This sunlit scene on the river Seine is typical of the imagery that has come to characterise Impressionism, and Renoir includes several familiar Impressionist motifs such as fashionably dressed women, a rowing boat, a sail boat, and a steam train crossing a bridge. The exact location has not been identified, but we are probably looking at the river near Chatou, some ten miles west of central Paris, which was a popular spot for recreational boating.
If Renoir’s choice of subject is characteristically Impressionist, this is also true of his painting technique. He creates an effect of summer heat and light by using bright unmixed paint directly from the tube and by avoiding black or earth tones. In placing the bright orange boat against the dark blue water, Renoir has deliberately used complementary colours, which become more intense when seen alongside each other.
We are probably looking at the river Seine near Chatou (some ten miles west of central Paris), although the exact site has not been identified. However, it is likely that Renoir was more interested in creating a generalised image of a summer’s day on the river than in producing an accurate topographical record. Although routinely dated to 1879–80, the picture was probably executed in 1875, the same year Renoir painted Luncheon at La Fournaise (Art Institute of Chicago), which has similar soft feathery brushstrokes.
Like Berthe Morisot’s Summer’s Day, painted a few years later, Renoir’s serene and sunlit picture of city-dwellers relaxing on the outskirts of Paris is typical of imagery that has come to characterise Impressionism. Boating was a popular subject for the Impressionists, and Renoir includes familiar Impressionist motifs such as the rowing boat itself (in fact, a skiff or small gig), a sailboat, a riverside villa, and a railway bridge (perhaps also a discrete reference to Monet’s interest in railways). The arrival of a steam train from Paris in the background underlines the easy access to the countryside.
If Renoir’s choice of subject is typically Impressionist, his painting technique – especially his use of colour – is perhaps even more so and is also central to his aim at this time of producing ‘modern’ pictures painted with recently introduced pigments. The picture, despite its appearance of spontaneity, evolved through distinct stages. Renoir conveys the shimmering play of light, particularly upon the water, by laying down a dense mesh of strokes, which are clearly distinct in the foreground and mid-distance but softer for the trees in the background.
As in Morisot’s painting, the distant treeline and thin band of sky are very close to the top of the canvas. This draws our attention to the surface of the canvas itself and undercuts traditional techniques of atmospheric recession into space. Instead, structure is created by a series of horizontals – notably, the boat and the river bank – which are offset by various features placed near the picture’s edges – for example, the white sail of the sailboat (whose hull repeats the red-orange of the rowing boat), the clump of reeds in the lower left corner, and the patch of sunlight under the bridge. The woman on the left, positioned almost dead centre and whose presence is emphasised by the diagonal line of the oar, functions as a linchpin for the whole composition.
Renoir roughly primed most of the canvas with white paint (the original pale brown canvas is clearly visible around the edges) to help create a light tone throughout, but the intensity of colour is achieved mainly by his juxtaposing areas of bright unmixed paint used directly from the tube. Many of these pigments had only recently become available and Renoir limits himself to lead white and seven other strong colours. He makes no use of black or of earth tones. Above all, the painting is dominated by the strong contrast between the orange of the boat (and its reflection) and the blues of the water. According to the colour theory developed in 1839 by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, blue and orange are complementary colours, and when placed next to each other the intensity of each is enhanced.
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