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Argenteuil and Impressionism

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Argenteuil and Impressionism

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War ( July 18, 1870) found Claude Monet at Le Havre, where he remained as that fateful summer wore on. On September 2 came the German breakthrough at Sedan; Napoleon III capitulated and on September 4 the Third Republic was proclaimed. Leaving Camille and little Jean in Normandy, Monet sailed for England in September. Bazille volunteered for the Zouaves and joined a line regiment in August (he was killed in action at Beaune-la-Rolande on November 28).

Manet, as a confirmed republican, waited for the Empire to collapse and then enlisted (as did Degas) in an artillery unit of the National Guard. Pissarro, living at Louveciennes, found himself in the path of the advancing Germans and fled to England, leaving behind hundreds of his pictures together with many that Monet had stored with him. Torn from their frames and used as floor-mats and aprons by the Prussian soldiery, who turned his house into the regimental butchershop, all were destroyed — an irreparable loss, depriving us of by far the greater part of Pissarro’s pre-1870 output and a substantial part of Monet’s. To these losses, in the case of Monet, must be added the many canvases which he himself ripped to shreds in fits of despair or to prevent their being seized by his creditors.

Things went no better for him in London than in France. The English public showed complete indifference to his work. He submitted some pictures to an exhibition at the Royal Academy, but they were rejected. He had the good luck, however, to run into Daubigny, who introduced him to his own dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, also a refugee in London, who had opened a gallery at 158 Bond Street. This meeting was providential not only for Monet but also for Pissarro, who met Durand-Ruel at the same time. “Without him we’d have starved to death in London,” he wrote later. But in spite of his enthusiasm for their work and his persistence in bringing it to public notice, Durand-Ruel failed to sell a single one of their pictures in England. He nevertheless went on buying canvases from Monet and Pissarro, and thus enabled them to keep afloat.

Monet made several views of the Thames in addition to some studies in Hyde Park in which the figures are very roughly silhouetted against a simplified landscape composed of broad, flat planes of color. Pissarro tells of their visits to the museums and how much they were impressed by the English landscape painters, by Constable and Turner in particular. Monet later denied that he had been influenced by Turner at that time, and indeed it is only in the much later series of fog effects on the Thames ( 1904) that Turner’s influence becomes apparent.

In the summer of 1871 Monet left England for Holland, where he painted some landscapes in which the mighty forms of windmills, outlined against the immensity of the sky above the canals in the foreground, are treated in a free, sparkling style very much like that of his Trouville seascapes of 1870.

Life had gone back to normal in Paris now and artists were returning to their old haunts. The group that had formed around Manet in the late sixties now formed again, but this time it centered on Monet. Even before his military service, as early as 1859, Monet had met Pissarro at the Académie Suisse; after his discharge from the army, at Gleyre’s studio in 1862, he had met Renoir, Bazille and Sisley. Monet thus formed the link between the group at Gleyre’s and the group at the Académie Suisse, where Pissarro had been joined by Cézanne and Guillaumin.

In December 1871 Monet settled at Argenteuil, on the western outskirts of Paris. After a visit to Le Havre in the spring of 1872, he left for Holland, eager to rework a vein that had proved so fruitful in the previous year. It is difficult to distinguish between the pictures made during these two stays in Holland, few of them being dated. Assignable to 1872, however, are those which foreshadow the fully developed technique of his Argenteuil period, those, in other words, in which we find a breaking-up of color into a patchwork of small brushstrokes and a new emphasis on atmospheric vibration.

In the autumn of 1872 Monet returned to Argenteuil where he lived for the next six years, with occasional expeditions to Paris, as is proved by two views of the Boulevard des Capucines in winter. He saw much of Renoir and they often worked together on the Seine banks. Monet’s first river scenes, in 1872-1873, were still built up in separate, unblended strokes and patches of color. A good example is Pleasure Boats which, enclosed in a triple frame with a Sisley and a Pissarro, forms a triptych bequeathed to the Louvre by Monsieur May.

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