Theodore Robinson. Part 3 – Monet, Giverny and Robinson’s muse, Marie.

At the Piano by Theodore Robinson (1887)

Whilst Robinson often depicted women at work, other paintings of his  portrayed women at rest, sometimes relaxing at the piano as was depicted in his 1887 painting At the Piano.  The painting was completed whilst he was staying at the home of John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, a wealthy American writer and activist, and an acquaintance of Robinson who was related to the elite Astor, Livingston, and Stuyvesant families. Chanler was a great supporter of American artists who had come to Paris to follow their artistic dream and it is thought that on occasions had provided financial support to Robinson.

Look at the different textures depicted such as the glistening surface of the piano top and the glowing fabric of the woman’s dress.  We can almost hear the sound of the music as we see the fingers of the lady caress the ivory keys.

The painting was very popular and Robinson believed he knew why.  In his diary entry for September 10th, 1893 he wrote:

“…It is probably the sincerity with which it was done – I remember it seemed to me a sad failure at the time, and at Archie’s rue Dumont d’Urville just before leaving for the country…”

At the Piano by Whistler (1859)

Many believe the inspiration for this work was a painting Robinson may have come across when he was in Philadelphia in 1881 or New York in 1882 when At the Piano by James Abbott McNeil Whistler was being exhibited. Albeit that work, which is a study of Whistler’s half-sister and niece, is much darker in comparison to Robinsons painting which is aglow with delicate light.

Lady in Red by Theodore Robinson (1885)

The model for Robinson’s painting was thought to be Marie a love interest of his during his time in Paris and Giverny although they never married.  Robinson first met Marie at the start of his second visit to France in the Spring of 1884.  She was an artist’s model who lived in Paris.    He first portrayed Marie in a watercolour in 1885 entitled Lady in Red in which she is depicted in profile against a dappled background of leaves and fragile branches.

The Red Gown (also known as His Favorite Model) by Theodore Robinson (1885)

Although that was just a head and shoulder depiction we see she is wearing a red costume which was often seen in other Robinson portraits, such as his painting entitled The Red Gown, and the dress is thought to be one of Robinson’s studio props.

Val d’Arconville by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

Another of Theodore Robinson’s works featuring Marie was his beautiful 1888 work entitled Val D’Arconville, which can be seen at the Chicago Institute for Art.  In this depiction, we see Marie sitting on a flower-filled hillside overlooking the Arconville Valley which is situated southeast of Paris.  In the painting, Robinson used densely layered, broken brushwork, which was a technique he picked up from Monet.  This clever artistic method has the observer of the work relinquish their focus on the woman and their eye is led down the slope, and across the valley.  This was not simply an impressionistic painting which captured momentary effects such as the grass moving in the breeze, it becomes more of a structural work with the inclusion of the houses in the middle ground.

The painting was originally owned by Arthur Astor Carey, a cousin of John Armstrong Chanler, who had taken up residency at Giverny during the summer 1887.  The identity of Marie as the sitter for the painting was confirmed by an entry in Robinson’s diary for June 11th1893 in which he stated:

“…Mrs B. told me of the inspiration she got from a picture of mine (Carey’s, with Marie on the hill-side)…”

Little is known of Marie but in Sona Johnston book In Monet’s Light she quotes from a letter of a fellow American tourist and lodger at Hôtel Baudy who wrote home:

“…By the way, dear, it looks very strange but Mr. Robinson has a model down here who has a little daughter . . . Everyone says that . . . the little girl is the daughter of Mr. Robinson [and] the child looks very like him.”

Robinson had fell heavily for his muse and in a letter to his sister-in-law, Mary, on May 20th, 1887, he wrote:

“…I am in love with a French Girl, it is an affair of some time – and I came close to writing of it to Father but did not.  It is quiet just now and nothing may come of it so you had better say nothing about it – She has the same name as you in French – Marie – but she is as dark as you are fair…”

Nobody ever knew the surname of Robinson’s love as he never wrote it down in any of his letters or in his diary.  Despite his deep love for the young women, nothing came of the relationship.  The couple never married and we will never know why.  Maybe it was because of his failing health or maybe it was because of his poor financial state.  We do know that the relationship was not as Robinson would have liked as he discussed his disappointment with the state of his love life on many occasions over the dinner table with Will Low and his wife.   His relationship with Marie lasted for six years until he finally left France but he continued to correspond with Marie up until his death.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Giverny became a popular spot for artists around mid-1880’s.  It is known that John Singer Sargent visited the village around 1885 and met with Monet and it was the latter’s love of en plein air painting that appealed to Sargent.  It was in that year that Sargent produced his painting entitled Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood which depicts the great man at work watched over by his future second wife, Alice Hoschedé.

In 1880s and 1890s, American aspiring artists poured into Paris looking for places at its art schools and a chance to work in the ateliers of famous French painters. To them Paris was the Mecca of art and to study at one of the academies or ateliers was a “must have” experience and at the same time it was a sought-after freedom from the rigidity of artistic training at American academies.  For them to study at one of the famed Parisian academies and then to head for the countryside or the coast during the summer months was, for them, their idea of Shangri-La.

In the summer of 1887 a small group of young American artists made their home in Giverny.  How this came about was documented in a book written by the English Impressionist painter, Dawson Dawson-Watson entitled The Real Story of Giverny, based on a conversation he had had with the American artist, John Leslie Breck in 1888.  Breck recounted:

“…In the spring of ’87 [he and] Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo Wendel, and a chap named Taylor whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some place to go for the summer.  All of the usual places, Pont Aven, Etretat, Ecoigu, and Grèz, were rejected because their interest was in finding a new location to paint. After consulting the destination board at the Gare St. Lazare, they agreed that Pont del’Arche was appealing, so they decided to visit the town and see if it was as picturesque as its name.

The train to Pont del’Arche followed the Seine into Normandy and required a change at Vernon. As they approached Vernon, Metcalf pointed out a little village of white houses and a Norman church at the base of the hill on the opposite bank of the river and commented on its loveliness. At Vernon, they were told the village was Giverny. Once aboard the new train they were treated to a second view of Giverny when they crossed the Seine and were doubling back. The painters agreed unanimously that if Pont del’Arche was not to their liking they would return to Giverny the following morning, which was exactly what they did…”

After the initial discovery, other American artists soon followed and many began to extend their visits beyond the summer months.

