In August 1878, Monet left the bustling suburban town of Argenteuil, where he had lived and worked since the Franco-Prussian War, and settled some sixty kilometers to the west in the rural enclave of Vétheuil, population six hundred. The appeal of Argenteuil had waned for the artist as the encroachments of modernity—new factories, expanded rail service, a burgeoning tourist industry—increasingly disrupted its bucolic calm. Vétheuil, by contrast, offered an older, more timeless vision of the French countryside, far from the Parisian sprawl—“a ravishing spot,” Monet declared, “from which I should be able to extract some things that aren’t bad” (quoted in Monet: The Seine and the Sea 1878-1883, exh. cat., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 17).
The most prominent structure in Vétheuil, and a recurring leitmotif in Monet’s art during the three years that he spent in the village, was the 13th century church of Notre-Dame, constructed in Romanesque style. Among the first paintings that Monet made at Vétheuil are two close-up views of the church façade, which anticipate his Rouen Cathedral series (Wildenstein, nos. 473-474); the next year, he set up his easel across the Seine and depicted the church rising proudly and protectively over the town (nos. 507, 531-534, and 536). Thereafter, the structure appears in over a dozen canvases, most often seen at a distance, nestled against a hillside or partially screened by foliage, in harmony with the surrounding landscape. In the present canvas, painted from a moored boat in the Seine, Monet established an unexpected compositional dialogue between the venerable church, its steeple silhouetted against the sky, and a mass of exuberant vegetation, flashing silver in the light, that grows from one of the many tiny islets that then dotted the waterway.
At Vétheuil, Monet entirely abandoned the scenes of contemporary life and leisure that had dominated his work at Argenteuil and began to focus on capturing nature in its most fugitive aspects. In L’église à Vétheuil, he applied the full force of his Impressionist technique to transcribing his immediate sensations before the motif, capturing the gentle rustling of the reedy foliage and the way that sun breaks through light cloud cover to illuminate the flank of the centuries-old church. “Monet portrayed Vétheuil as an agrarian hamlet removed from the force majeure of modern life,” Carole McNamara has written. “The views, although so precisely observed as to time of day and weather, take on a timeless, elegiac aspect” (Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 76).