Their racing booms lowered and sails furled, two sleek and brightly painted sailboats ride gently at their moorings along the waterfront of the Seine at Petit Gennevilliers, a recently developed site across the river from the much larger town of Argenteuil, whose tree-lined promenade is visible on the far bank. A third craft under full sail, showing the new French gunter-rig type with a large jib pointing the way, rides swiftly before a stiff breeze. Depicting the most fashionable leisure sport of the day, decked out in vivid primary colors, Caillebotte's La Seine à Argenteuil is a classic Impressionist scene, and one of this painter's finest. Indeed, the views of the Seine that Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Caillebotte painted at Argenteuil during the 1870s and 1880s, as Paul Hayes Tucker has declared, "constitute one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art, making Argenteuil synonymous with Impressionism and a touchstone for the development of Western visual culture" (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14).
During the later decades of the 19th century, Argenteuil was a burgeoning suburban community of around eight thousand inhabitants. Prominently situated on the Seine about six miles (11 kilometers) west of Paris, the town was only twenty-two minutes by rail from the capital, and trains conveniently ran every half hour from the Gare Saint-Lazare, which was a short walk from Caillebotte's Paris residence. Described in guidebooks as an agréable petite ville, Argenteuil had become since the 1850s, and especially after 1871, following the end of the war with Prussia, a popular destination during the summer months for recreational boaters and weekend vacationers. They found, as Robert L. Herbert has observed, "a well-ordered suburb where nature and humans met in agreeable harmonies... a setting that permits middle-class Parisians to let air, light and river sports soothe away anxieties of the city" (Impressionism: Art, Leisure & Parisian Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 234).
This stretch of the Seine was known as the Argenteuil basin; here the river was 200 yards (195 meters) from bank to bank, wider and deeper than anywhere else in the vicinity of Paris, and river traffic was unobstructed by either islets or sandbars. Even without its leisure attractions, Argenteuil was as picturesquely sited as any seaside town, but with the advantage of being much nearer to the capital. Here artists could revel in panoramic space and paint the blue expanse of the river, distant vistas both up- and downstream, the broad horizon of the distant tree-lined bank and the immense canopy of open sky above. Walking along the river banks painters could contemplate the hypnotically rippling reflections of boats and buildings magically turned upside down. They painted the streets of the town, landscapes of the varied terrain in its environs, and--as a strikingly novel subject, the very epitome of modern technology--the highway and railway bridges that spanned the river at Argenteuil, two structures which had been destroyed during the war and had been newly rebuilt (Berhaut, 1994, no. 334; fig. 1).
But it was the bracing sight of sailboats as they tacked the breadth of the river to catch the strong breezes that circulated through the basin, and ran swiftly before the wind, that provided the primary attraction for working in Argenteuil. No less fascinating to observe were the craft at their waterfront moorings, their elongated forms and tall masts providing countless permutations of compositional arrangements. Argenteuil had been chosen as the site for the sailing competition during the Exposition Universelle of 1867, and an 1870 guidebook reported that as many as two hundred boats were tied up along the waterfront in and around Argenteuil. "If we looked for the symbolic center of this perfect world, it would be the sailboats that, more than anything else, characterized leisure at Argenteuil..." Herbert has written. "In truth the major changes along these shores had been brought about by the pleasure boats, so the artist was right to give them first place in the modern landscape" (ibid.). The painters only occasionally painted the weekend regattas which drew large crowds of sightseers from the capital; instead they usually preferred to work on weekdays when there was less commotion, and the scene projected a quiet sense of repose and meditative solitude, as seen in Caillebotte's painting.
Independently wealthy, Caillebotte could afford the many interests that might mark him as a Renaissance man. He never approached a vocation as a dilettante, and his interest and involvement in sailing ran far deeper than that of his artist colleagues. He was already a dedicated canotier, a rower, when Sisley taught him how to sail in 1876. He soon developed an all-consuming passion for le yachting. Exercising his strongly competitive streak, he loved to race, and competed in his first regatta in 1879. The largest and most prestigious sailing club in the capital, the Cercle de la Voile de Paris, had its moorings at Argenteuil. Caillebotte joined this association of some two hundred boaters in 1876, and was elected its Vice-President in 1880. He invested money in Le Yacht, France's first weekly magazine devoted to the sport. He increasingly organized his life around the annual events of the boating season, and participated in the most important races, which took place in the spring and fall.