Robinson’s photograph of the Monet-Hoschedé family gathering at Giverny (c.1892)

In April 1883, forty-two-year-old Claude Monet left his home in the western Paris suburb of Poissy and went to live in the small Normandy farming village of Giverny, a village he had passed thorough many times during his train journeys from Paris to Rouen.  The unpretentious village nestled at the bottom of a hill across the River Seine from the town of Vernon.  It was then made up of simple farms, modest houses, and a Norman church and at the time had a population of less than three hundred residents.  What appealed to Monet about Giverny and the surrounding area was its pastoral charm.  Monet, at this time, had been widowed for four years.  He arrived at Giverny and set up home along with his two children, Jean and Michel, and his former patrons Ernest and Alice Hoschedé.  Ernest Hoschedé, a departments store magnate and art collector had been declared bankrupt in 1877 when his business failed.  With nowhere to live, he and his wife and six children went to live with Claude and Camille Monet and their two children.

Charcoal sketch of Claude Monet by Theodore Robinson (1890)

At the time of Monet’s arrival at Giverny, his artistic career was starting to take off.  Giverny was to be a secluded and peaceful retreat and so he was less than pleased by the summer influx of artists to Giverny.  In his 1993 book Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionists Colony. William Gerdts recalls what Monet told a reporter about the influx of Americans:

“…When I first came to Giverny I was quite alone, the little village was unspoiled. Now, so many artists, students, flock here, I have often thought of moving away…”

However, the great man did not move away. Instead he progressively removed himself to his compound where his garden and lily pond provided all the subject matter he needed for his paintings.

Theodore Robinson’s photograph of Monet (c.1889)

Theodore Robinson agreed with Monet about the downside of the influx of visitors and was set against the idea put forward by John Leslie Breck to establish Giverny as an artists’ colony, and he was quoted as saying:

“…Breck conceived the idea of making an art colony of it [Giverny]. Theo Robinson strenuously objected saying they had found a lovely spot and should keep it to themselves…”

Breck had replied that because everyone had been so damn nice, he wanted them to reap some real financial benefit and not withstanding Robinson’s objection, Breck had persuaded Monsieur Baudy, the owner of Café Baudy they frequented, to build six rooms in the courtyard in back of the building and so Hôtel Baudy came into existence.  He even persuaded the landlord to build a studio for Willard Metcalf.

Theodore Robinson may have objected to making Giverny a hub for artists to visit in the summer for other than selfish reasons, it could well have been due to his own social reserve.  Robinson was not an unfriendly person but was quite happy with his own company.  Robinson, at thirty-one years of age, was older than his friends who had come to Giverny with him and this may have been a factor as to why he had been befriended by Monet.  Robinson, being close to Monet, was probably aware of Monet’s dislike of the village being overrun by visiting artists.  Robinson and Monet’s friendship was an interesting one.  It was not based on Monet being the master and Robinson the pupil.  It was a friendship based on a shared common love – painting, and both appreciated the talent of the other.  It was a friendship that would last even after Robinson returned to America with many letters passing from one to the other.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

Robinson returned briefly to New York at the end of 1887, but was back in Paris by early 1888 and had once again re-visited Giverny that summer. One of his paintings he completed during that summer is now considered to be one of his first Impressionist paintings.  It was La Vachére. It is interesting to note that this work highlights a dilemma for Robinson.  Is he an Impressionist painter or an Academic painter?  The painting would seem to be part Impressionism in the way the trees and foliage are depicted as patches of colour and part Academic in the way he depicts the woman.  She is simply a figurative study within an Impressionistic backdrop.  The painting was exhibited in the 1889 Paris Salon.

Autumn Sunlight by Theodore Robinson (1888)

A more impressionist style of painting can be seen in Theodore Robinson’s 1888 work entitled Autumn Sunlight.  In this painting, we see a young woman standing in the woods.  She is what is termed a faggot gatherer, a person who collects firewood, a bundle of which we see at her feet.   The background of speckled light hints at tonalism, which emphasizes atmosphere and shadow. However, the foreground with its myriad of leaves depicted by a montage of broken brushstrokes is pure Impressionism.

Winter Landscape by Theodore Robinson (1889)

Robinson returned to New York in December 1888.  He rented a studio in Manhattan.  His artistic output was less than it had been during his days in Giverny but produced works that he exhibited at the American Watercolor Society in the Spring of 1889.  Come the summer of 1889, Robinson was back in Giverny and it was during that year that he completed his beautiful work entitled Winter Landscape.  The work depicts ta view of the village of Giverny after it had succumbed to a freak snowstorm.  The red rooves of the houses were suddenly transformed to a patchwork of white and the entire village is swathed in a icy-looking purple-blue ambience.  Once again Robinson had returned to New York that winter and entered this painting at the Society of American Artists annual exhibition.  It won the Webb Prize, an award given for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American artist under forty years of age.  He also received a monetary prize amounting the three hundred dollars.  Ironically this was one of the pure landscapes Robinson painted without a person or persons being part of the scene and the category for the prize stipulated that only “pure” landscape paintings would be accepted by the judges!

Capri and Mount Solaro by Theodore Robinson (1890)

Robinson was back in Giverny, once again a resident of Hôtel Baudy, for the summer of 1890 but the highlight of the year for him was his trip to Italy and the south of France.  During that winter journey Robinson visited Capri and from that stop-over produced the painting Capri and Mount Solero.  This landscape work was a depiction of the town and mountain as seen from a hillside which looks across from the town.  Again, in this work, we see the juxtaposition of his two styles.  We have the geometrical depiction of the village and the flat-roofed houses and yet we have the Impressionism style loose brushstrokes which are used to depict the foliage.

