Claude Monet, (1840 – 1926) lived a long life, and was such a productive artist, that it is quite difficult to choose one single painting to represent his life’s work. I have avoided some of the most well-known and oft-reproduced subjects like the gardens at Giverny, or the poppy fields near Paris, for an equally famous work, that seems to me, the very essence of Impressionism. It also has strong personal associations for me, described in conclusion, which makes it a suitable choice for a “deskarati” posting.
Autumn Effects at Argenteuil
This is a stunning work which admirably evokes the vibrant colours of autumn on a sunny day. The waters of the River Seine double the colours of the leaves and the blue of the sky. At the time when Monet painted the picture, Argenteuil (ar zhon ter ee) was a town on the Seine, a few miles from the centre of Paris, and a popular weekend resort for Parisians to enjoy boating and relaxation.
Susie Hodge comments that, “At the time, the colours were shocking to contemporary viewers, being so much brighter than earlier landscape paintings and juxtaposing the complementary colours of orange against blue. Monet created the autumnal foliage and water reflections with a small brush, tapping hundreds of timed on the canvas to build up the stippled colours.” (References A) It was probably painted from Monet’s “Studio Boat” which was moored at Argenteuil.
Monet and Impressionism
Monet (2) was born in Paris in 1840, but in 1845 his family moved to Le Havre, (ler arv rer) a small fishing port and seaside resort on the coast of Normandy, facing the English Channel. At school, his favourite subject was art, but he was not happy with the formal figure drawing taught there. He was keener on making studies of the fishing boats and the sea. At fifteen he published a small book of cartoons of local worthies (3).
By 1862, he was back in Paris, aged 22, and sharing a studio with Renoir, Sisley, and other artists, in Gleyre’s Academy. He became a pioneer and lifelong exponent of the artistic genre known as “Impressionism”, whose name derived from his 1872 painting, “Impression, Sunrise” (4).
Monet made this work just one year before our featured artwork, “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil”, and it is, perhaps, more sombre. “This painting of Le Havre shows the sun rising over the misty harbour shrouding the commercial and industrial boats and reflecting red and orange on the water.” (References A) Sunrise is an appropriate subject as a metaphor for rise to prominence of the whole Impressionist movement, first in France, and then spreading to the rest of Europe and America.
The painting of Argenteuil seems altogether happier and more hopeful, and may reflect a change in Monet’s circumstances. His friend, the painter Edouard Manet, had influential and wealthy clients who owned property in Argenteuil, and he persuaded them to rent one of their houses to Monet and his family, wife, Camille, and baby, Jean. They moved in during January 1872.
I have described Argenteuil earlier as a weekend resort of Parisians, which is true, as many of Monet’s other paintings attest (5). Susie Hodge describes the floating restaurant “La Grenouillère” (The Swamp) as “one of the most popular Sunday destinations,” for Parisians.
Monet and Industrial Landscape.
However, Susie Hodge, wishes to make a specific argument about Monet’s undoubted interest in the constructed elements of landscape, and consequently she paints a rather different picture of Argenteuil at that time;
“Situated to the north-west of Paris, Argenteuil was a growing industrial town. At the junction of the northern and western railways, it was linked to a 30 minute service to the Gare St Lazare (a station in the centre of Paris). Two bridges, one road and one railway, crossed the Seine nearby,” and she continues, “With his proclivity for juxtaposing natural and manufactured objects in his pictures, features he noticed in Argenteuil, gave him plenty of scope. Concrete, cast iron, brick and wood were not usually included in landscape paintings but Monet made a point of frequently doing this.” (References A)
All of this is true, but I ask the reader to look again at the featured artwork. None of the industrialisation described by Hodge appears here; Argenteuil is simply shown as an idyllic riverside town.
Monet’s interest in man-made landscapes is better exemplified by his studies of industrial London (6), where there are no rural elements to soften the impact. Sharp-eyed readers should note that the first Waterloo Bridge, painted by Monet, was demolished in 1945 and replaced by the second bridge we see today, and the terrible smoke pollution was ended by the 1956 Clean Air Act.
