In 1878, beset with financial difficulties, Monet decided to move from Argenteuil further down the Seine valley to Vétheuil, a medieval town located on the Seine about 28 miles northwest of Paris. He and his family, along with Alice and Ernest Hoschedé and their family, shared a house on the river, and Monet would often take a boat out to paint. One of his favorite destinations was Lavacourt, a village on the opposite side of the river, from which he would paint the landscape and Vétheuil. David Joel confirms that, "Lavacourt looks very attractive from Vétheuil and of course Vétheuil looks magnificent from Lavacourt" (Monet at Vétheuil and on the Norman Coast, 1878-1883, Woodbridge, 2002, p. 57). Monet tirelessly explored this area for the three years he lived there, depicting scenes in all seasons. His works of these years, while less well known than those of the early 1870s or his later series, were pivotal to Monet's life and career.
Monet was at this point the acknowledged leader of the Impressionists and had been hailed by critics such as Emile Zola and Georges Rivière. It was Monet's Impression, Soleil Levant, 1873 (Wildenstein, no. 263; Paris, Musée Marmottan-Monet), shown at the first Impressionist exhibition, that provided a name for the group; the critic Louis Leroy famously wrote that this "impression" was less finished than half-manufactured wallpaper. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Monet had painted scenes of yachting, promenading, and residential gardens at Argenteuil and Paris. He was primarily devoted to painting figures within contemporary settings, such as in Le banc, 1873 (Wildenstein, no. 281; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Immediately prior to his move to Vétheuil, he painted numerous scenes in Paris--the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Parc Monceau (see lot 18), and the Rue Saint-Denis and Rue Montorgueil--but these paintings were the last time he would depict life in the French capital. Instead, he began to concentrate more and more on landscape. Carole McNamara writes, "Even among his landscape paintings there was a subtle change in emphasis. No longer did they show suburban promenades as they did at Argenteuil; the landscapes become more rural, with the human aspect reduced and occasionally totally removed as Monet looked back to the earlier Barbizon painting in which the viewer is alone in the rural landscape" (in Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 67).
Monet is typically thought of as a direct and unmediated observer of the natural world; Cézanne is often quoted as saying that he was "just an eye, but what an eye." However, Monet's paintings of Vétheuil and Lavacourt, while including references to the structure of the towns and their relationship to the river, excluded much of the quotidian, bustling activity shown in contemporary lithographs such as Adolphe Maugendre's Vétheuil, Vue générale, prise de Lavacourt (1853; fig. 1). Instead, the area appeared more rural than it was in actuality, and this careful selection and editing contradicts the prevailing view of Monet.
Berge de la Seine à Lavacourt depicts the chemin de halage along the bank of the Seine, a towpath that was used for pulling barges along the river. Monet depicted the same view four other times in 1878, but the exact vantage point and time of day differ (Wildenstein, nos. 495, 496, 497, 498). For years, Monet had been interested in transient effects, both in seasonal conditions and the daily changes in light and shadow. He wrote to Bazille in 1864, "Really now the countryside is at its most beautiful. We have wind, lovely clouds, storms; in short, it's the best time to see this landscapes; there are many more effects" (quoted in B. Thomson, Impressionism: Origin, Practice, Reception, New York, 2000, p. 133). For example, Soleil couchant sur la Seine, effet d'hiver, 1880 (fig. 2), shows the diffused light of a quiet winter sunset while Berge de la Seine à Lavacourt has the brighter feel of daylight. The landscape aspect in the present painting dominates, while the people are very small and blend with their surroundings. Figures mill about and chickens peck the ground, but the primary focus is the large tree. This tree, along with the building to the left, leads the viewer's eye into the depth of the painting, highlighting the shimmering quality of the hills in the background. The brushstroke has a repetitive rhythm, which animates the canvas. Monet banished color contrasts in the work along with the value contrasts in it. Belinda Thomson has noted the unity of color and tone of a similar work from this period: "An overall harmony of tone is achieved by means of color alone, the rationale for accents appearing at different points of the canvas being the pursuit of a unified surface, rather than of strict truth to appearance" (ibid., p. 212).
In 1883, Monet moved to Giverny, which he made his home for the rest of his life. In the 1890s, he completed many of his most famous series, including those of the haystacks and Rouen Cathedral. In 1901, he traveled by car to Vétheuil. Deciding to paint a series there, he rented a chalet for six months and completed fifteen paintings. Like his previous works in the area, he depicted the scene at different times of the day. However, in the intervening decades, his style, colors, and compositions had changed significantly, as seen in Vétheuil, effet gris (fig. 3). For instance, the Seine occupies over half of the canvas in each of the fifteen paintings, enveloping the viewer. During the course of Monet's life, water became increasingly prominent, culminating in his great series of water lilies. Water attracted him because of the way it reflects, diffuses, and absorbs light in his painting, and because of the movement provided by its liquid ripples. In the 1901 series, Monet further concentrated on the unifying effects of atmosphere, gearing his color in part to natural effects but also determining its harmony within the ensemble. All of these elements have their roots in Berge de la Seine à Lavacourt, which anticipated Monet's growing interest in landscape series while also illustrating stylistic concerns unique to his years at Vétheuil.
(fig. 1) Adolphe Maugendre, Vétheuil, Vue générale, prise de Lavacourt, 1853. Départemente des estampes et de la photographie, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. BARCODE 20625351
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Soleil couchant sur la Seine, effet d'hiver, 1880. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. BARCODE 20625368
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Vétheuil, effet gris, 1901. Musée des beaux arts, Lille. BARCODE 20625375