I can't seem to express the intensity which beats in upon my senses. I haven’t at my command the magnificent richness of color which enlivens Nature… Look at that cloud; I should like to be able to paint that! Monet could. He had muscle. --Paul Cézanne
Painted in 1877, the present work depicts a view across the plain of the River Seine, towards the picturesque town of Gennevilliers. It lay just outside Paris, one of a handful of charming, ancient towns on the banks of the Seine which were of great importance to the early Impressionist movement. In 1871, Monet moved from Paris to Argenteuil, not far from Gennevilliers. He would live there until 1878, during a formative and significant period in his career. In 1874, the First Impressionist Exhibition shocked Paris and the world, repudiating the academic style of the Salon. Monet’s canvases, painted en plein-air, expressed the artist’s sensations of light and landscape in vivid, quick brushstrokes, eschewing the laborious modelling of contemporary painting. La Plaine de Gennevilliers, included in the Third Impressionist Exhibition in April 1877, is one such early, ground-breaking work. As Cézanne exclaimed, Monet possessed an astonishing skill to express an intense impression of a landscape. The rich, harmonious colors of the present work summon a vivid image of a breezy spring day, the sunlight faint but warm and the fresh new grass a vigorous shade of green.
Monet depicts the view towards Gennevilliers in the early days of spring, the ethereally bare trees rising from a foreground of vivid greens towards a cool, bright sky. The town lies at a distance, loosely rendered in pale gray against rolling hills. A wheel-worn track snakes away from the spot where Monet set up his easel, its curving lines echoing the tall, sinuous trees, their branches delicately suggested in a similar pigment to that used for the faint clouds. The height of the trees creates a spacious verticality within the canvas, adding to the expansive impression of the view over a quiet plain. They dwarf a single figure standing in the center foreground, as another, more distant, walks with a horse towards Gennevilliers. Monet’s use of color is masterly, picking out the tree trunks with spots of bright yellow and easily harmonizing the mauve and indigo of the exposed brush with verdant, surprisingly lush shades of green for the new shoots of grass. The sky is rendered in feathery, horizontal brushstrokes in hues of pale blue, perfectly evoking the sensation of the fresh, cool air of the setting. Monet’s visible, dynamic brushwork was a profound novelty in 1877, and imbues the work with the presence of the artist. The composition is innovative when compared to the academic Parisian norms which prescribed an arrangement which would lead the eye around the canvas. In contrast, the composition of the present work can be looked at and enjoyed as a whole, much as one would enjoy the view itself.
The beautiful towns along the Seine and close to Paris played an important part in the history of the Impressionist movement and of France in the 1870s. Gennevilliers and Argenteuil were only a short train journey from the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, and at this time enjoyed great popularity with Parisian holiday-makers, their names becoming synonymous with weekend frivolities (fig. 1). Gennevilliers was an agréable petite ville; rustic and picturesque and yet accessible by train by means of an impressive modern bridge. When Monet painted La Plaine de Gennevilliers, he was acutely aware of the social purpose of painting. France had been badly defeated by the Prussian army in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and the countryside around Paris had particularly suffered. By 1877 the mood in the country had changed, and there was a general sense of optimism closely tied to modernity and progress. Towns such as Gennevilliers represented a suburban idyll, the perfect median point between the true countryside and the hectic pace of Paris. Monet was a devoted realist, seeking images and motifs of his time, and he found in Gennevilliers a perfect example of what he sought: a popular, picturesque modern town. The skyline of the houses in the distance harmonizes with the gently rolling silhouette of the hills behind. The scene recalls Victorien Sardou’s beautiful passage on the experience of arriving in the nearby town of Louveciennes, “Wherever you turn your eyes, the lines of the terrain fold in harmonious undulations with the most beautiful contrasts of light and foliage. Everywhere there are space, fresh air, country smells, and the great silence made up—I don’t know how—of a thousand sounds that result from the freedom of the sky” (quoted in A Day in the Country, Impressionism and the French Landscape, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984, p. 82).
The view across the plane to Gennevilliers was painted by several other Impressionist painters, among them Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and the first owner of this work, Gustave Caillebotte (fig. 2). Caillebotte was not only a well-known artist, but also a close friend and an important patron of Monet. He had been instrumental in organizing and financing the First Impressionist Exhibition, and was an influential and committed supporter of many painters associated with movement (who did not label themselves “Impressionists”) through the turbulent decades of the 1860s and 1870s. Caillebotte loaned money to Monet, paying the rent for his studio and purchasing numerous works, among them La Plaine de Gennevilliers. The landscape around Gennevilliers was also of personal significance to Caillebotte, as in 1881 he bought a house in the nearby village of Petit-Gennevilliers, across the Seine from Argenteuil in Normandy. He moved there permanently in 1888, devoting himself to gardening and pursuing his passion for yachting; Gennevilliers was to Caillebotte what Giverny would become to Monet. The beautiful, rural vistas around these towns fascinated Caillebotte and he returned often to the view of the plain at Gennevilliers. The present work antedates Caillebotte’s move to Petit-Gennevilliers, and Monet’s style came to influence his patron, who from the early 1880s began to apply paint more thickly to his canvasses. Caillebotte remained a great supporter of Monet until his untimely death in 1894, and the present work remained in his family until 1929.