The Napoleonic Legacy
At this point, it is necessary to introduce a little French history and politics, because it has a bearing on the life of Claude Monet and our featured artwork. For most of Claude Monet’s adult life he had lived in what is known as “The Second Empire”. The First Empire was the period from 1804, when the opportunist Corsican adventurer, Napoleon Buonaparte, crowned himself Emperor of the French, as Napoleon I. This ended in 1815 with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
His only son, known as the Duke of Reichstadt, (1811- 32) died of tuberculosis, aged twenty-one, and although he was never Emperor, he was called “Napoleon II” by Bonapartist French politicians. When Napoleon I’s nephew seized power in a coup in 1852, he called himself, “Napoleon III” (7) and the period 1852 – 1870 was “The Second Empire”.
The Franco – Prussian War 1870-71
In 1870, Napoleon III was inveigled by the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, into declaring war on the Kingdom of Prussia. In a disastrous six-week war the French armies were comprehensively defeated. Poor Napoleon III was unwell with a large bladder-stone which caused him intense pain, particularly when riding a horse. He was at the head of his troops, when they were surrounded by Prussian forces in the town of Sedan in the Meuse valley. Sedan lies in a bowl of hills, and the French general Ducrot (8), famously remarked, “Nous sommes dans un pot-de-chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés.” (We are in a chamber-pot here, and we are going to be shat upon.) On the 1 September 1870, Napoleon III surrendered with his forces and he went into exile in England.
Monet the Refugee
Monet, and his family fled from Paris to England, sometime in September 1870, to avoid the possibility of his being conscripted into the French Army again, as he had already been compelled to serve in Algeria (9) in 1861 when he was 21, but was invalided out with typhoid in 1862. It is remarkable, that only being in the army for a year, he had time to pose for this fine portrait in his Zouave uniform, with its absurd baggy red pantaloons. These continued to be standard uniform until the outbreak of WW1 in 1914.
The Siege of Paris
Monet’s move to England was very fortunate for him, and his family, because they avoided the sufferings of the civilian population during the Siege of Paris. After the abdication of Napoleon III, a new French republic was declared, and the war against the Prussians continued. Eventually, after the defeat at Sedan, in a little over two weeks, the Prussian forces were close enough to completely encircle Paris with the idea of capturing it. Before this happened, those Parisians who could afford it, had fled before they were caught in the Siege, which lasted for five months from 17 September 1870 until a formal Armistice was declared on the 27 January 1871.
Ordinary citizens suffered greatly from hunger during the Siege, and although the cartoon (10) by “Cham” is meant to be humorous, people were forced to eat cats, dogs and even rats, for lack of normal food. Young Edwin Child (11) was an Englishman, a trainee jeweller in Paris, who voluntarily joined the National Guard to defend his adopted city. Compare the similarity of his uniform kepi (cap) and red pantaloons with Claude Monet’s uniform. Child has nice white spatterdashes (spats) over his boots.
The Parisian political activists found the conditions of the Armistice agreement with the Prussians too hard to stomach. Paris had suffered far more than the provinces as a result of the Siege, and now it was a majority of provincial politicians, based in Versailles, who had voted to accept the formal Armistice terms. What they failed to appreciate was that the French nation could hardly do otherwise. Any physical resistance would be brutally suppressed by the Prussian military authorities who had the whip hand.
The Paris Commune
The result of this ferment of political activism was the declaration of “Le Commune de Paris”, a semi-mystical concept, based on an extreme form of socialism. The main problem was that all kinds of other extremists and lunatics were now set free to do as they liked. Among other events, the elderly Archbishop of Paris was murdered by a firing squad, two Generals were killed by the mob, the Vendôme Column was blown up, and the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall, 12) was burned down. As in any anarchic situation it was difficult to pin the blame for these events on any one individual.
The main result of these atrocities was to stiffen the resolve of the Versailles French Army outside Paris, which was mostly composed of troops from the provinces, because all the Paris troops were in the National Guard. The generals and senior officers would brook no opposition from the “Communards” in trying to restore law and order to the capital.
