Monet painted this exquisitely lyrical and radiant scene of the Seine at Argenteuil–a place that has come to be virtually synonymous with the origins of Impressionism–during the summer of 1874, just weeks after the epoch-making First Impressionist Exhibition. Since moving to Argenteuil in December 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, Monet had been consolidating the revolutionary formal vocabulary of this new modern movement, as well as actively militating for an independent alternative to the Salon. Now, both efforts bore fruit. From April to May 1874, in the former studios of the photographer Nadar in Paris, Monet exhibited a selection of new work alongside that of ten like-minded colleagues–the first time that artists had banded together to show their art publicly without the sanction of the state or the judgment of a jury. History had been made, and the show became the touchstone for all such future modernist efforts.
Public response to this novel venture, though, was decidedly mixed. Some critics had no doubt that the participants were creating the most avant-garde and important work of any artists in France. “The means by which they seek their impressions will infinitely serve contemporary art,” Armand Silvestre declared in L’Opinion Nationale. An equally vocal cohort, however, took great affront at these young painters’ subversion of long-standing Salon norms. Instead of scenes of timeless grandeur, they reveled in the depiction of contemporary life and leisure; eschewing traditional modeling and laborious finish, they exhibited paintings with all the vigor and brio of sketches. “What do we see in the work of these men?” Etienne Carjat asked in Le Patriote Français. “Nothing but a defiance, almost an insult to the taste and intelligence of the public” (quoted in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, pp. 108-109).
After the exhibition closed, Monet returned to Argenteuil even more strongly committed to the New Painting. During the ensuing summer, he painted more pictures than he had ever completed in a similar amount of time–nearly forty vibrant and light-filled scenes, including the present Au Petit-Gennevilliers. Testament to its great beauty and sensitivity, this canvas has belonged for almost its whole history to two of the most important collecting families in the entire chronicle of Impressionism. Its first owner was Victor Chocquet, a Parisian customs official who made a name for himself as an energetic champion of the Impressionists at a time when most still derided their art. In 1901, the painting entered the now-legendary collection of Louisine and Henry Havemeyer, arguably the most discerning connoisseurs of Impressionism in America at the turn of the century; it has belonged to the Havemeyers’ descendants ever since.
When Monet moved to Argenteuil, it was a lively suburb of some eight thousand inhabitants, located on the right bank of the Seine just eleven kilometers west of the capital. Parisians knew it as an agréable petite ville, all the more convenient because it was only fifteen minutes by rail from the Gare Saint-Lazare, and trains ran every half-hour. The town had some factories, and several smokestacks punctuated the skyline among the stretches of tall trees that lined the Seine. Two bridges, one for coach and pedestrian traffic and the other for the train line, connected Argenteuil to Petit Gennevilliers on the opposite bank. Visitors, however, could easily disregard these encroachments of the industrial age and focus instead on the picturesque aspects of the town. As a result, Argenteuil beckoned as a congenial destination for middle-class Parisians who wanted to escape the noise and grime of the city for fresh-air holidays and Sunday outings.
The town was especially popular among leisure-seekers devoted to the newly fashionable sport of boating, since the Seine is deeper and broader here than anywhere else near Paris. From the mid-century onward, town leaders encouraged the development of Argenteuil as a sailing hub, permitting the establishment of mooring areas and boathouses along the banks and promoting the near-perfect conditions of the river among sports enthusiasts. Their efforts paid off, and by the later 1850s the most stylish yacht club in Paris had its headquarters there. The sight of sailboats and larger vessels flying before the wind in regattas and other fêtes nautiques attracted numerous spectators, and in 1867 the town was even chosen as the site for the sailing competition during the Exposition Universelle. By the time Monet arrived, Argenteuil had become a postcard town for suburban leisure.
Although Monet explored a wide range of motifs during his years at Argenteuil, it was the river that provided him with the greatest wealth of pictorial enticements. Between 1872 and 1875, he created more than fifty paintings of this stretch of the Seine, focusing principally on three motifs: the boat rental area immediately downstream from the highway bridge, as in the present scene; the wide basin of the river, with its sandy promenades; and the Petit Bras, a diversion of the Seine by the Île Marante where larger boats sometimes moored. Although they range in mood from reflective to high-spirited, these views all offered Monet the opportunity to paint essentially the same subject: a well-ordered, modern suburb where man and nature met in agreeable harmonies. “Evocative and inviting, this is the suburban paradise that was sought after in the 1850s and 1860s but made all the more precious and desired after the disasters of 1870-1871,” Paul Tucker has written, “its calm the restorative balm for the nation as a whole” (Claude Monet: Life and Art, New York, 1995, p. 61).
To paint the present scene, Monet worked from a boat that he had outfitted as a floating studio, anchoring it near the Petit-Gennevilliers bank looking downstream–exactly as Manet showed in a remarkable 1874 painting of his friend at work. Pleasure craft skim across the water or bob at anchor; broken reflections dance on the surface of the river, and cirrus clouds scud across the high summer sky. On the left are a cluster of three orange-roofed houses and a distinctive tall tree that re-appear in several of Monet’s other views of the Petit Gennevilliers bank, seen each time from a slightly different angle. Immediately behind Monet from this vantage point, here out of sight, would have been the boat-hire shed with its series of docks and just beyond that the highway bridge. All that is visible of the Argenteuil bank are two factory chimneys in the distance at the far right, the absence of smoke suggesting that the scene was painted on a Sunday.
