Painted immediately following the resonance of the ground-breaking first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Claude Monet’s Les bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers focuses on the idyllic, picturesque Parisian suburb of Petit-Gennevilliers, which sat on the opposite bank of the Seine to the artist’s adopted home of Argenteuil. This lively suburb and its environs quickly became synonymous with the birth of Impressionism, for it was here, during a period of financial success and personal stability for the artist, that Monet fully consolidated the formal vocabulary which would come to define the movement. Working alongside Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet, Monet produced a string of plein-air masterpieces over the course of the summer of 1874, inspired by the area’s timeless picturesque beauty, charming historical character, and lively nautical traffic that occurred along this stretch of the Seine. These works capture the enchanting atmosphere of life in Argenteuil, and demonstrate the growing sense of spontaneity and immediacy that was developing in Monet’s art at this time. Focusing on the play of light, and the fleeting, ephemeral movement of the sky and river, the present composition is filled with swift, loose brushstrokes that convey a sense of the speed with which the artist rendered the scene, as he quickly translated the landscape before him directly onto his canvas. Perhaps most significantly, Les bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers highlights the gradual shift that occurred in Monet’s painting at this time, as he began to focus increasingly on the natural beauty of the area and less on the modern building projects which were gradually altering the character of the town.
Argenteuil had become a suburban hub for leisurely outings during the 1850s, as its proximity to Paris and idyllic natural landscape drew visitors from the capital for Sunday trips and fresh-air holidays. This stretch of the Seine was unencumbered by dramatic turns, projections or islands, and the river reached its widest and deepest point as it flowed along the banks at Argenteuil and Petit-Gennevilliers, making the area an ideal location for recreational sailing and amateur boat races. Indeed, a writer for Le Sport declared in 1855 that ‘nowhere in the immediate vicinity of Paris does the Seine present to amateur boaters a basin as favourable in length and breadth as well as current as at Argenteuil’ (quoted in P. Hayes-Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil, New Haven, 1982, p. 90). One of the most fashionable boating clubs in Paris, La Société des Régates Parisiennes, soon established their sailing headquarters in the town, and steamboat races, water jousts, rowing regattas and general pleasure boating events regularly drew large crowds from the capital to the suburb on the weekends. For amateur sailors, local entrepreneurs ran rental companies along the water’s edge offering visitors the opportunity to hire crafts at an hourly or daily rate, while more avid yachtsmen could moor their boats at Argenteuil whilst they were in Paris. The bustling atmosphere of life on and around the river stimulated Monet’s imagination, and boats quickly became a key leitmotif within his paintings, with yachts and pleasure boats moving across the water or bobbing at anchor featuring in numerous canvases produced at Argenteuil. In Les bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers a cluster of sailboats are grouped together around a mooring on the edge of the water, their elegant sails seen in varying stages of being unfurled, while a small crowd of individuals can be seen milling around the vessels, their silhouettes casting dark shadows against the brilliant white of the sails. Whether the figures manning the boats are docking their crafts at the end of the day, or preparing to pull away from their mooring for a nautical adventure is unclear, but their presence in the composition highlights the constant comings and goings on the water at Argenteuil during the late Nineteenth Century.
In the present work, Monet focuses on the quiet, lesser developed bank of Petit-Gennevilliers, allowing it to cut diagonally across the painting, dividing the composition into two as it gradually recedes into the distance. At this time, the Petit-Gennevilliers side of the river offered an interesting contrast to the bustling thoroughfare of the Argenteuil bank, which was dominated by a beautiful promenade and lined by stately chestnut trees that provided shade during sunny days. Offering visitors the perfect viewing position for races and boating events, as well as an enjoyable avenue for strolling during warmer months, this promenade was often filled with people, and it quickly became a frequent focus of Monet’s earliest paintings from Argenteuil. In comparison, Petit-Gennevilliers had been left largely untouched by development through the 1850s and 1860s, and had only recently seen a scattering of new houses constructed along the river’s edge. As the summer of 1874 progressed, Monet began to turn away from the busier aspects of Argenteuil and instead began to look to the untouched, natural aspects of the area, reducing the prominence of the nautical traffic on the river and eschewing his focus on the influx of Parisian visitors who descended on the town on Sunday. In the present scene, Monet chooses a viewpoint looking upstream, away from the smoke stacks and chimneys of the nearby factories that bordered the town, towards the modern rail bridge that connected the suburb to Paris. However, from this vantage point, the bank obscures the view of this bridge, presenting a timeless and unblemished scene of the river instead. Indeed, the only indication of the delicate balance between nature and encroaching modernity that characterised these swiftly changing suburbs may be detected in the bright orange roofs of the new houses built along the riverbank, which peek out from amongst the dense green foliage that covers the bank.