Briefly, the French Army, having failed continually to halt the advance of the Prussians through France, during the war, now showed its mettle by slaughtering the Paris Communards in their thousands. The capital had to be retaken, street by street. The conflict between the contemptuous attitudes of the Parisians (“Paris, c’est France” = Paris, it IS France) towards provincials, and their consequent resentment is eloquently stated in the contemporary cartoon (13).
In Britain, most people know little of the history of our French neighbour across the Channel, except for film, TV or comedy show stereotypes – the Three Musketeers, the Scarlet Pimpernel, ‘Allo, ‘Allo etc. Most of us know that a lot of people were guillotined in the French Revolution, but few have ever heard of the suppression of the Commune in 1871. Here are a couple of simple statistics; (i) during the French Revolution, the Terror lasted about a year, and about 2, 500 people were guillotined; (ii) during the suppression of the Commune, somewhere between 20, 000 and 25, 000 people were killed in one week. How could it be that the British are so familiar with the one story, and so ignorant of the other?
After the Fighting was Over
Alistair Horne (References C) spoke enthusiastically of the aftermath of the War and the Commune, “Once Paris had recovered, France herself was not far behind. After sketching dead Communards at the barricades, Manet was back at Boulogne painting La Partie de Croquet. Renoir and Degas came back to find studios in Paris; Monet and Pissarro returned from refuge in London.
Suddenly, as if in reaction against the grim drabness and the horrors of the Siege and the Commune, the Impressionists burst forth into a new, passionate, glorious blaze of colour, redolent with the love of simple, ordinary existence. France had come back to life again. Her industry blossomed forth in a new renaissance; this time based on firmer foundations than those that had existed under the Second Empire.”
While in London, Monet had been kept busy capturing the grey skies and mists (14, 15) of our northerly climate, but on his return to France he produced his epoch-making painting, “Impression, Sunrise” (4) less than a year later. Our featured artwork, “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil”, was created two years after his refugee interlude in London.
In conclusion, I want to add a personal appreciation of our featured artwork. In the late 1950s I was a student in Bloomsbury. This region of London is one of elegant, tree-lined squares of Georgian houses (16/17), built in the early nineteenth century. It once had a reputation, in the nineteen-twenties, as a literary corner of London, from “the Bloomsbury set” of Virginia Woolf, with her friends and relatives. By the nineteen-fifties its character had changed to become a major academic centre.
The British Museum (18) had been there for many years, as had University College (19), but now there was Senate House of London University (20), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (21), with its own Vanbrugh Theatre, the School of Pharmacy, and a host of smaller academic institutions.
Approaching the front door of one of those elegant Georgian houses, one might read on the brass plate, “Department of Orthographic Studies” or “Mining Geology Unit, London University”. One wondered if there were any “people” still living in Bloomsbury. There were, as I later discovered, when I was invited inside one of those elegant black front doors, by a relative of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell (22). The rooms were high-ceilinged and those long Georgian windows let in a lot of light to the elegant interiors.
It was appropriate that the Russells were still living in Bloomsbury, because Russell was the family name of the Dukes of Bedford, (23) who had a town house on Bedford Square in the eighteenth century. There is a Russell Square in Bloomsbury and many of the street names, (References E) reflect the fact that the Russells owned, and still own, much of the real estate there. At that time, Bertrand Russell was in his late eighties, and still appeared on radio and television discussion programs.
I enjoyed the wonderful facilities of Bloomsbury, like the excellent bookshops, having lunch in the restaurant of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (24), or the Tower of Senate House, and seeing current productions at the RADA Vanbrugh Theatre (25).
“What”, the patient reader will ask, “has all this got to do with the Monet painting, “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil”?
I was coming to that. Among other discoveries I made, while exploring Bloomsbury, was the Courtauld Institute of Fine Art, which in those days was on the busy Euston Road, facing towards Euston Railway Station. The Institute was another Bloomsbury academic organisation for teaching and research. It also had its own art gallery which was open to the public.
