Islands and other places: The birth of impressionism


Le déjeuner des canotiers by Pierre-August Renoir

Note: This is article adapted from a piece I published in Islands magazine in March 1996. I expect it to be part of a book I am currently working on, entitled "Islands and Other Places: The Journeys of an American in Exile."

Sometimes it takes a while to find what's right under your nose. I had lived in Paris for six years before I discovered the island in the Seine where Impressionism was born.

I had seen reproductions of the four shimmering canvases that Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir painted at La Grenouillere in 1869. But I had never thought of that fabled 19th century boating and bathing spot as a real place. One day, as I bent over a map of the Paris suburbs, my eyes landed on a long, crescent-shaped island where the Seine curves past several towns--Rueil-Malmaison and  Bougival on its left bank, Chatou and Croissy on its right. On my map, the island changed names several times along its length, but the segment across from Chatou was marked "Ile des Impressionnistes."

The following week, I set off on the suburban railway to Rueil-Malmaison. The town, with its ugly apartment blocks and high-rise office buildings, is far from the prettiest suburb of the City of Light. But as I walked down to the water, the commercial zone soon gave way to a tree-shaded riverside promenade that revealed the island across the way. Passing old houses and chateaus on the riverbank, I kept it constantly in view Its grassy shores, lined with white poplars, seemed wild and mysterious. A mile or so downstream, I  came to Bougival and crossed a bridge to the island.

This is the same route Monet would have taken 150 years ago. In the spring of 1869, after his latest paintings had been rejected by the Paris Salon, Monet moved to the hills above Bougival. He was often too poor to buy paints, and sometimes his family was so close to starving that Renoir--who was living nearby--had to bring them bread to eat.

Not long after Monet first started painting at La Grenouillere, he set up an easel very near the spot I was now standing. There he painted "The Bridge at Bougival," one of the most luminous landscapes of the time--though his rendering of a few strollers in early morning light was definitely a romanticized depiction of what even then was a busy thoroughfare.

The Bridge at Bougival by Claude Monet

It was a pleasure for me to step off today's noisy road onto a quiet gravel path that led past a collection of whitewashed houses and a row of colorful barges. The island is now a strange blend of wild and civilized. One moment I was strolling alone, listening to the river lap the sandy bank, watching ducks playing among the reeds. The next I was negotiating a concrete path between two tennis courts, as the air filled with the swish of rackets and the grunts of tennis players.

Soon I came to a large sign marked "La Promenade de la Grenouillere." An arrow pointed to a trail along the riverbank. Surely, I thought, given the tendency of the French to memorialize every moment in their glorious history, the path would lead to a plaque proclaiming "Monet and Renoir painted here."

How wrong I was.

The early history of La Grenouillere is obscure. The first record of it dates to about 1850, when a carpenter named Seurin leased a section of this island, which was newly accessible by rail. The name means "frog pond," and popular theory holds that it referred to the young Parisian women--often called grenouilles, or "frogs--who were a regular feature here.

"It was a term applied to ladies of easy virtue," wrote filmmaker Jean Renoir, the son of Pierre-August Renoir, "a class of unattached women, characteristic of the Parisian scene before and after the Empire, changing lovers easily, satisfying any whim, going nonchalantly from a mansion in the Champs-Elysees to a garret in the Batignolles."

Seurin constructed a variety of facilities on the island, including a long floating restaurant and a small round pontoon  that visitors called the "camembert" (after the shape of the round French cheese.)

On summer days, the island was thick with artists and writers. And by 1869, la Grenouillere had become the in place on the river for swimming, rowing, and fishing. Its reputation was further enhanced when Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie paid a visit that same year.

For Monet and Renoir, the splashing bathers and the play of light on the river made la  Grenouillere an ideal place to practice their new approach to painting. Working side by side, the two friends used pure, unmixed colors and rapid brushstrokes to capture the impression of a single moment. What critics of the time derided as sketchy and unfinished, we recognize today as a revolution in the history of art.

Renoir's version of "La Grenouillere

Monet's version of La Grenouillere

I followed the promenade along the peaceful, grassy bank of the Seine and eventually reached the edge of a golf course. Here the trail cut across the island, and suddenly I found myself on a long, narrow isthmus, lined with poplar and barely wider than the path itself.

As I made my way upstream, the river raced past me on either side. Black barges piled high with mounds of sand chugged towards Paris, their hulls low and heavy in the water.