Monet was able to achieve this perspective by venturing onto the water itself, a significant development which transformed his approach to painting during the summer of 1874. The artist had commissioned the construction of a floating studio earlier that year, investing funds from his recent sales to Paul Durand-Ruel into this new water-bound atelier. As he explained, ‘A fair wind brought me just enough money, all in one go, to buy myself a boat and have a little wooden cabin built on it, just big enough to set up my easel in’ (Monet, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Monet, or the Triumph of Impressionism, Cologne, 1999, p. 98). Having lived in Argenteuil for two and a half years and capturing numerous views of the Seine from its banks, this new work space opened up a different aspect of the river for Monet, allowing him greater access to life on the waterway and offering him a new vantage point from which to paint life in the bustling suburb. In Monet dans son bateau atelier (1874), now at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Édouard Manet painted his younger colleague working on this new floating studio just a few weeks after Monet had taken possession of the vessel. Here, the artist is seen before his easel on the boat deck, his wife Camille tucked into the small wooden cabin behind him, observing her husband while he works en plein-air, directly before his subject. Providing a glimpse into the artist’s daily working habits, this painting reveals how the floating atelier broadened Monet’s practice, transporting him onto the water and allowing him the opportunity to directly engage with his subject in new, dynamic ways.
As a result of this vantage point, the fast flowing river becomes a central protagonist in the composition, its gentle ripples and reflections captured by the artist in a series of swift, short brushstrokes which stand independently from one another. The water appears to shimmer before us, as the delicate outlines of the clouds travelling gently across the sky above are reflected in the undulating surface of the water. The loose, staccato handling of the paint contributes to the impression of swiftness and spontaneity with which Monet captured the scene, leaving areas of bare canvas visible to the viewer as he sought to record the fleeting, ephemeral effects of light as it touched the water. These portions of the canvas are offset by contrasting areas of thicker application, such as in the green algae floating on the river’s surface, where longer, thicker horizontal brushstrokes meld together to form a uniform plane of colour. In his meditation on the light flickering on the surface of the water, Monet imbues Les bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers with a much calmer and quieter mood, casting a more reflective atmosphere than in his previous paintings at Argenteuil. Here, the artist presents a view of life in the town from the perspective of the local rather than that of a weekend visitor. His position on the floating atelier allows him to convey a sense of the unhurried, leisurely pace that defined life in Argenteuil and Petit-Gennevilliers during the week, capturing the quiet and sense of solitude that could be found there, without the clamour caused by the influx of tourists from Paris on the weekends.
As the 1870s progressed, Argenteuil became increasingly industrialised, with new factories and building projects popping up across the town each year. The resulting boom in population and flurry of new building works threatened to engulf the natural beauty of the area, and faced with the loss of the idyllic natural beauty which had originally drawn him to the area, Monet decided to leave the town for good. However, Monet’s departure from Argenteuil coincided with a downturn in his financial circumstances. His spending throughout 1875 and 1876 regularly exceeded his income, and the family account books became filled with lists of IOUs due, and accounts to pay. ‘The creditors are proving to be obstinate,’ Monet lamented to his patron Georges de Bellio around this time, stating: ‘Unless some rich amateurs suddenly appear, we are going to be thrown out of this nice little house where I have been able to live modestly and work so well’ (Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, op. cit., p. 21). To appease these financial demands, Monet regularly borrowed money from friends, and often traded paintings for goods, usually at a considerably disadvantageous rate. Indeed, Les bords de la Seine au Petit-Gennevilliers was first owned by François Fayette, the headmaster of the École Préparatoire des Arts et Métiers in town, who received the canvas from Monet in January 1877 in partial payment of a debt for his son Jean’s education.