During the summer of 1869, Monet and Renoir painted together at La Grenouillère, a slightly raffish resort on the river Seine some 12 kilometres west of Paris. It had become a popular weekend retreat from the city during the 1860s.
Monet made several oil sketches at the resort, including this picture, in preparation for a large painting of the site that he planned to exhibit at the Salon of 1870. Painted quickly and technically quite crude, these studies have a directness and immediacy that could not be achieved in the studio. Monet was painting what he saw, without any attempt to tidy up the scene. Rather than a documentary record of La Grenouillère, he presents a summary of his own experience of fleeting visual effects or impressions that changed moment to moment. As pictures in their own right, these sketches were an important step towards Impressionism.
During the summer of 1869, Monet and Renoir painted together at La Grenouillère, a slightly raffish resort on the river Seine, some 12 kilometres west of Paris, not far from where Monet was living. La Grenouillère (literally, ‘The Frog Pond’) had been ‘discovered’ by artists, writers, musicians and performers about a decade earlier, and during the 1860s it became a popular weekend retreat from the city.
The resort was easily reached by rail (from the Gare Saint-Lazare, which Monet painted several times) or by coach and offered a range of leisure activities, including boating, fishing and swimming. There was also a floating restaurant (out of frame to the right of the picture) and dance hall, as well as riverside tables for drinking and dining. Attracting a wide cross-section of Parisian society, the resort was even visited by the Emperor Napoleon III, accompanied by his wife and son, during the same summer that Monet and Renoir were working there. Although some contemporaries, including the writer Maupassant, judged La Grenouillère to be a vulgar pleasure-spot populated by low-class revellers, it offered the type of modern life subject that other writers, such as Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers, had been urging artists to engage with.
The paintings Monet made at the resort were part of his project to complete a large painting of the site, which he planned to exhibit at the Salon of 1870. He was initially sceptical about what he had achieved. Writing to fellow artist Frédéric Bazille on 25 September 1869 he explained: ‘I indeed have a dream, a painting of bathing at La Grenouillère, for which I have made some bad sketches, but it’s a dream. Renoir, who has been spending two months here, also wants to do this picture.’ Between them, Monet and Renoir produced six paintings of La Grenouillère.
The ‘bad sketches’ Monet referred to include this painting and one now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He also painted a small study of two of the rowing boats (Kunsthalle, Berne). Another painting of La Grenouillère was rejected by the Salon of 1870 and is probably the picture, formerly in the Arnhold Collection in Berlin but destroyed during Second World War, known only from a photograph. That photograph shows a more finished composition that was painted on a slightly larger canvas. Wider in format than the National Gallery and Metropolitan Museum sketches, the Salon picture combined elements from both and included other details such as sailing boats and a crowd of fashionable visitors. Extending beyond the right-hand edge of the National Gallery’s picture, it showed the pontoon footbridge leading to a small circular island (nicknamed ‘the Camembert’) and, beyond that, the floating restaurant. These are included in the New York painting.
Although Monet had been regularly painting outdoors, his letter to Bazille indicates that he made a distinction between a sketch (pochade) completed rapidly on site and a finished picture (tableau), possibly for exhibition, that had been worked up in a studio. Although the two La Grenouillère sketches were painted quickly and are technically quite crude, they have a directness and immediacy that could not be achieved in the studio. In both pictures, Monet was painting what he saw, without any attempt to tidy up the scene. Close examination of the National Gallery picture reveals that he probably painted on a used canvas and that parts of the picture were hurriedly reworked. The spontaneity of his method is evident, too, in his rejection of traditional methods of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space through linear perspective and conventional compositional devices. For example, he has not used a framing device (such as receding lines of trees or foliage) to create an effect of spatial recession. There is no central point or object of focus, and the horizon is placed close to the top of the picture. Although the lines of the boats do lead our eye along the bend of the river, any smooth access into the picture is interrupted by the horizontal line of the footbridge, which cuts across the canvas, effectively bisecting it, and by the vertical figures walking along it.
Both the bridge and the figures draw attention to the picture as a flat design, an emphasis that is amplified by the handling of the paint. Monet avoids conventional painterly modelling of forms in the round through light and shade, instead using swift, sketchy notation. He has indicated the shapes of the boats with thick lines of paint, rather than delineating them in detail. Broad strokes block in figures, foliage and bands of light reflected on the water, much of which is, unusually, in shadow. Some areas, including the trees, appear unfinished; details elsewhere, such as the bathers in the river, are captured with just dabs of paint. Even the larger figures, including the almost crudely caricatural depiction of the two women in bathing costumes and the man on the walkway, are rendered with just a few swift strokes.
Two technical innovations contributed to Monet’s painting method. The advent of soft metal tubes of oil paint ready for immediate use made painting outdoors much easier, and the introduction of a metal ferrule for paintbrushes led to the production of flat, rather than round, brushes. These new brushes enabled a new type of brushstroke – a broad, flat and evenly painted patch of colour. Monet created his painting though multiple coloured patches which, together with his limited range of strong colours, give the painting a decorative unity. His marks on the canvas are not literal transcriptions of the scene that was before him but are instead equivalences – in paint – of what he was observing. Rather than a documentary record of La Grenouillère, Monet presents a summary of his own experience of fleeting visual effects or impressions that changed moment to moment.
Monet may initially have been dissatisfied with his ‘bad sketches’ at La Grenouillère, but these impressions were nonetheless pictures in their own right and not merely steps towards a ‘finished’ painting. In painting a scene of contemporary urban leisure in a distinctly new way, Monet was moving towards a way of painting soon to be known as Impressionism.
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