Capri by Theodore Robinson (1890)

For the first three months of 1891 Robinson was in Frascati, a town twenty kilometres south-east of Rome.  It was in March 1891 that Monet contacted Robinson, summoning home:

“…[Spring] is close … and I hope you are not going to delay taking possession again of your little house…….”

Robinson returned to Giverny in April 1891 after a brief stay in the French coastal town of Antibes.  Once again, having arrived back in Giverny, he took up residence at the Hôtel Baudy where he stayed until December, at which time he returns to New York.  The year 1891 was one of the most productive for Robinson and it was in that year that he once again began to dabble with photography.  He wrote to his family explaining why:

“…Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same, the camera helps retain the picture in your mind…”

Two in a Boat Theodore Robinson (1891)

His use and dependency on photography varied but was mainly for use in his figurative work.  In some cases, it was found that he drew a grid of squares on the photograph and on the canvas or sheet of paper he was to draw on so that he could transfer a composition with great accuracy.  One painting he completed using this method to depict the two figures was Two in a Boat which he completed whilst in Giverny in the summer of 1891.  The depiction is of two women reading while lounging in a skiff floating on the Seine or Epte rivers. The method Robinson used to complete the work is given by the Phillips Collection in Washington which houses the painting:

“…The relationship between Two in a Boat and the photograph from which it derived offers a vivid example of Robinson’s painting process. He lightly scored the photograph and the canvas with graphite and sketched in the composition, using the grid as a measure. The grid and under-drawing are visible throughout, because Robinson’s pink primed canvas was left exposed in many areas, particularly in the lines defining the interior of the occupied boat and the figures. The painting differs slightly from the photograph: Robinson excluded a fourth boat to the starboard side of the skiff and the branch falling diagonally from the top left corner; furthermore, the photograph’s strong contrast has been replaced by an overall tone of violet and green…”

Robinson was pleased with the painting and exhibited it in the Society of American Artists’ 1895 annual exhibition and in his one-person exhibition at Macbeth’s later that year.

On May 13th, 1892, Robinson departed for what would prove to be his last summer in Giverny and the following month celebrated his fortieth birthday.  Celebrate was probably not the best way to describe this milestone in his life as he was suffering from a bout of severe depression and self-doubt.

La Debacle (also known as Marie at the Little Bridge) by Theodore Robinson (1892)

In 1892 Robinson completed one of his best known and best loved paintings.  It had the strange title of La Débâcle and later a subtitle of Marie at Little Bridge was added.  The sitter for this work was again his muse, Marie, Robinson’s great love and regular model.  In the painting, we see a fashionably dressed young woman seated on the stone foundation of the bridge over the River Epte, which runs close to Giverny.  Something or someone has disturbed her although we have no clue to what or who it is.  Clutched in her hand is the most recent novel written by Emile Zola entitled La Débâcle which had just come on sale that year.  The title of the book refers to the ignominious defeat of France in its battle with Prussia in 1870.  However, there may be another reason for the title of the painting as Robinson had proposed to Marie on a number of occasions and had been spurned and in a way that was Robinson’s own Débâcle.  It was also the year Robinson left Giverny and France for the last time but with him on his final journey back to America was this painting.

The Wedding March by Theodore Robinson (1892)

Also in 1892 Robinson produced what is probably his best-known work, The Wedding March.  The painting was based on the wedding of the American painter, Theodore Earl Butler to one of Monet’s stepdaughter, Susan Hoschedé.  In a letter to his friend he described the event:

“…There was a double ceremony – first at the Mairie – then at the church.  Nearly all the wedding party were in full dress……Most of the villagers and all the pensionnaires were there – guns were fired, two beggars held open the carriage doors and received alms…”

Although one may have thought that Robinson painted the work using a photograph of the processional march but in fact he painted it from memory. In the painting, we see the procession from the orange-sided Mairie, or City Hall, on its way to the old Norman church down the lane which has since been named the rue Claude Monet. In the depiction, we see Monet himself escorting the bride at foreground while Butler and Madame Hoschedé bring up the rear. The unidentified girl in the middle is thought to be the youngest Hoschedé daughter.

Gathering Plums by Theodore Robinson (1891)

Robinson arrived back in America on December 12th, 1892.  He had hoped to survive financially through the sale of his paintings but this was not to be and due to ever increasing financial difficulties Robinson was forced to teach a summer class for the Brooklyn Art School.  Robinson was a shy person who favoured his own company and so due to this and his lack of confidence, teaching was not a favourite occupation, but beggars cannot be choosers.

Père Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge (1891)

For the next three years, Theodore Robinson continued to paint and teach at various colleges but his health was beginning to fail.   During the winter of 1895, asthma was increasingly consuming more of Robinson’s strength. In his final letter to Monet in February 6th, 1896 he wrote to the great man saying that he hoped to return to Giverny but it was not to be. He finally succumbed to the respiratory ailment that he had been suffering from all his life and he died on April 2nd, 1896 at the New York home of his cousin, Agnes Cheney. Robinson’s funeral was held on 4 April at the Society of American Artists in New York, and his body was then sent to Evansville, Wisconsin for burial.  His death came just six weeks before what would have been his forty-fourth birthday.

Theodore Robinson has long been considered the first American Impressionist.

 

 

 

 

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John Peter Russell. Part 2 – Belle Île, Monet and Matisse

In the first part of my blog about the Australian painter, John Peter Russell, I told you about his early life in Australia and how his father and brothers had started a foundry and engineering works in Sydney.  He then went to England and was apprenticed at a Lincoln engineering company, qualified as an engineer but on the death of his father and the inheritance he subsequently received, gave up his engineering career to become an artist.  He studied at the Slade School in London and the Atelier Cormon in Paris. 

Les Aiguilles, Belle-Île by John Peter Russell ((1890)
Les Aiguilles, Belle-Île by John Peter Russell ((1890)

Russell had previously made painting trips to the Breton isle of Belle Île in 1883 and 1886 and fell in love with the island scenery and the light which offered up the myriad of colours of the island’s nature and the surrounding seas.  For Russell, his aim was to capture in his paintings the unadulterated purity of nature’s colour that the light highlighted at different times of the day.  To do this Russell realised that making quick preliminary sketches, later to be finished in his studio, would lose the purity of the colour and so he decided that the work had to be completed en plein air if he was to capture the true colour that the light had offered him.  He was not alone with this idea as many of the French Impressionists came to the region in search of the rugged beauty offered up by the island.  For these artists the island of Belle Île offered them a remote and secluded painting haven with its spectacular cliff configurations and outlying rock structures which had been shaped and whittled away by the unrelenting ferocity of the sea.  