Caillebotte's first sailboat was the Iris, which he purchased in 1878. In the following year he ordered Inès from the Texier sons, the leading boat designers of the day, and in 1880 he had them build the Condor, which for the rest of the decade was his favorite racer. Caillebotte has depicted both of the latter vessels in La Seine à Argenteuil. The red craft on the left is the Inès. This painting was probably done before or during May 1882, when Caillebottte sold the Inès to a boating enthusiast in Rouen, as reported in the 3 June issue of Le Yacht. Taking pride of place in the center of the composition, reflecting the artist's esteem for her superlative qualities, is the yellow Condor, with its distinctively curved and lengthy bowsprit. As her slimmer lines suggest, Condor was a more advanced design than Inès--in fact she was a state-of-the-art craft, eight meters in length and carrying ninety square meters of sail. Condor was consistently a winner and became famous in racing circles; as late as July 1890 the magazine Le Yacht featured an illustration of the boat, a full decade after she was built. Caillebotte employed two sailors to maintain his growing fleet, which in 1883 numbered five craft. He chose Joseph Kerbratt, a seasoned career seaman, to captain his boats, and it is due mainly to Kerbratt's skills that Caillebotte and his boats reaped prize after prize.
It was chiefly Caillebotte's interest in sailing, and secondly his work as a painter, that brought him to Argenteuil for the first time in 1878. He was actually a relative latecomer among the Impressionists who were drawn to the town. Manet's family owned a property in Gennevilliers and was a more frequent visitor to the area. At Manet's urging, Monet moved to Argenteuil in 1871 and worked there for the next seven years; his presence attracted Renoir and Sisley to the town as well. During the summer of 1874, a truly halcyon moment in the history of Western painting, Manet, Monet and Renoir were all active in Argenteuil and working as if in a collective state of aquatic exaltation--the sailing pictures they painted are among best-known in the Impressionist canon (Wildenstein, no. 220; fig. 2). In 1876 Caillebotte acquired from Monet an Argenteuil regatta canvas that his friend had painted four years earlier (Wildenstein, no. 233; fig. 3). Caillebotte's initial visit to Argenteuil came around the time of Monet's departure to Vétheuil; despite his phenomenally productive residency in Argenteuil, Monet was in dire financial straits, and needed to move to a far less expensive locale. Caillebotte returned to Argenteuil with increasing frequency as his involvement in sailing grew apace, especially in conjunction with events sponsored by the Cercle de Voile. In 1878 Caillebotte's mother died, and the family estate in Yerres was sold. The artist and his younger brother Martial moved into an apartment at 31, boulevard Haussmann and acquired the Iris. In 1881 the brothers purchased a house in Petit Gennevilliers.
For the final decade of his career, the Seine at Argenteuil would be the focus of Caillebotte's activities, both as a painter and a sailor. It no longer interested him to spend much time in Paris, a change in his life that stemmed from the increasingly fractious situation within the Impressionist circle. Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Cézanne did not participate in the fifth group exhibition in 1880. In their absence, Degas had been pushing his agenda for the future of the group, whose stylistic parameters he wanted to expand. He invited many of his friends to participate in the fifth exhibition, including the newcomer Raffaëlli, who contributed thirty-five works, more than anyone else in the show. Many of Degas's protégés were naturalist painters who dealt with subjects drawn from contemporary life. While they were "independents," their work could hardly be called Impressionist. Their realist subjects attracted favorable reviews from critics, many of whom were writers of the naturalist school and were sympathetic to this kind of painting. Caillebotte rightly felt that the true Impressionists were being upstaged, and worried that because of Degas's actions, Monet and Renoir would unlikely return. When Degas invited Raffaëlli to return for the sixth group exhibition in 1881, Caillebotte too decided to stay away. He exhibited only once again with the Impressionists, in the penultimate seventh show in 1882, when Monet, Renoir and Sisley were back, and Degas and his friends were gone. Caillebotte had made up his mind to attend to his own interests: painting, of course, but also sailing, stamp collecting (he and his brother published a valuable study of Mexican stamps in 1885) and gardening. The new house in Petit Gennevilliers, which he shared with Martial until his brother married in 1887, became a welcome refuge from the relentless infighting and partisanship of the Paris art world.
