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A couple, dressed in what you might call their Sunday-outing best, stand on the grassy bank of the shimmering Seine River in “Oarsmen at Chatou,” which the Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted in the later 1870s and is now on view at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.
Probably day-trippers who’d come by the short train ride from Paris, the man and woman wait to be paddled about in a long elegant wooden gig. In the background are a sailboat, a river barge and men rowing sculls. It’s the epitome of a lazy, summer holiday—and a glimpse into the dawn of suburbia and a new sense of leisure.
Two briefly overlapping exhibitions of Impressionism—“Impressionists on the Water” at the Peabody Essex Museum through Feb. 17 and “Boston Loves Impressionism,” a survey at the Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 14 to May 26 based on the public’s online picks of their favorite Impressionist works in the Boston museum’s collection—showcase these 19th century paintings’ seductive beauty as well as their modernity.
Previous French painting had focused on myth and faith, history and aristocrats. The Impressionists were part of and depicted an ascendant middle class—an outgrowth of the 18th century French Revolution followed by the 19th century Industrial Revolution.
The new factories fostered the development of French railways in the 1840s, which sparked new tourism to what had been picturesque fishing villages along the country’s northwest coast as well as daytrips to Paris’s suburbs like Chatou.
These popular, new, free-time pleasures became a central subject for the Impressionists’ colorful flavor of realism—people relaxing in parks and gardens, along rivers, at beaches, and in the lamplight of theaters. They depict the suburbs, as a place, but also as a state of mind—pastoral oases away from work.
These are notions we still deeply identify with, which is part of what makes Impressionism continue to feel so alluringly comfortable. We love the Impressionists’ modern sense of time off.
Advantages Of A Suburb
People carry umbrellas in a snowstorm as they bustle along paths between wicker fences toward the train to Paris in Claude Monet’s 1875 painting “Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter” at the Museum of Fine Arts. The red-brown shed at the upper left stood along or near the railway. Trains were archetypical symbols of modern life, and frequent Impressionist subjects, not to mention the vehicles by which the artists got to places they painted. The first house on the right is said to be the home where Monet then lived.
“Practically no single other place could be indentified more closely with Impressionism than Argenteuil, where, at one time another, practically all the friends worked, but where in 1874 particularly, Monet, Renoir and Manet went to paint,” John Rewald writes in his 1946 book “The History of Impressionism.” “On the banks of the Seine in the outskirts of the capital, Argenteuil in that period offered many of the advantages of a suburb with a variety of open-country motifs, but its main attraction for painters was the broad river with sailing boats and picturesque bridges.”
Monet moved to Argenteuil at the end of 1871 and lived there until 1878, making some 150 paintings of the place. Alfred Sisley came out to visit in 1872, painting boats, wheat fields, bridges over the river. Sometimes the two men painted side by side.
Renoir frequently visited from his home in Paris and painted in Monet’s garden and with Monet along the river. Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne also came. Monet made the acquaintance of Gustave Caillebotte, an engineer and sometimes painter, who had a summer place across the river at Petit-Gennevilliers. They both painted regattas there. Edouard Manet stayed with Caillebotte during one visit. Caillebotte and Renoir sailed the Seine together.
Argenteuil stands along the north bank of the Seine, just downriver from Chatou and about 11 miles northwest of Paris, which became just a 15-minute ride after the railway arrived in 1851. The train tracks brought new residents and industry.
Between the start of the 1870s and 1882, T.J. Clark writes in the 2007 anthology “Critical Readings in Impressionism and "Post-Impressionism,” the suburb’s population ballooned by 50 percent, from 8,000 to 12,000 people. Vineyards surrounded it. Its fields supplied asparagus and figs to Paris. But new construction and train tracks were colonizing ever more of the landscape. The town sprouted an iron foundry, gypsum quarries (source of “plaster of Paris”), a chemical works and various other factories.
This boom is not apparent in the Impressionist paintings, which idealize the surrounding rural countryside and poppy fields or the river busy with day-trippers. These visitors arrived because the railroad also helped turn the suburb into “the center of sailing for the whole of France,” as curator Christopher Lloyd notes in the “Impressionists on the Water” catalog, and a playground for Paris’s middle class.
“The suburbs, in truth, witnessed a greater intermingling of the classes that made up French society than the seaside resorts of the English Channel,” Lloyd writes. “At the time, many civil servants, businessmen, teachers, soldiers, shopkeepers, and waitstaff were new to the recreational freedoms and experiences on offer along the banks of the Seine. … The river itself—and particularly the small islands that were such a feature of that part of the Seine—seemed to occasion the breaking down of social barriers.”
