The paintings that Monet executed at Argenteuil between 1871 and 1878 have been widely hailed as a high point of Impressionism. Paul Tucker describes Monet's work from this period as "one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art" (exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14), while John Rewald writes, "Probably no single place could be identified more closely with Impressionism than Argenteuil" (The History of Impressionism, New York, 1946, p. 341). Located eleven kilometers west of Paris on the right bank of the Seine, Argenteuil was a burgeoning suburban town of eight thousand inhabitants when Monet moved there following the Franco-Prussian War. Most importantly for the artist--who was fascinated by the subject of water throughout his life, from his youth on the Normandy coast to his old age at Giverny--Argenteuil was situated on a particularly appealing stretch of the Seine, deeper and broader than anywhere else in the environs of Paris.
The present painting is one of four closely related canvases that Monet made in the autumn of 1876, depicting the Seine just west of Argenteuil (Wildenstein nos. 426-429). Here, a long, slender island (the Île Marante) divides the river into two branches, a wider one alongside the left bank and a narrower one (the Petit Bras) alongside the right. Monet opted in this instance to paint the Petit Bras, a picturesque backwater removed from the commercial and leisure activity of the main body of the Seine. Working from his bâteau-atelier, a small boat that he had outfitted for use as a studio, the artist looked west along the river toward the village of Bezons. The immediate foreground of the painting is occupied by a large patch of reeds, the individual stalks articulated with deliberate, sprightly strokes. In the center of the canvas, a slice of water leads rapidly toward the horizon, its strong recession and tranquil surface contrasting with the vertical accents in the foreground. On the right rise the trees of the Île Marante, their foliage lush and full. The scene was painted in the late afternoon, with the first hints of an orange sunset visible in the distance and the soft shadows of approaching twilight muting the autumnal colors of the trees.
A noteworthy feature of Bords de la Seine en automne is the absence of any man-made intrusion into the idyllic inlet of the Petit Bras. In contrast, the majority of Monet's earlier views of the Seine at Argenteuil are replete with evidence of contemporary life, such as sailboat regattas and vacationers promenading along the riverbank. Comparing the present picture to a view of the Petit Bras that Monet made four years before, Tucker concludes:
"There is something at once more forceful and more elegiac here than in the earlier view. It involves the denser foliage and undergrowth that Monet includes and their dominating role in the picture. It also relates to the more energized sky, with its blanket of more heavily worked clouds. Finally, it derives from the absence of humans in the scene or any suggestion of their presence. Closed off by the trees and foliage, the space appears more contained and introspective. At the same time it seems more strained. By 1876 Monet had seen enormous changes in Argenteuil that caused its initial appeal to wither and his own urge for fulfillment to increase in inverse proportion. Turning more frequently to his garden, he found a haven of peace and repose that he could control. Similar rewards awaited him along the Petit Bras. Despite the developments across the Seine and the continued invasion of pleasure seekers, its grace was still resonant" (exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 2000, pp. 168-170).