Russell summed up his love for Mother Nature and capturing in his works the changing light he experienced on the island when he said:

“…I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea”

His good friend the sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote to him about this love of colour, light and his desire to capture every facet of nature’s moods, saying:

“…I am very happy, dear friend, for you that you cling so enthusiastically to nature.   I am sure that your art is now full of sincerity and movement…”

The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast by Monet (1886)
The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast by Monet (1886)

One of the most famous Impressionist artists who spent time on Belle Île was Claude Monet.   He lived on the island from September to the end of November of 1886, in the tiny village Kervilahouenne.  The story goes that Russell met Monet one day, in the late summer of 1886, when Monet was perched high up on a windswept cliff top painting a seascape.   Russell approached him and looked over his shoulder at his painting.  On recognising Monet’s painting style Russell asked him:

Ne seriez vous Claude Monet, le prince des impressionists?”

(aren’t you Claude Monet, prince of the impressionists?). 

Monet was both amused and somewhat flattered by the question and this led him to allow Russell to sit awhile and paint with him and so an artistic friendship was formed.   There can be no doubt that Monet’s work influenced Russell.  Although the Australian artist believed in the Impressionist philosophy that the painting should be about light, Russell thought that form should not be disregarded.  Monet was fascinated and in love with the island’s wild coastal scenery.  He was in awe of the stark wilderness of the island’s landscape and, at first, quite unsettled by the frequent variations in the weather conditions.   He knew that the best depictions would be the views of the sea and the rugged cliffs and often had to battle, with an obstinate determination, taking his life into his own hands, to try and gain the best painting position on the cliff edge, notwithstanding the state of the weather at the time.  Monet wrote to his friend and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte of his joy at being on Belle Île and the artistic challenges it offered:

“…I am in a wonderfully wild region, with terrifying rocks and a sea of unbelievable colours; I am truly thrilled, even though it is difficult, because I had got used to painting the Channel, and I knew how to go about it, but the Atlantic Ocean is quite different…”

The Pyramides at Port-Coton by Monet (1886)
The Pyramides at Port-Coton by Monet (1886)

Monet completed a set of works in 1886, featuring the coastal scenery of Belle Île but when he presented them to his Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, the latter was taken aback by the change in Monet’s work as seen in these new canvases.  These were very different from the artist’s Normandy paintings of a decade earlier.   Gone were the paintings bathed in sunlight for these Belle Île works were much more sombre and dark and Durand-Ruel was concerned as to whether they would sell.  In one such work, The Pyramides at Port-Coton, which Monet completed in 1886, he has magnificently captured the dark craggy rock formations which have been formed by the slow but persistent erosion by the sea and which now stand out like ancient pyramids.  The dark colour of these rock formations contrast with the superbly coloured waves which we see buffeting them.  Durand-Ruel quizzed Monet about the wisdom of the change in style but the artist was adamant about having variety in his works, saying:

“… I’m inspired by this sinister landscape, precisely because it is unlike what I am used to doing;   I have to make a great effort and find it very difficult to render this sombre and terrible sight…”

The art world, like Durand-Ruel were astounded in 1887 when Monet’s Belle Île paintings were first exhibited.

Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage by Monet (1886)
Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage by Monet (1886)

Another of Monet’s Belle Île paintings completed around the same time is entitled Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage [The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast] which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.   This painting is one of five Monet completed featuring Belle Île.   It is in landscape format, unlike the other four, and in it Monet has depicted the never-ending clash between the forces of nature, the sea, and the rocks which try valiantly to withstand its ferocity.  Monet has used blues, greens and violets for the sea with white for the tops of the waves to give the stormy sensation. 

La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme by John Peter Russell (1901)
La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme by John Peter Russell (1901)

In Paris Russell had become great friends with Auguste Rodin and through that friendship had met, in 1885, the sculptor’s favourite model, Marianna Mattiocco, whom the sculptor once described as “the most beautiful lady in Paris”.  Russell and Marianne married in 1888 and it was now time for Russell to fulfil his much discussed desire – to move away from hustle and bustle of city life in Paris and move permanently to his beloved Belle Île.   The year before he had written to his friend and fellow Australian artist, Tom Roberts and told him of his dream:

‘…I am about to build a small house on Belle-Ile, off Brittany. The finest coast I’ve ever seen…”

Russell and his wife moved from Paris to set up home on Belle Île in 1888.  He was the first non-native to settle on the island and when he had built his new home, a large manor house, the islanders referred to it as Le Chateau de l’Anglais.  The completion of their large and spacious new home, with Russell’s studio facing  the Atlantic Ocean, was not just a place for the family to live it was to be the hub of Russell’s summer artist’s colony. Russell set to work on his own paintings of the shores of Belle Île and he would often depict the same type of scenes that Monet had done in 1886.  Russell had the same ideas as Monet.  He wanted to depict the coastline at different times of the day in different weather conditions always seeking the nuances of changing light.  Monet once said that Russell’s Belle Île paintings were better than his own ! 

