The Seine-side enclave of Argenteuil, where Monet painted this convivial image of suburban leisure, is virtually synonymous today with the origins of Impressionism. “I have been seeing Monet frequently these days,” Boudin reported to his dealer in January 1872, a month after Monet moved to the town. “He’s settled in comfortably and seems to have a great desire to make a name for himself. I believe that he is destined to fill one of the most prominent positions in our school of painting” (quoted in P. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven, 1995, p. 53). During the ensuing years, Monet rapidly consolidated the innovative formal vocabulary of Impressionism. Eschewing traditional modeling and laborious finish, he produced paintings with all the vitality and brio of sketches, their broken, transparent brushwork consciously signifying a fleeting moment before nature. As other progressive painters–Manet, Renoir, Sisley, and Caillebotte among them–joined Monet at Argenteuil, the town became the chief locus of the New Painting, with its daring subversion of long-standing Salon norms.
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, rapidly industrializing yet still postcard picturesque, and only fifteen minutes by rail from the Gare Saint-Lazare. 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. The most stylish yacht club in Paris established its headquarters at Argenteuil, and the frequent sight of sailboats flying before the wind in regattas and fêtes nautiques attracted numerous spectators to its wooded banks.
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; 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” (ibid., p. 61).
Monet painted the present canvas during the late spring or summer of 1875, the year after the epoch-making First Impressionist Exhibition introduced the Salon-going public to the revolutionary, plein-air aesthetic and momentary, modern-life themes of the New Painting. On this particular day, beneath a cloud-streaked sky, he crossed the highway bridge from Argenteuil to the smaller village of Petit-Gennevilliers on the opposite bank of the Seine. He set up his easel on a relatively tranquil stretch of the river midway between the boat rental area and the boat basin, looking downstream toward neighboring Bézons. Twice in 1875, Monet depicted nearly the identical motif in mid-morning, when the sandy path in the foreground was dappled with golden light (Wildenstein, nos. 373 and 375; Christie’s New York, 14 May 1997, Lot 20). Here, he captures a late afternoon effect instead, with the sun dipping low at the right and the light growing hazy. The overhanging tree branches are boldly silhouetted against the expansive sky, creating a dramatic contrast between light and dark zones in the painting.
The small dock in the foreground of this scene is the same one that Monet and Renoir had depicted at close range the previous summer, working contentedly side-by-side as they had at La Grenouillère in the heady, formative years of Impressionism before the Franco-Prussian War (Wildenstein, no. 324; Dauberville, no. 126; Portland Art Museum). The dock appears as well in a view of this stretch of the Seine that Sisley painted during a visit with Monet in 1872 (Daulte, no. 30; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art). In the present painting, a bourgeois couple cautiously traverses the wooden mooring hand-in-hand, preparing to board a sailboat that waits at anchor, a canotier seated at the bow. A woman and child watch them from the grassy bank, while a third pair of figures stands together on the path, pausing mid-promenade to survey this appealing vista of leisurely, warm-weather sociability.
Compositionally, the image is strikingly similar to Monet’s glorious view of the main promenade at Argenteuil, painted during the first summer that he spent in the town (Wildenstein, no. 225; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). “Each element in the painting is painstakingly arranged and scrupulously rendered,” Tucker has written about the Orsay canvas, “underscoring Monet’s powers as an artist and the humanly imposed rationale of the place” (Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 68). In both paintings, the towpath leads logically into the scene at the lower left, beckoning the viewer to enter this ideally constructed world. The masts of the sailboats that line the near bank in the present view punctuate the path’s rapid recession into depth. The row of stately trees and the length of the river serve as counterbalancing triangular shapes, together with the path creating a pattern of interlocking parts, above which hangs a broad sky.
In La berge du Petit-Gennevilliers, Monet has analyzed the various sections of the landscape through carefully differentiated zones of brushwork, heightening the sense of consummate order and emphasizing the variety of fugitive sensations that he experienced before the view. The arresting mass of dark foliage in the upper left, which serves as a repoussoir device to increase the illusion of depth in the painting, is rendered in small, dry touches of pigment through which the sky remains partially visible. More heavily loaded strokes describe the path and the damp grass at the water’s edge. The afternoon sky, faintly tinged with gold and lilac beneath copious bands of cirrus, is rendered in long, loose strokes that conjure the effect of a swift breeze.
Monet continued to revel in Argenteuil’s suburban pleasures and pastimes through late 1875, but soon after his attitude toward the petite ville underwent a sea-change. A third iron works was set to open across the street from his house by that time, and plans were being made to bring a second railroad through town. Agrarian land was increasingly being converted for housing, and worst of all, pollution had begun to contaminate the Seine. The balance between the beauties of nature and the bounties of progress–the source of Argenteuil’s appeal for Monet from the outset–had tipped too far to one side. Disheartened, the artist spent much of 1876 and 1877 away from home or sequestered within the walls of his own garden. In January 1878 he packed his bags for good, settling some sixty kilometers downriver in the remote hamlet of Vétheuil, as yet untouched by the encroachments of modernity. A new chapter in Impressionism had begun.