Claude Monet’s Le bassin d’Argenteuil: an ode to leisure and light

Painted along the banks of the Seine, Le bassin d’Argenteuil captures the rise of the middle class and the founding tenets of Impressionism

Painted in 1874, Le bassin d’Argenteuil provides a glimpse into the ‘golden’ era of Impressionism. During this time, Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet and Alfred Sisley, codified their ideas while painting along the banks of the Seine. Expressing the dynamism of nature and the modernity of the Third Republic, Le bassin d’Argenteuil combines light and leisure to evoke the excitement of a new visual language.

The painting, which brings together the artist most synonymous with Impressionism and the town identified with its origins, will be sold at Christie’s on 11 November as part of The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le bassin dArgenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas. 21¾ x 28⅞ in (54 x 73.2 cm). Estimate $15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in The Cox Collection The Story of Impressionism on 11 November at Christie’s in New York
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le bassin d'Argenteuil, 1874. Oil on canvas. 21¾ x 28⅞ in (54 x 73.2 cm). Estimate: $15,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism on 11 November at Christie’s in New York

Executed nearly 150 years ago, it is easy to forget how daring and innovative Monet and his contemporaries were both in subject matter and technique. For the first time, ‘the Impressionists weren’t seeking a photographic representation of Argenteuil or whatever else had been set before their easel,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman in the Impressionist and Modern Art department. ‘They were seeking to replicate their sensations in front of nature as well as their “impression” of the scene.’

Le bassin d’Argenteuil is a prime example of Monet at his most revolutionary, most inventive, and most sensual. It is a picture of experimental brushwork that is not mimetic,’ Jordan adds.

This new approach was a stark departure from the Salon style that was considered the benchmark of painting at the time. ‘Monet and his contemporaries rejected the “slick” surface of the Salon painters, or rather the tradition of fusing together one’s brushstrokes to deny the idea that the paint itself was physical thing.’ Jordan explains. ‘They refuted that entirely. The Impressionists wanted the surface of the picture to reveal the mechanics — the inner workings — of their creation.’

Regatta day at the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, Argenteuil, c. 1900. Photographer unknown. Photo Roger-Viollet  Roger-Viollet
Regatta day at the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, Argenteuil, c. 1900. Photographer unknown. Photo: Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet

Through the Impressionists’ eyes, Argenteuil was a modern phenomenon teeming with endless pictorial possibilities. With the advent of train travel, the Parisian suburb became a leisure destination for the emergent middle class. This new class of bourgeoisie tourists had both money and time to spend, and with that flocked to rising locals outside of the city in pursuit of suburban pleasures. Finding ways to capture these new experiences became foundational for the Impressionists.

‘The early years of Impressionism were about the modern city and its inhabitants. They were drawn to the burgeoning idea of modern leisure as a way to represent how Parisians in the 1870s lived. We see that in this picture — the two well-dressed figures on the pontoon come directly from the Third Republic,’ says Jordan, adding that Argenteuil ‘was a place where people gathered.’

‘There is a sense of incipient movement. There is a sense that everything is in flux, that anything may change’ — Conor Jordan

Sailboats, in particular, encapsulated this new trend. No longer solely at the disposal of the upper class, boating became an accessible hobby to the rising bourgeoisie through the rental of affordable and more practical sailboats.

‘Argenteuil had a preeminent boat-for-hire section. Although it sounds mundane today, sailing was an innovative and important new pastime. As an area of growing popularity, the Parisian suburb offered a wealth of visual stimuli for the Impressionists. The bridges, for example, injected a sense of modernity and speed into their compositions.’

Indeed, of Argenteuil’s many possible pictorial motifs, it was the river that most captivated Monet. While the leisurely boating scenes provided the artist with an unequivocal modern subject, the ethereal effects of light, water, and atmosphere enabled him to push his artistic language further. Working en plein air, Monet captured modernity and nature with an adept combination of spontaneity and directness.

Claude Monet, Barques au repos, au Petit-Gennevilliers, 1872. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
Claude Monet, Barques au repos, au Petit-Gennevilliers, 1872. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Monet had always been drawn to the water, and throughout his career would seek to capture the way light danced across his surface, returning to the Seine time and time again. ‘Water is one of the greatest places to experience the subtle changes in the sky and sunlight, especially as it is reflected upon its surface,’ says Jordan. ‘It presents a unique technical challenge to render it in a believable, yet painterly way. Much of Le bassin d’Argenteuil is about transient or fugitive light effects.’

Le bassin d’Argenteuil contains all the hallmarks of early Impressionism: dazzling colour and light, the direct application of brushstrokes, and a thoroughly modern subject. ‘It is a painting that invites you in. There is a fresh and pellucid quality about it,’ concludes Jordan, who believes the vivacity of the work’s thick, buttery brushstrokes is one of its most special attributes. ‘There is a sense of incipient movement — the boats at full sail in the distance, the boats in the foreground whose sails have yet to be raised. There is a sense that everything is in flux, that anything may change.’