ROCHERS À BELLE-ÎLE by Matisse (1896)
ROCHERS À BELLE-ÎLE by Matisse (1896)

Ten years after settling down on Belle Île, Russell played host to another up-and-coming artist, Henri Matisse, during the three summers of 1895 to 1897.   Russell spent many hours with Matisse and it is said that he introduced Impressionism to him.  They spent hours discussing the importance of light and how light and colour could be captured at different times of the day and under different weather conditions.  He also introduced Matisse to the work of his friend from Atelier Cormon, Vincent Van Gogh, who at this time was still to be recognised as a great artist.  Matisse always recognised the debt he owed John Peter Russell and in later life said:

“…Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me…”

In 1908 Russell’s wife Marianna died.   Russell was devastated by his loss.  It is believed that such was his grief that he destroyed four hundred of his works of art.   He buried Marianne next to Le Chateau de l’Anglais and decided his time at Belle Île was at an end and so returned to Paris.  Later, along with his daughter Jeanne, (Madame Jeanne Jouve), a Paris singer, they travelled extensively through southern France and the Ligurian coast of Italy and for a time he set up home in the Italian coastal village of Portofino.  Russell returned to live in Paris and in 1912, married his daughter’s friend, the American singer Caroline de Witt Merrill, whose stage name was Felize Medori. Russell and Caroline set up home in Italy and later Switzerland before moving to England where his sons were serving in the Allied forces.  Six years later, in 1921, Russell returned to Australia, and the following year he travelled to New Zealand where he helped one of his sons to set up a business on a citrus farm. In 1923 Russell returned to Australia and bought himself a fisherman’s cottage at Watson’s Bay on Sydney Harbour. John Peter Russell died in April 1930, aged 71.  The cause of death was a heart attack which struck him down whilst moving some heavy rocks outside his home.  He was survived by his second wife Caroline, their son and six children from his first marriage to Marianna. 

Russell was not one to have his paintings exhibited like his fellow artists of the time, such as Monet and van Gogh and so he is less well known but for those that knew him and his painting there was never any doubt about his ability as an artist.  Rodin, in one of his last letters to Russell, acknowledged his reputation and his legacy.  He wrote:

“…Your works will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renior, and Van Gogh…”

 

 

The Magpie by Claude Monet

The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)
The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868)

Being in a much milder, wetter and windy climate it is always a novelty to see snow except atop distant mountains and for those of you are knee-deep in it, you have my sympathy, as I tend to agree with those who say snow is fine when viewed on a greetings card but not when one has to trudge through it.  However there is nothing as beautiful as a painted snow scene and for My Daily Art Display featured painting today I am featuring a beautiful depiction of a snow scene by Claude Monet entitled The Magpie, which is reputed to be one of the most popular paintings in the Musée d’Orsay collection.

Monet painted this work during the winter of 1868-9 whilst he was living at Étretat with his wife Camille and his one-year old son Jean.  He had left Paris and one of the reasons for his departure from the capital was given by him in a letter to his artist friend, Frederic Bazille:

“…In Paris one is too preoccupied with what one sees and hears, however strong-minded one may be, and what I shall do here will at least have the virtue of being unlike anyone else’s work, because it will simply be the expression of my personal experiences…”

Monet had been going through a very tough and trying period in his life.  Although his painting Woman in Green was exhibited in the 1866 Salon his offering of Women in the Garden the following year was rejected by the jury of the Salon.   None of the pictures he sent in the spring to the International Maritime Exhibition at Le Havre were sold and worse still, the canvases were seized by his creditors.   His lover, Camille Doncieux, whom he had met in 1865, had become pregnant and in August 1867 gave birth to their son, Jean-Armand-Claude.   Although his father had finally and reluctantly come around to his son’s chosen profession as an artist, he was totally against his son’s liaison with Camille and told him that he would only offer him financial help if he left Camille.  Monet’s financial situation in Paris had become dire and he survived on hand-outs from his friends.  His money problems and now the impending arrival of his child, which was yet another mouth to feed, were so bad that in 1868 he had attempted suicide by throwing himself off a bridge into the River Seine.  Penniless, Monet was forced to return home alone to his father’s house in Sainte-Adresse, a small coastal town west of Le Havre, and there he lived with his aunt, abandoning Camille in Paris.  To add to all these financial and family problems he suffered partial loss of his sight in July 1867 which prevented him from painting and sketching out of doors.

His luck finally changed in 1868 when he fortuitously received some timely aid from his very first patron, a shipowner and art collector, Louis-Joachim Gaudibert, who supported him by commissioning him to paint three full-length life-sized portraits.  Two were of Guadibert himself and the third one of his wife,  (Portrait of Madame Gaudibert).  He also managed to sell his painting Camille to Arsène Houssaye, the editor of the magazine L’Artiste, for 800 francs. Now, finally, with some money in his pocket he was able to return to Paris to once again be with Camille.  Gaudibert also helped Monet rent a house in Étretat for his family in late 1868. Recovering from an episode of depression, Monet joined Camille Doncieux and Jean at the house in Étretat in October 1868.  He wrote to Bazille about his change of fortune:

“…Thanks to this gentleman of Le Havre who’s been helping me out, I’m enjoying the most perfect peace and quiet and I look forward to do some worthwhile things…”

It was whilst he lived here that Monet painted the many famous scenes of the cliffs at Étretat and it was in December 1868 that he painted today’s featured work, The Magpie.  Although en plein air painting may be a joy in the sunny warm days of summer, it becomes a challenge in the cold harsh winter days but Monet was not deterred by this and never let the elements confine him to working indoors.  In fact he often claimed that he preferred the countryside in winter.  Monet loved to experience the differing effects light had on the countryside and for him the understated difference of shadows upon the snow covered ground presented him with a different challenge from the sun on green grass and blue water.  It would mean a complete change of palette with more emphasis on the whites, greys and violets.  He wrote to Frederic Bazille extolling the virtues of his surroundings and the freedom to paint en plein air:

“…I spend my time out in the open, on the shingle beach when the weather is bad or the fishing boats go out, or I go into the countryside which is very beautiful here, that I find perhaps still more charming in winter than in summer and, naturally I work all the time, and I believe that this year I am going to do some serious things…”