After about another mile of walking, the island widened out again. Here the path took me through a nicely landscaped park filled with families, joggers, and bicyclists.

In October 1869, after painting several canvasses at la Grenouillere, Monet and Renoir went their separate ways. Evidently Monet never painted on the island again. But Renoir returned many times over the years, spending much of his time at a celebrated inn run by the Fournaise family. One of his most famous works was executed there: The Luncheon of the Boating Party (see above), now in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

But what happened to la Grenouillere? I never saw a plaque. Could there really be no trace of the restaurant left? "Nothing at all," confirmed Benoit Noel, the energetic young curator of the museum at the refurbished Maison Fournaise. "The floating restaurant burned down in 1889, although the little camembert remained until 1924. Then it, too, disappeared, during work to widen and deepen the Seine."

Noel added that la Maison Fournaise, which had closed in 1906, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The inn was nearly in ruins in 1979, when the town of Chatou purchased the building and prevailed upon the French government to declare it a historic monument.  Today, the restored inn houses the museum as well as a restaurant.

La Maison Fournaise today, seen from across the Seine

In its heyday, la Maison Fournaise was as popular as la Grenouillere. The proprietor, Alphonse Fournaise, was famous for the rowing contests he organized, which inevitably ended with a great party on the inn's balcony, overlooking the river. La Maison Fournaise became the favored hangout of Renoir as well as other Impressionists, including Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte. The write Guy de Maupassant, also a frequent guest, set a number of his stories at the inn. For Renoir, who was as much of a portraitist as a landscape artist, the main draw must have been the endless variety of subjects.

"I always used to frequent Fournaise's place," Renoir later wrote, "where I found as many splendid girls to paint as I could ever want." His favorite was the owner's daughter, Alphonsine, who seems to have been one of the establishment's main attractions. She appears in at least eight of Renoir's works. In The Luncheon of the Boating Party, she is seen leaning on the balcony railing, wearing a straw hat with a blue ribbon and gazing towards a table cluttered with wine bottles. And in the work simply titled Alphonsine Fournaise, she sits alone at a table, with the forested island and the railroad bridge spanning the Seine in the distance.

Alphonsine Fournaise, by Renoir

It was just about lunchtime when Noel finished showing me around the museum. I walked around the yellow-and-brick facace of la Maison Fournaise to its restaurant. A moment later I was sitting at a table on the balcony myself, just a few feet from the balustrade where, so long ago, Alphonsine had rested her elbow while posing for Renoir. Trying to ignore the ugly buildings across the river, I concentrated my gaze on the sunlit river as it coursed past the island.

As I waited for lunch, I flipped through some historical bulletins Noel had given me. One included a letter Alphonsine had written, describing Renoir's painting of The Luncheon of the Boating Party.

"One day in 1879," she wrote, "the idea came to him to paint a large picture on the new balcony that my father had just constructed to expand the restaurant's dining room. A friendly scene at the end of a meal. It was an enormous amount of work that took almost two years."

Two years to capture a moment in time. I was still thinking about that when I left the restaurant and started walking back along the river toward the site of la Grenouillere. Noel had told me exactly where I could find it: Directly across from the steeple of St. Leonard's Chapel, on the Croissy side of the Seine.

I passed under the railroad bridge. A balding, bespectacled, middle-aged man was paddling a red-and-white canoe. He stopped to talk to some boys fishing from the bank. I continued on until I saw the steeple. A narrow path I had not noticed before led down to a flat patch of ivy-covered earth. This lonely spot, where spindly poplars learned over the river and a breeze sent ripples through the water, was all that was left of la Grenouillere.

I sat down on a log and began poking at the ground with a stick, as if I expected to uncover a buried paintbrush or a torn bit of canvas. I have long wondered why Impressionist paintings have such a powerful effect on so many of us today. The soft, stippled scenes evoke a yearning for another time, a simpler way of life, when it really seemed possible to live in the moment and be free of mundane distractions. The Impressionists, with their rapid brushstrokes and vivid colors, rendered these moments timeless, and set us dreaming.

I looked up and saw the man in the canoe coming downstream. He smiled at me. "If you're looking for Monet and Renoir," he called out, "they're up at la Maison Fournaise."

"I know," I said, smiling back at him. "And if you see Alphonsine, tell her I'll be along right away."

Boaters, lunch on the bank of the river, by Renoir

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