There was no indication, in the street, that a gallery was nearby. One ascended a wide flight of Portland stone steps from the pavement and entered the lobby. Bypassing the Reception Desk one entered the lift, and pressed the button for the Fourth Floor. The gallery was small, but well-provided with very comfortable deep sofas, which encouraged visitors to sit back and look at the pictures, rather than just walking around. The great advantage of the gallery was that only the initiated knew it was there, and it was never crowded.
The collection was astounding; here was Renoir’s “Bar at the Folies Bergères”, (26) there was the Van Gogh self-portrait of his bandaged head, lots of Gaugin’s Tahitian girls, Monet’s “Cap d’Antibes” and at the end, “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil” (27).
Trewin Copplestone, (References G) points out that, “As in many of Monet’s paintings of water done at the time, the division between it and the sky is defined only by the strong blue horizontal, which holds the delicate balance between the left-hand and the right-hand foliage forms. The darkest area, in ultramarine, on the right-hand edge, is the hinge on which the painting sits.”
All is change. The Courtauld Gallery is no longer in the Euston Road. It has been transferred to an enormous site among the monumental eighteenth century buildings of Somerset House. This has enabled far more paintings to be displayed, in much larger galleries. The new display facilities have been widely advertised, so the numbers of visitors has greatly increased.
The old intimacy, quietness, and vastly comfortable sofas have gone, but “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil” is still here for you to enjoy.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have used a number of reference works, to check dates and facts, but the opinions expressed are my own, except where I have quoted, and attributed.
A. “The Life and Works of Monet” by Susie Hodge, Hermes House, 2011
B. The Wordsworth Dictionary of National Biography, Wordsworth, 1994
C. “The Fall of Paris – The Siege and the Commune – 1870-71” by Alistair Horne, Macmillan, 1965
D. “Napoleon II King of Rome” by E M Oddie, Sampson Low, no date, probably early 1920s
E. “The Streets of London” by S Fairfield, Macmillan, 1983
F. “New Statesman Profiles” with drawings by ‘Vicky’ (cartoonist) Phoenix House, 1957
G. “History and Techniques of the Great Masters – Monet” by Trewin Copplestone, Quantum, 2002
1. “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil”, (Hodge, op. cit)
2. Portrait of Claude Monet, in 1867, aged 27, painted by Carolus-Duran 1837 – 1917 (Hodge, op. cit)
3. Two of the teenage cartoons published by artist, Claude Monet (Hodge, op. cit)
4. “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet, 1872 (Hodge, op. cit)
5. “La Grenouillère” by Claude Monet, 1869 (Hodge, op. cit)
6. “Waterloo Bridge, Cloudy Day, 1900” by Claude Monet (Hodge, op. cit)
7. Napoleon III in exile in 1871 (Horne, op. cit)
8. General Ducrot 1871(Horne, op. cit)
9. “Portrait of Claude Monet in Uniform” by Lhuiller in 1861 (Hodge, op. cit)
10. “The queue for rat meat” from a cartoon by Cham (Horne, op. cit)
11. Edwin Child in his National Guard Uniform (Horne, op. cit)
12. The Hotel de Ville on Fire (Horne, op. cit)
13. “Aren’t they stupid! They hate us provincials, yet it’s their city they burn!” (Horne, op. cit)
14. “The Port of London, 1871” by Claude Monet (Hodge, op. cit)
15. “The Thames below Westminster, 1871” by Claude Monet (Hodge, op. cit)
16. “Bedford Gardens in Bedford Square, in the London district of Bloomsbury” (google image)
17. “Cartwright Street in the Bloomsbury district of Central London (google image)
18. The British Museum from the North-east (google image)
19. University College, London, with the Senate House (google image)
20. Senate House Tower of London University (google image)
21. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (google image)
22. Bertrand Russell by ‘Vicky’ (‘Vicky’, op. cit)
23. Heraldic Arms of the Russells as Dukes of Bedford (google image)
24. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (google image)
25. The RADA new Vanbrugh Theatre (google image)
26. “The Bar at the Folies Bergères”, by Auguste Renoir at the new Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House (google)
27. Detail from “Autumn Effects at Argenteuil”, by Claude Monet, 1873 (Hodge, op. cit)
28. Sites in Bloomsbury mentioned in the text (Author, after a google image map)