Before us we have Monet’s oil on canvas winter landscape scenes of the countryside close to Étretat.  It is entitled La Pie (The Magpie).  It is a prime example of the natural effet de neige (effect of snow).   It was one of the earlier snowscapes that Monet painted.  In all he completed over hundred snowscape paintings. The snow lies upon the ground.  A solitary magpie perches on the top rung of a wooden hurdle gate.  Its black and white feathers, along with the dark bark of the trees, contrast starkly against the snowy landscape and, despite the small size of the bird, it become the focus of the work. Its inclusion in the scene in some ways breathes life into the painting. The source of light comes from the background and dramatically creates blueish gray shadows of the wattle fencing on the pristine snow in the foreground.   Monet and the Impressionists, instead of making the shadows in their paintings a conventional black, preferred  to use coloured shadows as they believed that adding colour represented the actual, changing conditions of light and shadow as one would see in nature.  However this idea did not set well with the Salon jurists and this work by Monet was rejected when he submitted it for exhibition at the 1869 Salon.    There is a beautiful luminosity about this work.  In summery paintings the sky would normally be lighter in colour and tone in comparison to the ground colour but of course in winter this all changes and as we see in this work the sky is darker than the snow-covered ground.  Look at the way Monet has depicted the snow.  It is not pure white but more a tinted white and where the shadows straddle the snow-covered ground in the foreground we have patches of gray-blue.  We can also see darker spots in the snow of the foreground indicating that the snow is not as deep here and the ground below it is showing through the whiteness.

The painting is considered by art historians as one of Monet’s best and most accomplished snowscapes.  Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air.  I will leave you with a quote from a Harper’s Magazine article entitled The Enveloping Air in which the author John Berger wrote:

“… Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air.   The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite expansion.  If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought.  Except the air operates wordlessly and when painted, is visibly present only in colours, touches, layers, palimpsest, shades, caresses, scratches……… Like many innovative artists, Monet, I believe, was unclear about what he had achieved.  Or, to be more precise, he could not name his achievement.  He could only recognize it intuitively

Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris

Musée Marmottan Monet

For my blog today I am not showcasing an artist or a painting but a small museum , the Musée Marmottan Monet, which I visited last week when I was in Paris and I hope that for any of you who are intending to visit the French capital and want to take in some of its artistic heritage you will make time to visit this museum.  I can assure you that you will not be disappointed.  The museum is situated at 2 rue Louis Boilly in the vibrant and colourful 16th arondissement and is easy to get to as there are two nearby Metro stations, La Muette and Ranelagh.

I have often advocated that when one goes to London one should not always head for the major art galleries such as the National Gallery or the two Tate galleries as they are so big that one has no hope of seeing everything in one session and trying to often means that you skimp on the time each painting deserves.  A better plan of action if your time is limited is to go and visit one of the smaller galleries.  In London one has the Wallace Collection, the Courtauld Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, to mention just a few.  So to practice what I preach, when I was in Paris last week I didn’t revisit the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, instead I visited, for the first time, the Musée Marmottan Monet and it was unquestionably a most worthwhile visit.

The building was originally constructed as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Valmy and a few years later was sold to Jules Marmottan which on his death along with all his belongings was bequeathed to his son Paul.  Paul Marmottan later built a small pavilion in the courtyard as the original building was too small to house all of his paintings, furniture and bronzes.  Paul Marmottan bequeathed his home and collection to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which opened up the house and collection as the Museum Marmottan in 1934.

If you like the work of the Impressionists and in particular the works of Claude Monet then look no further as this museum houses the largest collection of Monet’s work in the world and this is partly due to the fact that Monet’s youngest son Michel donated his father’s paintings from Giverny to the museum.  The building originally had two floors, the ground floor and an upper floor but to exhibit all the works they had to build a large underground room.  A number of bequests to the museum over the years have filled the building with beautiful and priceless art treasures.

The Duhem Collection was bequeathed to the museum by the daughter of the French painter, Henri Duhem.  These included works by Boudin, Caillebotte, Corot, Gaugin,  Monet and Renoir.  In 1980 an amazing group of illuminations spanning the 13th to 16th century was donated to the museum by Daniel Wildenstein.  The collection is exceptional for both the quantity and quality of the works.  There are over three hundred miniatures.  In 1996 the museum received an extraordinary donation from Annie Rouart.  Her husband was Denis Rouart, the grandson of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet.  Among the paintings given to the museum by Annie Rouart were masterpieces by Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir and of course works by the famous female Impressionist Berthe Morisot.

Berthe Morisot Exhibition

For those of you who love the work of Berthe Morisot, and I include myself in that particular fan club, there is currently running a brilliant exhibition of her work.  It is housed in the basement.   It opened on March 8th and runs until July 1st 2012.  It presents the first major retrospective of the work of Berthe Morisot to be held in Paris for almost half a century.  One hundred and fifty paintings, pastels, watercolours and drawings in red chalk and charcoal, from museums and private collections all over the world, retrace the career of the Impressionist movement’s best-known woman painter. Works which have been selected for the exhibition cover the whole of Berthe Morisot’s artistic career, from her earliest works around 1860, to her untimely death at the age of 54, in 1895.  In my next few blogs I will feature a few  of the many paintings I saw when I walked around the museum.

Camille Doncieux and Claude Monet (Part 2)

Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux

In my last blog I looked at the first meeting of Camille Doncieux and Monet.  It occurred in 1865 when Frédéric Bazille, a good friend of the twenty-five year old Monet, introduced him to Camille Doncieux who was still in her teens.  Camille, who was of humble origins, worked as an artist’s model.  Monet soon made her his number one model and shortly afterwards the two became lovers. The couple, because of the poor sales of Monet’s works of art, lived in depressing poverty.   Today I complete the story of Camille and Monet and look at a few more paintings the artist completed depicting Camille.

From the 1860’s till the end of that century, France was in love with all things Japanese.  This Japonisme as it was called had inspired both artists and the public.  Monet was not immune from this trend which swept his country.  Besides his art, he had two other hobbies.  He loved gardening and he loved to collect Japanese art, especially the Japanese woodblock prints.   In all he had built up a collection of over two hundred of these.  He had also accumulated a number of Japanese fans, kimonos and screens, some of which can still be seen at his house in Giverny.