Paintings like this one appear so soothing–and have become so iconic–that it can be hard to appreciate how radical Monet’s approach to form was in his day. In Au Petit-Gennevilliers, he has replaced the dark, saturated hues of Corot, Courbet, and the Barbizon school with a heightened palette of blue, green, ochre, and most notably, copious white, which brilliantly conveys the sensation of the open air. The paint is applied in a vibrating tissue of broken brushstrokes–small horizontal dashes for the surface of the water, lively comma-shaped marks for the trees and sky–that evoke the gentle rustling of the breeze and the flickering play of sunlight over the scene. This transparent brushwork, a revolutionary departure from Salon norms, also explicitly inscribes the presence of the artist, bearing witness to a central tenet of Impressionism as well as one of its most persuasive myths: the plein-air master before nature, rapidly transcribing his immediate sensations.
The meticulously crafted composition, however, reveals the care and planning that went into this apparently spontaneous scene. All the pieces of the picture fit together like the interlocking parts of an ideally constructed world. The planes of water and sky are near mirror-images, with the horizon line set just below the midpoint of the canvas. The riverbank forms a triangular wedge of contrasting color that leads the eye into the scene; the dark hull of a boat emphasizes the point where this shape joins the horizon, very slightly right of center. The jostling verticals of the masts and sails punctuate the canvas from left to right, forming a planar counterpoint to the receding orthogonal of the bank, with its houses and trees of diminishing scale. “Despite the impression of a captured moment, the painting is an artful construct,” Tucker has written about a related scene. “Each element...is painstakingly arranged and scrupulously rendered, underscoring Monet’s powers as an artist and the humanly imposed rationale of the place” (The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 68).
Victor Chocquet, the first owner of Au Petit-Gennevilliers, discovered Impressionism in 1875, just a year after Monet painted this seductive and harmonious canvas. Chocquet had previously collected Delacroix but rapidly switched his allegiance to the Impressionists, becoming one of their most consistent early buyers. “He was something to see, standing up to hostile crowds at the exhibition during the first years of Impressionism,” the critic Georges Rivière recalled, “leading a reluctant connoisseur up to canvases by Renoir, Monet, or Cézanne, doing his utmost to make the man share his admiration for these reviled artists” (quoted in A. Distel, Impressionism: The First Collectors, New York, 1990, p. 137). The appreciation, it seems, was mutual; Monet described Chocquet as the only person he had ever met “who truly loved painting with a passion” (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, New York, 1996, p. 194).
Chocquet probably acquired the present painting soon after its creation, and he retained it until his death in 1891. When his widow passed away eight years later, the canvas appeared in a sale of his collection at Galerie Georges Petit, which generated enormous excitement. Distinguished collectors and dealers thronged the sale room, and spirited bidding spurred record prices. “We now see those one-time despised and belittled Impressionist pictures realizing at public auction the price of a respectable lawyer’s yearly labor, the pay of a general, the equivalent of broad acres of hill and vale,” the English Impressionist painter Wynford Dewhurst reported. “Finally, Monet, and with him the survivors of that small and gifted band of Impressionists, have lived to see the reversal of a hostile, because ignorant, public judgment; and are able to enjoy to the full the immense satisfaction of principles fought for and successfully vindicated” (“Claude Monet, Impressionist,” Pall Mall Magazine, June 1900, pp. 223-224).
By the time this illustrious sale took place, the Havemeyers were in the midst of assembling their own extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings. Like Chocquet, Louisine Havemeyer had been an admirer of Impressionism almost since its inception. In 1875, at the age of twenty, she had purchased Monet’s Pont, Amsterdam on her friend Mary Cassatt’s advice; it was very likely the first of the artist’s works to find a home in America, where he was still almost entirely unknown. Louisine married Henry Havemeyer in 1883, and the couple focused their collecting energies for the next decade on older masters. By 1894, however, Impressionism had gained more of a foothold in America, though it remained controversial, and the Havemeyers began to collect Monet, along with Manet and Degas, in earnest.
Their collection would eventually include thirty paintings by Monet, many of them acquired on annual picture-buying expeditions with Cassatt in Paris. “Louie wants me to keep a look out for fine Monets,” Cassatt wrote to Mr. Havemeyer at the start of the century. “I have just heard of someone who has several good early pictures” (quoted in F. Weitzenhoffer, The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America, New York, 1986, p. 143). The present canvas had sold at the Chocquet auction to one Monsieur d’Hauterive for 11,500 francs, a stunning sum; by April 1901, however, it was with Boussod et Valadon, where the Havemeyers recognized its exceptional quality and added it to their collection. When Louisine Havemeyer died in 1929, she generously bequeathed a substantial part of the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Au Petit Gennevilliers passed instead to her daughter Adaline Havemeyer Frelinghuysen and then to two generations of the latter’s heirs, remaining part of the legacy of this storied family all the way to the present day.