Published: November 14, 2000
HARTFORD, CONN. This time it is the seminal role of Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, in the development of the movement that offers the springboard for another appealing – and informative – exhibition.
On view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art through December 3, “” brings together over 50 paintings, including many rarely seen outside private collections, in a show that is attracting large crowds to the venerable Hartford institution. Organized jointly by the National Gallery of Art, where it was seen earlier this year, and the Wadsworth, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue are made possible by United Technologies Corporation. The show is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
With special emphasis on canvases by Claude Monet, who as an Argenteuil resident became the focus of the group, the presentation includes colorful, evocative works by five avant-garde colleagues: Eugene Boudin (1839-1899), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Around the 1870s, these six influential artists worked in the open air, often alongside each other, recording scenes in and around the village. Their innovative paintings, characterized by broken brushwork and divided light and color, made Argenteuil’s name synonymous with the style that became known as Impressionism.
Called by contemporary guidebooks “le agréable petite ville,” Argenteuil was a small, relatively unspoiled town only 15 minutes from the Gare Saint-Lazare in the heart of Paris. The vivid canvases in this show and the beautifully illustrated catalogue detail the fascinating story of how this unassuming village launched a revolutionary art movement.
The pioneering leader was Monet (1840-1926), who settled in Argenteuil in 1871. Drawn there in search of new material, he became intrigued with the pastoral town and the changes industrialization was bringing to it. During his more than six-year sojourn, Monet evolved his own unique and influential style of landscape painting, creating some of the finest work of his distinguished career. Suffused with light and atmosphere, his colorful paintings were at once authentic and idyllic, concerned with beauty and with the complexities of change in the modern world.
As the exhibition documents, Monet was not only the central figure in the movement but also the most prolific painter in Argenteuil. According to Paul Hayes Tucker, the noted Monet scholar who guest-curated the show and wrote the catalogue, Monet completed about 180 canvases during his stay, “for an average of 30 pictures a year, or one every 12 days.” In 1872 alone he created 60 paintings.
During Monet’s residency fellow artists came to visit, to commune about art, and several, notably Renoir and Sisley, painted shoulder to shoulder with him. As Tucker emphasizes, Argenteuil in the 1870s was ideally suited to the experiments in outdoor effects that became the hallmark of the Impressionists.
“Argenteuil’s appeal to the impressionists derived mostly from its diversity, which offered something for everyone,” Tucker observes. “Depending on where one looked, the town could be charmingly historical or glaringly contemporary, delightfully rustic or unnervingly progressive.”
At the time, Argenteuil was well known for producing grapes for good wine and for growing asparagus, and for a spectacular stretch of the Seine, which wound along its southern precincts and became the scene of promenades, regattas, and pleasure-boat outings. At the same time, the reasonably unsullied aspects of the town increasingly coexisted with manifestations of industrialization, such as chemical plants, distilleries, ironworks, and tanneries.
This changing setting challenged the artists to develop new means to convey the fluctuating dynamics of the place. Utilizing broken brushwork, irregular surfaces, heightened color, and a sense of fleeting effects, Monet and Company gave visual expression to Argenteuil’s varying character. They depicted towpaths and railway bridges, gardens and factories, and regattas and steamboats, as well as each other and their families.
Frustrated by the traditional system of judging and exhibiting works of art in the official Salon each year, the Argenteuil painters placed shared goals ahead of individual differences, eventually meeting at Monet’s house to lay plans for the independent group show that introduced Impressionism in 1874.
In an effort to capture as accurately as possible nature’s ephemeral qualities, and the immediacy of experiencing the natural world at first hand, the Impressionists painted out of doors. This enabled them to work from close, direct observation and to record their perceptions without delay.
Renoir’s “Monet Painting in his Argenteuil Garden” (1873) shows their leader working at his easel en plein air, recording the beauty of his flower-filled garden. This lovely painting is in the Wadsworth’s permanent collection, and prompted the current exhibition.
In and around his first house and garden in the town, Monet painted a number of luminous, colorful canvases that suggest the pleasures suburban living afforded the artist and his family. “The Artist’s House in Argenteuil” (1873) is among the standout examples that reflect the accuracy of Renoir’s depiction of the setting.
Monet also used a studio boat, which he depicted in 1874, to paint on the Seine and capture the shimmering effects of light on water. Manet’s “Claude and Camille Monet in his Studio Boat” (1874) is an aquatic version of Renoir’s likeness of Monet painting in his garden.
Given their interest in depicting modern life, the Impressionists found ready subject matter in the ways in which industrial and technological developments were changing the face of Argenteuil. Like many Parisian suburbs, it underwent rapid transformation in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.
Several artists, especially Monet, painted the railroad bridge over the Seine, which after 1963 brought trains directly into town. Among Monet’s benign views of this technological advance are two versions of “The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil” (1874), with the span’s smooth white columns gleaming in the sun and reflected in the shimmering, sailboat-dotted river.