 The most palpable and undeniable proof of Monet being influenced by the art and culture of Japan is his oil on canvas painting, Madame Monet en Costume Japonais (La Japonaise), which he completed in 1875 and which currently hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This work was in complete contrast to his earlier works.   Large-scale figure paintings had usually been looked upon as a major challenge for an artist.  Camille is depicted dressed in an elaborate kimono, holding a Japanese fan in her hand.   It is interesting to note that Camille is wearing a blond wig so as to emphasize her Western identity. Her kimono is sumptuously embroidered and the background is adorned with numerous Japanese fans. These accoutrements could, at the time, be bought for a few centimes in many of the Parisian shops and even the larger department stores had exclusive sections for all things Japanese.

In the painting Camille’s pose is of a conventional style and it is believed that Monet did this so as to enhance the chance of selling the work.   Because of this, there is a somewhat loss of spontaneity about it.  The scene looks very contrived.   However the brilliance of the colours he used is breathtaking.   Monet exhibited this work at the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876, where it attracted much attention.  Maybe Monet was saddened and felt somewhat guilty by the compromise he had made with this work solely to make it more attractive to potential buyers.  He later described it as “trash” and “a concession to the popular taste of its time”.

On June 28th 1870, Camille and Claude were married in a civil ceremony performed at the town hall of the eighth arrondissement of Paris. The French painter Gustave Courbet was one of the witnesses. Although Camille’s parents were present at the ceremony, Monet’s family were horrified by their son’s choice of partner and would not accept Camille Doncieux as their daughter in law, nor would they acknowledge their grandchild, Jean-Armand-Claude who had been born in August 1867.   Monet’s parents even tried to bribe their son into leaving his wife with the threat of their allowance to him being stopped if he continued the liaison.  However Monet chose his wife over money and refused to abandon Camille and Jean.   As a result, his allowance was cut off and his financial situation worsened and the three of them suffered extreme financial hardship, sometimes unable to afford food and often unable to afford paint.   He carried this burden for many years, and struggled greatly with poverty and the stress caused by Camille’s poor health, and his inability to pay for her medical care.   After the wedding and just before the start of the Franco-Prussian War the family travelled to London and Zaandam before returning to France and setting up home in Argenteuil, a town to the west of Paris.

Camille Holding a Posy of Violets by Monet 1877

In 1876, Camille Monet fell ill with what is believed to have been the beginnings of cervical cancer.   In Monet’s 1877 painting Camille Holding a Posy of Violets, which he completed that year, one can see the toll the disease has had on her health. Her face looks pale and haggard.  She looks tired and older. It was around this time that Monet received a commission from a patron Ernest Hoschedé and for a short time his finances took a turn for the better.  However in 1877 all this changed when Hoschedé went bankrupt and his art collection was auctioned off. This was a blow to the Impressionists, whom Hoschedé had supported,  and especially Monet.   The bankrupted Hoschedé and his family moved to a house in Vétheuil with Monet, Camille and Jean. However Ernest Hoschedé spent most of his time in Paris before fleeing to Belgium to avoid his creditors.   There soon followed speculation that Monet may have been carrying on an affair with Alice Hoschedé.    Some art historians have translated the look on Camille’s face in this painting as one of disgust with her husband and his liaison with Alice Hoschedé.  This was the last painting Monet did of Camille whilst she was alive.

Camille on her Deathbed by Monet (1879)

On March 17th 1878, Camille gave birth to her second son, Michel.  The birth of Michel further weakened Camille.   Over the next twelve months Camille’s health deteriorated and on August 31 1879, a priest was called to the house to administer the last rites and to sanction her marriage to Monet, although they had been married in a civil ceremony nine years earlier.   Camille’s death on September 5th 1879 devastated Monet. She was just thirty-two years of age.   Monet painted a picture of his wife on her death bed and the work can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.  Monet remembered the time well writing to a friend telling him of his urge to paint that last portrait of Camille:

“…I caught myself watching her tragic forehead, almost mechanically observing the sequence of changing colours that death was imposing on her rigid face. Blue, yellow, grey and so on… my reflexes compelled me to take unconscious action in spite of myself…”

Monet included lots of blue and gray in this painting, as well as yellow,orange and red and in some people’s opinion the use of these colours made the painting too light. Light, coming from the right hand side, shines on the face of his deceased wife.   We do not get a very clear view of Camille although we can just make out her face and that she is wearing a shroud.

After Camille Monet’s death in 1879, Monet and Alice along with the children from the two respective families continued living together at Poissy and later Giverny. Ernest Hoschedé died in 1891, and, in 1892, Alice and Claude Monet were married.   Little is known about Camille Doncieux Monet mainly because Monet’s alleged mistress and second wife, Alice Hoschedé, was so jealous of Camille that she demanded that all photographs, mementos and letters between Monet and Camille were destroyed.  She was determined that Camille’s very existence was denied.

Why did she hate Camille so much?    Maybe she realised that Camille Doncieux was the one and only true love of Claude Monet.

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

If you would like to read a fictional account of the relationship between Camille Doncieux and Claude Monet then I suggest you read:

Claude and Camille: A novel on Monet by Stephanie Cowell

Camille Doncieux and Claude Monet

My next two blogs deal not with a particular painting but with the subject of a series of paintings completed lovingly by one artist.  The subject is Camille-Léonie Doncieux, who was the beloved model, mistress and wife of Claude Monet.  In 1861, Monet had enlisted as a soldier in the Chasseurs d’Afrique regiment and spent two years in Algeria.  His military life came to an end in 1863 because he had fallen ill with fever.  He went back to Paris where he studied at the atelier of the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre and it was during this time that he met up with the artists Sisley, Bazille and Renoir, who would later join together with others and become known as the Impressionists..

