I really enjoyed writing this piece on the artists who loved Argenteuil for Spectator Life.
In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, artists settled back into France. Renoir had been conscripted and sent to Bordeaux and then the Pyrenees. When he became seriously unwell his uncle saved him and took him Bordeaux to recover. In these post-war years Pissarro moved to Pontoise, a suburb north of Paris in 1871, and Cézanne joined him there along with several other friends.
A few months earlier, Manet had left Paris to join his family in the south west of France. With his connections, he was able to help Monet secure a house in Argenteuil. Monet would live here for several years.
At the time, Argenteuil was a popular suburb of Paris. It was a place of pleasure and relaxation. Parisians could leave the chaos of the city and enjoy the sense of the countryside Argenteuil had to offer. It was only a 15-minute train ride from Paris, so it was a regularly visited town. Argenteuil attracted sailors and rowers from Paris because it sits on the banks of the Seine (La Société des Régates Parisiennes, the most prestigious boating club in Paris, had its headquarters in Argenteuil.) It was a place of fireworks, carnivals, and asparagus. It offered the perfect conditions and scenes for painting outside. Argenteuil was the backdrop to what we see as the most quintessentially ‘Impressionist’ paintings today.
Many artists painted Argenteuil. Sisley, Renoir, Monet, Caillebotte and Boudin all captured it. The water was Monet’s main focus. His paintings ‘The Argenteuil Bridge’ and ‘Autumn Effect at Argenteuil’ both celebrate the movement and beauty of the water. He painted around 180 canvases in Argenteuil – roughly 30 per year.
After the war, the appetite for art seemed strong and paintings by the Impressionists were selling for relatively high prices. However, the financial crash in 1873 and the depression that followed meant that the number of people buying art diminished for many years. Before the war, Monet and Bazille – who was tragically killed in action during the war – had discussed having a group exhibition separate from the official Salon. They were reluctant to take part in the Salon des Refuses as it meant that their work would be coloured by the term ‘rejection’. So when Monet told of his and Bazille’s former plans they eventually came up with an exhibition, to which Degas (who would not identify as an Impressionist) contributed ten works.
Both Monet’s and Manet’s creations benefitted from the scenes and life at Argenteuil. For Manet (who often visited Monet while staying at his family home in Gennevilliers, near Argenteuil) it was the height of his Impressionist phase. Monet had built a floating studio, (an idea inspired by fellow artist Daubigny) and Manet painted Monet in his most Impressionistic painting ‘Monet in his Studio Boat.’ In the painting, there is no suggestion of the state of the river at Argenteuil, which was reportedly ‘an accumulation of filth, putrefying dead cats and dogs and slime.’ Manet actually received harsh criticism for his paintings at Argenteuil. In 1875, he exhibited ‘The Seine at Argenteuil’ which the newspaper Le Figaro dismissed as ‘marmalade from Argenteuil spread on an indigo river.’
Towards the end of 1875, Monet completed his famous snow scene paintings in Argenteuil. Then, he began to work on his paintings of railway stations. In her influential book on Impressionism, Phoebe Pool shares the story of Monet painting train stations: when he was told that fog was unsuitable for a painting by the critics, he decided to paint a view of the Gare St-Lazare, with so much ‘smoke from the engines so that you can hardly see a thing.’ He put on his finest outfit and called on the manager of the railway company and introduced himself as ‘the painter Claude Monet.’ The manager, who did not know about art, thought he must be a famous Salon artist and allowed Monet free reign of the station. ‘The trains were all halted; the platforms were cleared; the engines were crammed with coal so as to give out all the smoke Monet desired.’ After this, Pool explains, he was bowed out by uniformed officials. But Monet didn’t just focus on the dirt and grime that coal created. His painting ‘Unloading Coal, Argenteuil’ 1872 focuses on the repeated lines of the planks carried by workers. The texture of the water overflows onto the banks as dark figures go about their work.
Argenteuil is off the grid, yet somehow very much on our walls. Today, tourists can visit for a totally unspoilt trip to France.