The present painting depicts the Seine at Vétheuil, a sleepy, agrarian hamlet about sixty kilometers northwest of Paris where Monet lived from 1878 to 1881. The years that Monet spent at Vétheuil represent a watershed moment in his artistic development: "the most momentous change in the career of the most revolutionary Impressionist," to quote Charles Stuckey (Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point, exh. cat., University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1998, p. 41). Following his move to Vétheuil, Monet entirely abandoned the contemporary themes that had dominated his earlier oeuvre and began to focus instead on capturing fugitive aspects of nature. With their sensitive description of the changing effects of light on water, Monet's views of the Seine at Vétheuil presage the last great series of the artist's career: the waterlilies at Giverny. Carole McNamara has written: "The acknowledged painter of contemporary life who settled in Vétheuil in 1878 departed from that town in 1881, as from a chrysalis, renewed and redirected. He was no longer the painter of modernity who 'preferred an English garden to a corner of the forest,' as Zola had described him. Monet settled farther downriver at Giverny and, through his series paintings, created a whole new understanding of landscape painting. Many of those later innovations derived their impetus from the paintings executed [at Vétheuil]" (ibid., p. 86).
The village of Vétheuil is located on the right bank of the Seine, on a hill overlooking a picturesque bend in the river. Monet and his family arrived there in August 1878 and settled in a small house on the outskirts of town with a garden sloping down to the banks of the Seine. Monet immediately set to work exploring the quiet backwaters of the river near his new home, using a partially covered boat that he had outfitted as a studio. The present canvas is one of at least fourteen that Monet executed during this first painting campaign at Vétheuil (Wildenstein nos. 475-487). It depicts the Seine just south of the town, looking upstream. The curving bank of the river sweeps across the left side of the canvas, a dynamic compositional device that draws the viewer's eye into the scene. The painting represents an overcast day, with thick cumulus clouds banked up in the sky and a limited palette of blues and greens suggesting the deepening tones of the late summer foliage. The lone human presence is a solitary fishing boat in the middle of the river. Contrasting Monet's views of the Seine at Vétheuil with his earlier riverscapes from Argenteuil, Tucker has written:
"The river now stretches into the distance without any obstructions. No houses line the banks and no factories or pleasure-seekers break the silence. Monet appears alone in a place where earth and sky, land and water, the artist and the environment are in perfect accord. There is a new kind of order here; it is nature's, not man's" (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p.101).
The first owner of the present canvas was Dr. Georges de Bellio, who received it as a gift from Monet the year after it was painted. De Bellio, a homeopathic physician from Romania, was one of Monet's most important early patrons, purchasing more than thirty-five paintings from the artist between 1874 and 1881. In August 1879, Monet was in such dire financial circumstances that he wrote to de Bellio from Vétheuil and pled with him to select some paintings to purchase from the artist's studio in Paris. He may have given the present picture to de Bellio shortly thereafter, as a gesture of appreciation for the doctor's ongoing moral and financial support.