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How to recognize Monet: The Basin at Argenteuil

Claude Monet, The Basin at Argenteuil, c. 1872, oil on canvas, 60 x 80.5 cm (Musee d’Orsay, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

[music] How do you recognize the work of the impressionist artist Claude Monet? -This painting of a scene of leisure in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil is a good starting place. -Leisure is important with Impressionism. This is a moment when the middle classes and the upper-middle classes in Paris were ascendant, and that meant that there was an increase in leisure time. And people took full advantage of that and invented pastimes that functioned as a kind of remedy for the pressures of the city. -And that's what Argenteuil was. You could take a short train ride out to the suburbs. You could go sailing. You could go bathing in the water. You could sit and have a picnic. You could stroll along a promenade. -And what's important to remember is that in the 1870s, the railroad had made it much easier to visit these places, so Parisians could go for a day outing and then come back. They could go for a weekend, and not far from here, there was a railroad bridge which would have carried the train that Monet himself would have ridden to Argenteuil from Paris. And this painting, Impressionism in general, we associate with beautiful sunny days, with big billowing clouds, with sparkling light, with a sensual quality of a day in the country. -And so we see coming toward us, three figures, a man and it looks like two women, one of them under a parasol, and they look like they're having a lovely stroll. We see figures sitting on the banks of the river, going out on boats. -But we don't see the faces of those people. They’re at a distance. The key issue for anyone looking at this painting in 1872 would have been that the figures are reduced to little touches of paint. They look sketchy. They don't look as though they've been properly painted. There are no contour lines. We don't get a sense of the three-dimensionality of the body. We just have those touches of paint. -But we have enough to determine their social and economic class. We see the parasol to shade the women from the sun. We see that the man is wearing a jacket and a hat. We have a sense of the length of the dresses and the color clothing, so that we know that these are representatives of the middle or upper-middle class. The figures populate this landscape, but the main subject is the light. -Most striking for me is the alternation between the light and shadow. As our eye moves leisurely back into space, it's as if our eyes strolls with those couples through the landscape. -But it's not as though artists who had painted landscapes in the past had not used alternations of light and dark to create an illusion of space. What's different here is the application of paint, and the paint here looked to anyone in 1872 like Monet quickly dashed off a sketch, the sense of the momentary, the sense of transient light is what matters to him. Those clouds are forming and reforming that everything here is contingent on light and wind and physical processes of nature. If you look closely, you can't distinguish trees and leaves and branches. That green doesn't fade as it moves toward the background. It's just as dark as it is in the foreground. -Or look at the muddy olive at the extreme upper left. It is almost illegible, or if you look at the grasses to the extreme lower right, again, it's almost illegible. The key to remember though is that although these look astoundingly beautiful to us today in the 1870s these looked unfinished. They looked sketchy. They didn't look the way art was expected to look. -They didn't have the finish that was associated with academic painting with the Academy with the salon in Paris with what was considered to be great painting. -The rules of the academies advocated finished, that is they advocated a kind of art where you didn't see the brushstrokes, and Monet is doing the very opposite. He's declaring those brushstrokes. -And that, itself, must have felt extraordinarily modern in 1872 when this was painted. [music]