrounded the château (Coin de jardin à Montgeron, Hermitage Museum, Moscow). Further paintings included a visit to the tranquil, secluded pond on the grounds of the estate (L’étang à Montgeron, Hermitage Museum, Moscow), and an autumnal hunting scene (La chasse, Private collection).
Alongside this central quartet, Monet created a number of other paintings, including the present composition, inspired by the serene atmosphere of the Hoschedé estate, the surrounding landscape and the sleepy river Yerres. Although only seven kilometres further from Paris than his home in the lively suburb of Argenteuil, Montgeron seemed like an entirely different world to Monet. This idyllic hamlet remained unspoilt by the industrial development and waves of tourism that had transformed other towns and villages in the area throughout the 1860s and 70s. The fact that Montgeron had retained its essential character and rural tranquillity in the face of this encroaching modernism greatly appealed to Monet. Perhaps most noticeably, Sundays were free from the crowds of Parisian leisure-seekers that descended on Argenteuil each weekend, whilst the Yerres was a quiet waterway devoid of the busy traffic that dominated the Seine. In Saules au bord de l’Yerres, Monet conveys a sense of the extreme silence and haunting stillness he discovered on the river. The only figures included in the composition are the swiftly sketched couple seen in the small, solitary boat as it glides through the water, the tall, dark clothed figure standing at its bow seemingly enchanted by the untouched natural charm of the landscape that envelopes them as they float downstream. Rendered using quick, gestural strokes of dark paint, the boat acts as a visual punctuation within the scene, highlighting the point at which the surface of the water meets the surrounding landscape, enabling the eye to delineate the boundary between the willow trees and their reflections below.
Monet was not the only painter fascinated by the Yerres at this time – Gustave Caillebotte, one of the most important supporters of the impressionist movement and a celebrated painter in his own right, spent much of 1876 working along its banks, creating a series of compositions which focus on the river’s placid atmosphere and the leisurely boating activities of the locals. Caillebotte had grown up at Yerres, spending each summer of his adolescence at his family’s country residence along the riverbanks, where he developed a keen interest in rowing. While Caillebotte had been invited to exhibit with the Impressionists at the beginning of 1876, and had purchased three paintings from Monet in April of that year, it remains unclear whether or not the pair knew each other personally before Monet’s sojourn in Montgeron. However, their friendship undoubtedly blossomed at Yerres, and this relationship was to prove vital to the future development of Monet’s career. For the rest of his life, Caillebotte acted as a crucial source of moral and financial support for Monet, lending him money in times of need, buying numerous pictures from the artist, and even renting a studio for him in Paris when he fell on hard times. As such, Monet found a dedicated friend, fellow artist and patron in Caillebotte, who generously supported him during periods of personal and financial crises as the 1870s drew to a close.
Shortly after its creation Saules au bord de l’Yerres was purchased directly from the artist by another of his important supporters at this time, the prodigious collector, Georges de Bellio. De Bellio, a Romanian-born doctor with a considerable family fortune behind him, bought his first Monet in January 1874 at an auction of highlights from the Hoschedé collection. He thus began a collecting journey that led him to accumulate an array of stunning works by Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro, including Monet’s famed Impression, Soleil levant, 1872 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris). Records from April and June 1876 show that De Bellio acquired fie paintings from the artist immediately prior to his move to Montgeron, and the frequent correspondence between the pair confirm they enjoyed a close friendship. With this esteemed provenance, and its important connections to both Hoschedé and Caillebotte, Saules au bord de l’Yerres reveals the many ways in which the network of supporters that Monet cultivated at this time proved essential to his artistic development, bestowing upon him financial support, artistic inspiration and their unwavering belief as he forged a new artistic path during the early stages of his career.