“Life! Life! Life! What it is to feel it and paint it as it really is! To love it for its own sake; to see it as the only true, ever-lasting, ever-changing beauty” exclaimed Zola’s fictional Impressionist painter Claude Lantier in the novel L’Oeuvre. “Isn’t a bunch of carrots, yes, a bunch of carrots, studied directly and painted simply, personally, as you see it yourself, as good as any of the run-of-the-mill, made-to-measure Ecole des Beaux-Arts stuff, painted with tobacco-juice? The day is not far off when one solitary carrot might be pregnant with revolution!” (quoted in P. Tucker, The Impressionists at Argenteuil, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 29).
Monet, who left no written statements about his artistic agenda in the 1870s, would surely have agreed. In the present landscape, painted in the weeks after the epoch-making First Impressionist Exhibition closed in May 1874, his ostensible subject is a pair of sailboats that drift leisurely down the Seine on the tranquil outskirts of Argenteuil, as the sky begins to color with the first blush of sunset. Rather than placing these pleasure crafts at the center of the scene, however, and relegating the foreground vegetation to the role of repoussoir or framing device, Monet has reversed the expected compositional hierarchy. The principal protagonist of the painting–Lantier’s lone carrot, so to speak–is the shrub that grows from the marshy bank, reaching nearly to the top edge of the canvas, boldly silhouetted against the plane of the sky. Working en plein air, Monet has applied the full force of his revolutionary new manner of painting to transcribing his immediate sensations before this splayed and gently rustling foliage, as the sailboats glide by in the middle distance.
The Seine-side enclave of Argenteuil, where Monet painted this meditative scene, 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 two 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 the Seine here, 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 waterway by the Île Marante where larger boats moored. The exact location of the present motif has not been identified, but it is likely that the painting depicts the quiet stretch of the river upstream from the boat rental area, between the highway bridge and the iron railway span. Monet must have set up his easel on the less developed Petit Gennevilliers bank across from Argenteuil, looking roughly north-west across the river into the setting sun. The tree line on the far shore is thus cast into deep shadow, while the tall grass in the foreground catches the light, emitting glints of silver and gold.
Monet has analyzed the various sections of the landscape through carefully differentiated zones of brushwork, emphasizing the variety of fugitive sensations that he experienced before the view. The large foreground shrub is rendered in tiny daubs of green, blue, and brown, which create a lacy screen through which the river and sky remain partially visible. Longer curving strokes describe the marsh grass in which Monet stood ankle-deep to paint this landscape, while small horizontal dashes convey the gentle rippling of the water under a slight breeze. The sailboats and the distant trees are rendered as flatter, less broken forms, compressing the space slightly so that our gaze does not linger in depth but instead returns to the foreground with its rich array of momentary effects.
Although it is the timeless natural beauties of Argenteuil rather than the town’s modern offerings that give this scene its focal point, Monet shows these two complementary elements meeting in well-ordered and inviting harmonies. The grassy bank in the foreground forms a wedge that leads the viewer’s eye directly to the two boats, whose triangular sails in turn are echoed in undulating forms of the tree line behind them, creating a rhythmic alternation of light and dark. A third boat rests at anchor slightly to the right, its sail furled and its masts commingling with the branches of the bush. “Despite the impression of a captured moment, the painting is an artful construct,” Paul 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” (op. cit., 2000, p. 68).
Monet continued to paint Argenteuil as a veritable suburban paradise throughout 1875, but soon after his attitude toward the petite ville underwent a 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 the environment and the bounties of progress–the source of Argenteuil’s appeal for Monet from the outset–had tipped too far to one side. In 1876, he spent most of his time painting inside the walls of his own garden, like Zola’s Lantier during his retreat to the country; the next year, he packed up and moved sixty kilometers downriver to rural Vétheuil. There, he could still be engaged with time and change, but the terms were now dictated entirely by nature, not by the progressive-minded powers of modernity.