At the Peabody Essex Museum, Monet’s 1874 canvas “Boats Moored at Le Petit-Gennevilliers (traditionally Sailboats on the Seine),” shows the town across the Seine from Argenteuil. The painting’s reflections of masts shimmying down the waves suggest how the ever moving surfaces of rivers and oceans may have helped inspire the Impressionists’ signature short, dashed brushstrokes. It can also make one wonder if the artists' devotion to immediate sensation somehow echoes the mindset of tourist sightseers.
But direct your attention the factory chimneys smoking along horizon, a frequent sight in Impressionist paintings. They’re a sign of how closely and comfortably industry and the suburbs mingled. (Though pollution from a nearby rubber factory killed off local fish by 1869, Clark reports.) But these chimneys are also a symbol of how industry and work were the backdrop—figuratively and literally—for the new French leisure.
Life Of Leisure
“Impressionists on the Water” endeavors to situate Impressionism in the history of French maritime painting, which traditionally portrayed fishing boats, cargo ships, military vessels and other working craft.
At the Peabody Essex Museum, Camille Pissarro’s 1902 canvas “Harbor at Dieppe” shows people at France’s northwest coast lined up next to what appears to be a ferry. It’s one of the few working vessels depicted by Impressionists in the exhibition. Instead the artists came to focus mainly on sailboats, rowing skiffs and other leisure craft.
This transition in subjects from work to leisure is evident in the career of Monet, who often seems to represent all of Impressionism to us today. (Pissarro, on the other hand, maintained an attention to ordinary workers throughout his career as part of his belief in a non-hierarchical, collectivist Anarchism.)
In the first half of Monet’s life, he painted knockabout fishing boats, steamers, coal barges. At Argenteuil, he shifted to the sailboats that glided along the Seine on weekends. And consider his famous series of haystacks from 1890 and ’91. These piles of wheat are icons of agricultural work, but Monet's fields are absent of people. This is the radiant, peaceable kingdom of the life of leisure.
Not A Haven For The Elite
This new sense of leisure was evident in Paris, too. Georges Seurat’s iconic 1886 painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (not on view in either local show) depicts people gathered on a Seine River island in Paris, but far from the city’s urban center. They sit in the sun and shade, stroll, play music, walk dogs and a monkey. On the river, sailboats cruise and men row a skiff. It’s “people relaxing in a suburban park”—as the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the canvas describes it—on a weekend afternoon away from work.
Such leisure was one of the changes taking place in Paris. The old city had been ripped apart and modernized under the direction of Baron Haussmann in the 1850s and ‘60s. One result was the wide boulevards that have become Paris’s signature. The city adopted gaslights around midcentury and then electric lights around the 1870s. The Eiffel Tower, a symbol of the new methods of industrial steel construction that heralded the birth of skyscrapers, was completed in 1889. New forms of popular entertainment also emerged over the preceding century.
Ballet had originated as European royal and aristocrat court dance—performed by the nobles and monarchs themselves. King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, played Apollo in a ballet when he was 15. In the late 1600s, ballet transformed from a participatory dance to a dance that was performed by professionals and watched by others.
On July 12, 1789, an angry crowd invaded the Paris Opera, the hub of French theater and ballet. They threatened to burn the building down, but settled for making off with all the theatrical props resembling weapons. It was the beginning of the French Revolution—the storming of the Bastille prison was two days away—and the Opera still symbolized all the exclusive aristocratic privilege that the revolutionaries aimed to overturn.
Jennifer Homans writes in her 2010 book “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet” that leading artists tried to preserve the institution, professing “the Opera should never again be a haven for the elite: it should also serve ‘the poorest class of decent citizens,’ people, as they put it, ‘without carriage.’”
After the Revolution, a variety of middle class, popular entertainments flourished around Paris—the Paris Opera and ballet, music halls, café concerts, circuses, dances. Part of the allure was their modern, dramatic use of light—the Paris Opera added gas lighting as early 1822. All this became subjects for Impressionists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Cassatt’s 1878 painting “In the Loge” depicts a woman attending an afternoon performance at Paris’s Comedie Français theater. See where she’s looking with her opera glasses, not down toward the stage, but level toward other members of the audience. And in the background, a man in another box trains his opera glasses on her. It’s about people watching and being watched. But also—in its subject and in Cassatt’s very career—an image of new roles for women.
More than a century later, we have greater gender and racial equality, but work has recolonized our lives, sleek technologies mean more virtual time at the office, and the middle class has declined, its financial foundation unsettled. The lifestyle the Impressionists paint still feels familiar, but now more distant. It’s with nostalgia that we gaze back upon their oases of free time.
Follow Greg Cook on Twitter @AestheticResear.