In Petit Gennevilliers Caillebotte lived only a couple of minutes by foot from the mooring places, docks and boat yards on the Seine. Deeply interested in the science of boat design, he drew up plans for a new racer under the guidance of Maurice Chevreux, and went on to experiment with new, advanced designs. In 1885 Caillebotte opened his own boatyard in Petit Gennevilliers under the name of Chantier Luce, with Chevreux serving as his technical director. By the end of the decade he had created a new class of yacht, and was considered the most important racing helmsman in France, having collected more prizes than any of his rivals. Between 1889 and 1892 Caillebotte's yard produced ten boats, all of which he had designed himself (figs. 4 and 5). Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark has observed that Caillebotte "possessed a great passion for and an immense will towards the modern... this passion and will were characteristic of his personality and general attitude. It also became the driving force behind a commitment that to a certain extent came to challenge his painterly interests: his commitment to the art of sailing. He was to become one of France's greatest practitioners of the sport. He developed it to perfection, staked everything on it, sacrificed his time, his money, his organizational talent--just as he had done with the art of painting in his Paris years along with the Impressionist group. In certain sense one can say that his artistic engagement was channeled into the art of sailing, and the energy that he expended in the creation of 'the new painting' found its counterpart in his efforts to revolutionize yachting" (Gustave Caillebotte, exh. cat., Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund, 2008, p. 18).
Caillebotte painted nearly forty canvases which represent sailboats in motion or at rest. These works fall into two chronological groups, roughly ten years apart. The artist painted the initial series, nineteen canvases in all, in 1881-1886; fifteen of these were done in the space of two years, 1882-1883, including the present La Seine à Argenteuil (Berhaut, 1994, nos. 214, 216 and 277; see also figs. 6, 7 and 8 respectively). Caillebotte painted a second group, also comprising nineteen pictures, in 1890-1893. The earlier pictures reflect Caillebotte's pleasure in settling into his new surroundings at Petit Gennevilliers and Argenteuil; they display the freshness of discovery and his commitment to the essential atmospheric ambience of Impressionism. The later works coincide with Caillebotte's growing interest in boat design; many of these show the craft under full sale, observed from various angles, and generally possess the more studied aspect that an experienced sailor and expert boat-builder would bring to this subject. In Régates à Argenteuil, 1893, the artist depicted himself at the tiller (Berhaut, 1994, no. 475). As Anne Distel has noted, "It is not certain that Caillebotte exhibited any of his canvases picturing this theme during his lifetime, but at the 1894 posthumous exhibition it was these images that were most appreciated by amateur collectors" (Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 288). Indeed, it was following the posthumous retrospective, held at Galerie Durand-Ruel in June 1894, when La Seine à Argenteuil was acquired by the Paris collector Jules Dubois.
(fig. 1) Gustave Caillebotte, Le pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine, circa 1883. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 November 2008, lot 36.
Barcode 28000587 FIG
(fig. 2) Edouard Manet, La Seine à Argenteuil, 1874. Private collection, on extended loan to the Courtauld Gallery, London.
Barcode 28000648 FIG
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Régates à Argenteuil, 1872. Originally in the collection of Gustave Caillebotte and bequeathed to the French state in 1894. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Barcode 28000570 FIG
(fig. 4) Gustave Caillebotte seated at his drafting table, working on a sailboat design. Photograph by Martial Caillebotte, circa 1891. Private collection, courtesy Comité Gustave Caillebotte.
Barcode 28000662 FIG
(fig. 5) A sailboat designed by Caillebotte in 1891, seen along the waterfront at Petit Gennevilliers, with the bank of the Seine at Argenteuil in the distance. Photograph by Martial Caillebotte, circa 1891. Private collection, courtesy Comité Gustave Caillebotte.
Barcode 28000655 FIG
(fig. 6) Gustave Caillebotte, Bateaux à voile à Argenteuil, 1882. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Barcode 28000549 FIG
(fig. 7) Gustave Caillebotte, Le bassin d'Argenteuil, 1882. Sold, Christie's New York, 7 May 2002, lot 17.
Barcode 28000679 FIG
(fig. 8) Gustave Caillebotte, La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage, 1883. Sold, Christie's London, 23 June 2010. lot 13.
Barcode 28000686 FIG