The older highway bridge, dating to 1830, was damaged during the Franco-Prussian War. Monet showed it the next year, swathed in scaffolding, in “The Highway Bridge Under Repair” (1872). He depicted the rebuilt span in all its idyllic glory, crossing the dappled surface of the Seine, replete with sailboats. Caillebotte’s version, “The Argenteuil Bridge and the Seine” (1883), offered a close-up view of the span framing a steamboat and barge on the rippling river and several houses in the distance. That image documents the painter’s fascination with modern structures, which also manifested itself in his characteristically forthright view of the huge local distillery along the Seine. With its stark outlines reflected in the water before it, “Factories at Argenteuil” (1888) suggests that industrial buildings could exist alongside, without ruining, the picturesque river.
Monet and his friends clearly reveled in painting another aspect of Argenteuil’s modern life: its leisure activities and the influx of day-trippers from Paris. Often painting side by side, they depicted inviting river walks, recreational boating, and sailing races on the Seine.
Among the most famous pairs in the exhibition are two versions of “Sailboats at Argenteuil” (1874) and of “Regatta at Argenteuil” (1874), each painted from the same vantage point by Monet and Renoir, but differing in details that reflect the individual artists’ personalities and ideas.
Manet’s familiar yet enigmatic “Boating” (1874), showing a man piloting a sailboat and his female companion, is a particularly memorable depiction of recreational activity. It is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. “There is something strange and disconcerting about this remarkably simplified painting, a feeling that undercuts its leisure subject, fresh light, and appealing color,” Tuckers writes in the catalogue. “Boating” is both an aesthetically appealing and intellectually stimulating image.
Caillebotte and Manet took special note of the manner in which the increasing number of visitors from Paris added a new dimension to the Argenteuil landscape. In Manet’s sparkling canvas, “The Seine at Argenteuil” (1974), a mother and child contemplate sailboats bobbing in the river. An unheralded highlight is Caillebotte’s imaginative rendering of “Richard Gallo and his Dog Dick at Petit Gennevilliers” (1884), in which a citified gentleman in black hat and long coat walks with his perky dog along the Seine in a village, where the artist owned a house, just across the river from Argenteuil.
Setting up their easels along paths lining the banks of the Seine, Monet and others painted expansive views that immortalized the area’s broad promenades, avenues of tall trees, and tranquil waters. The same clump of trees, for example, appears both in Boudin’s “The Seine at Argenteuil” (circa 1866) and at the end of the towpath in Monet’s painting from upriver, “The Promenade at Argenteuil” (circa 1872). As author Emile Zola wrote, Monet “brings Paris to the country… He loves with particular affection nature that man makes modern.”
Caillebotte’s “The Promenade at Argenteuil” (1883) offers a light-filled, broadly brushed, atmospheric view of people and buildings in towns, rather than along the river. This painting, observes Tucker “Bear[s] witness to Caillebotte’s master of his craft and his impressive ability to suggest the multifarious aspects of modern life in a scene of deceiving simplicity.” As has often been the case in recent Impressionist exhibitions, Caillebotte is a star of this show.
Sisley, who was the first colleague to visit Monet in Argenteuil in 1872, initiated the custom of painting alongside his friend. Together they painted four different views of the village, including “The Boulevard Heloise, Argenteuil” (both 1872), depicting one of the town’s main thoroughfares.
This kind of close cooperation gave these kindred souls opportunities to discuss painting strategies and share information, observations, and technical innovations. They also painted portraits of their own families and of each other and each other’s families, thus deepening their friendships.
Particularly memorable is Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son” (1875), from the National Gallery of Art collection. In addition to Manet’s view of Monet and his wife in the studio boat, there are several notable likenesses by Renoir of Monet and his family.
The camaraderie, commitment to common goals, and shared group concerns about the direction of the art of their times contributed to the success of the Impressionists when, under the leadership of Monet and Camille Pissaro, they formed the Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, and Sculptors and Engravers. Their eight exhibitions, starting in 1874, showcased their new vision, establishing the foundation of their enduring popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
As this appealing and evocative exhibition documents, it all began in the prosaic village of Argenteuil, where today heavy industry and suburban housing have largely obliterated the mixture of rustic and modern life that so charmed this talented group of painters a century and a quarter ago. As Tucker points out, their paintings of the 1870s and 1880s “constitute one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the history of art, making Argenteuil synonymous with impressionism and a touchstone for the development of western visual culture.”
The 179-page exhibition catalogue includes an introductory essay by Tucker, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and his entries on the 52 paintings in the show. With 83 color and 31 black-and-white illustrations, it is an unusually attractive book. Published by the National Gallery of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $50 (hardcover) and $29.95 (softcover).
Complementing the Impressionists show is “Bustle and Bows: Fashions from the 1870s,” a three-dimensional view of richly ornamented period costumes from the heyday of Argenteuil painting. Organized by Carol Dean Krute, curator of costumes and textiles, from the Atheneum’s permanent collection, this exhibition features gowns, men’s and children’s ensembles, gloves, hats, handkerchiefs, parasols, and fans. It will be on view through February 18, 2001.
Admission to “,” on view through December 3, is by timed tickets. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860/278-2670.
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