Bathing at La Grenouillère
La Grenouillère (`The Froggery') was a restaurant and bathing place on a small branch of the Seine at Croissy. It was an extremely popular area because the Railway line from Paris to Saint-Germain, the first to be opened in France, had a station at nearby Chatou. Both Monet and Renoir painted several views of it in 1869 (Monet: La Grenouillère, Metropolitan Museum, New York; Renoir: La Grenouillère, Oskar Reinhardt Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland). Several successful academic painters had houses nearby, and the place was extensively written about, sometimes approvingly, sometimes not so, during the 1860s. It was thought of as a very `contemporary' subject, and its popularity was confirmed in the year that Monet and Renoir painted it, when it was visited by the Emperor Napoleon III and Eugénie, his wife.
In Monet's picture, which looks northeasterly, the afternoon light falls from behind the artist--a lighting effect he would have seen in Manet's studio work. However, although this full-face light is used, it is not exploited for the overall brilliance it gives to more open scenery. Monet only turned to this device in the 1870s. Instead, because of the close proximity of dense, overhanging trees, Monet has produced a study with alternating blocks of dark pierced by patches of dazzling sunlight, resulting in contrasts of light and shade reminiscent of Manet's work from the early 1860s. The juicy quality of Monet's paint is also similar to that found in Manet's work of this decade.
Unlike Manet's work, this painting was executed outdoors, and the brushwork is a witness to the speed required to capture the transitory effects which such scenery offered. The paint layer is generally opaque and hides the white ground, except in the most sketchily executed area, the upper right-hand corner. However, the white ground has helped retain the brilliance of the paint layer, which has recently been cleaned. A letter from Monet to his friend, the artist Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) on 25 September 1869, when he was working at La Grenouillère, makes it clear that Monet was still working in the traditional manner, seeing studies like this as preparatory work for larger, possibly studio executed works.
In this painting, Monet's brushwork is vigorous and the individually distinguishable brushmarks indicate that hog's hair brushes between about 1-2cm (2/5-4/5in) wide were used. There is little variation between the size of stroke in foreground and background to suggest depth, although more uniformly straight horizontal strokes and pastel shades on the distant water aid the impression of depth and recession. His brushwork is strongly descriptive, catching the character of different forms. Long unbroken strokes outline the boats, short horizontal daubs indicate the foreground water, abrupt jabs are used for flowers and foliage. Monet rejected traditional, smooth brushwork which created an illusion of surface texture; instead, his varied handling helps to evoke the actual natural textures. Monet's talent for summarizing the essential character of his landscapes was already apparent in his early caricatures, which demanded an ability to capture basic features concisely.
Monet's palette for this picture was already fairly limited, moving toward the restricted range of the Impressionists. Black--the absence of light--appears to have been abandoned, confirming his move away from Manet's influence. Most of the colors typically found in Monet's Impressionist palette are already in evidence. Vermilion, one of the few traditional colors used by Monet, has been identified virtually pure in the red flowers on the left, and mixed with other colors elsewhere. The greens were viridian, emerald and chrome, the latter a commercially produced mixture of Prussian blue and chrome yellow widely marketed in the period. All three greens were modern colors. Chrome yellow and lemon yellow mixed, were used in the brightest greens of the background trees. Because of their tendency to blacken in the presence of sulphides, the chrome yellows were abandoned by most of the Impressionists toward the end of the 1870s. Monet replaced them with the more stable cadmium yellows. Cobalt violet, available from 1859, was the first opaque pure violet pigment to appear on the market and was therefore rapidly adopted by artists. It was used here by Monet in mixtures, for example in the foreground water. The early eighteenth century invention, Prussian blue, was used by Monet in the darkest mixtures, such as the swimming costumes, while cobalt blue is the bright blue of the water. Lead white was consistently used by Monet throughout his career, but, as strong contrasts form the basis of this composition, its role in this picture was relatively limited. In his paintings from the 1870s on, lead white was liberally used in most of his color mixtures, bringing with it a new overall brilliance and pale pastel-like quality, as he sought to depict the light tones and minimal light-dark contrasts of full sunlit landscapes. Interestingly, a family of colors commonly used by Monet from the early 1870s, the red alizarin lakes, has not been identified on this picture. The artificial alizarin, more permanent than the natural organic root derivative madder lake, was only discovered in 1868, which may account for its absence here. Both Prussian blue and probably chrome green were abandoned by Monet during the 1870s. Monet combined slurred wet-in-wet mixing on the canvas with premixed hues. For example, the somber colors on the boats are obtained by mixing complementaries, like red and green, which give darkish neutral hues that are more colorful than those made by sullying a color with black.
The apparently accidental nature of the composition is deceptive. The striking horizontal of the duckboard, which cuts right across the picture surface, is placed almost exactly halfway up the picture. This was an unconventional device at this date. The broad shapes of light and dark above and below that line echo each other, giving a flat decorative unity to the composition which is reinforced by the harmonizing colors and patterned brushwork. Thus, even at this early stage in his career, Monet was already preoccupied with contrasts of naturalistic illusion and flat pattern, which were to become a feature of Impressionism, and to remain with Monet throughout his life.
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