Camille Doncieux was born in 1846 and met the impoverished but talented painter, Claude Monet, for the first time in 1865 when she was just eighteen years of age.  She came from an ordinary unprivileged background.  She fell in love with him, leaving her home to live with the talented 25-year-old painter who struggled to sell his work. People called her La Monette.  Everyone she met fell under her spell.   It was recorded that she was a ravishingly good-looking girl with dark hair, very graceful, full of charm and kindness.  Monet, her future husband, was struck by her beauty and described her eyes as being wonderful.    It was not long after they met that she began modeling for him and soon became his favourite model.  His professional interest in her soon became personal and the two soon became lovers.   The first time we come across Camille in a painting by Monet was in a study for his ill-fated work Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Study for Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1865/6)

In 1863, Édouard Manet had exhibited his painting Déjeuner sur l’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés (see My Daily Art Display, December 23rd 2010).   The critics and public were shocked by the work and Manet’s depiction of a nude woman seated with a pair of clothed men in a landscape setting.    Monet, who was known for his competitive streak decided to paint his own version of Déjeuner sur l’Herbe in the spring of 1865. This audacious venture would culminate in putting it forward for an exhibition at the Salon of 1866.  Following outdoor studies he made in the Forest of Fontainebleau, he immediately headed back to his nearby studio at Chaillyen-Bière and started to make preparatory sketches for what would be his mammoth canvas measuring an unbelievable 4.5 metres x 6 metres.  In one of his preparatory sketches, which he did in oil entitled Bazille and Camille (study for Déjeuner sur l’Herbe) we see Camille Doncieux and Monet’s fellow artist friend Frédéric Bazille.   Ultimately the painting was not a success. Monet was unable to finish it in time for the 1866 Salon and eventually abandoned the work. He left it, rolled up, with his landlord as part payment for rent he owed but it became damp and all that now remains are fragments of the work and some preparatory studies. The experience did, however, contribute to Monet’s realisation that to portray the brief moment in time, he would have to work on a much smaller scale.

La Femme à la Robe Verte by Monet (1866)

The next time we see Camille is in a painting Monet exhibited in the 1866 Salon.  The work was entitled Camille or Woman in a Green Dress and now hangs in the Kunsthalle, in Bremen.  After his disastrous attempt to emulate Manet with his painting of Déjeuner sur l’Herbe this work of his gained him critical acclaim.  Rumour had it that in his rush to meet the Salon deadline he completed the work in four days but one must doubt that assertion.  It is not strictly a portrait of Camille.  It is all about the dress.  She was simply his model for the painting.  The first thing which strikes one as we look at the work is the colour of the promenade dress which had probably been borrowed for the occasion.  Monet loved colour and the green he has used is awesome.  It dominates the painting and even detracts from the woman herself.  This is not about Camille but on the dress she wears and how it hangs.  The painting reminds one of a photograph out of a fashion shoot for a fashion magazine when the clothes are the important thing and not the model.  Look how the background is undefined.  It is simply plain and dark.  Monet had decided that nothing should deflect our gaze from the woman and her dress.  I like how Camille is just raising her right hand towards her face as if the picture has captured her just about to do something, a fleeting gesture, and we are left guessing as to what.  Maybe she is adjusting the ribbon of her bonnet.  The painting was accepted by the Salon jury and hung in their 1866 exhibition.    It was an immediate hit with both the art critics of the time and the public and the Paris newspapers called Camille the Parisian Queen.

One amusing anecdote about this painting was the story that Monet’s signature on the painting had been mistaken by many viewers for that of Manet, who had entered the Salon to a chorus of acclaim for his supposed work.  Monet told this story to the newspaper Le Temps:

“….imagine the consternation when he discovered that the picture about which he was being congratulated was actually by me !   The saddest part of all was that on leaving the Salon he came across a group which included Bazille and me.  ‘How goes it?’ one of them asked.  ‘Awful,’ replied Manet, ‘I am disgusted.  I have been complimented on a painting which is not mine’…….”

Camille au Petit Chien by Monet (1866)

That same year Monet produced a hauntingly beautiful and intimate portrait of his lover entitled Camille with a Little Dog, which is in a private collection.  We see Camille sitting side-on to us in quite a formal pose.  This is one of the few paintings of her by Monet that looks closely at her.  Once again as was the case in the Woman in a Green Dress, the background is plain and dark and in no way serves as a reason for taking our eyes off Camille.  We are not to be distracted from her beauty.  This painting is all about Camille.  It is interesting how Monet has painted the figure of the dog simply by thick brush strokes.  At a distance it looks like a dog but if you stand close up to the painting you can see it is just a mass of brush strokes.  However Monet has not treated the painting of Camille’s face with the same quick thick strokes of his brush.  She has been painted with delicate precision.  Monet did not want to depict the love of his life with hastily swishes of a brush. He took pains in her appearance.  This was a labour of love.

Luncheon by Monet (1868)

In 1867 Monet’s lover Camille gave birth to their son Jean.  A year later, during the winter of 1868, Monet started on his painting entitled Luncheon, which can be seen at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Franfurt.   This family, which now included their son Jean, were staying in Étretat at the house of a patron, where Monet had taken refuge from his Parisian creditors and critics.  It is a large highly detailed oil on canvas painting measuring 230cms x 150cms.   It is simplistic in its subject.  Before us we have sitting at the dining table Camille and her blonde-haired son.  She looks lovingly at him whilst he seems to only have eyes for the food.  A visitor stands with her back to the window and the maidservant is seen leaving the room.  A place is set out ready for her husband to join her at the meal table.  Look how Monet has painted a number of items overlapping the surfaces they are resting on.  On the table we have the loaf of bread, the newspaper and the serviette  all hanging over the cloth which Monet has depicted as being somewhat creased.  In the background we have two books overlapping the edge of the table.  All this in some ways adds to the realism of the painting.  Sunlight pours through the large window to the left of the painting and bathes the well-stocked table in light and by doing so brings it to life.  Monet submitted the painting to the 1870 Salon jury but it was rejected.  Four years later he included the work in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.

to be concluded tomorrow………………………………

Les Charbonniers by Claude Monet

Les Charbonniers by Claude Monet (c.1875)

When I think of Impressionism and Impressionist paintings I think of light airy scenes.  I think of lily ponds and flowering arches at Givenchy.  I think of colourful young things boating on the mirror-like waters of the Seine.  I think of people sitting on the banks of the Seine staring out at blue cloudless skies.  I think of fashionable people promenading along the Grand Jatte in gorgeous sunlight.  I associate Impressionism and the paintings associated with that particular “–ism” as being light, colourful and full of smiling faces on the people as they relax from the rigours of their working lives.

That all changed when I came across the work of the Impressionist, Caillebotte and his Floor Scrapers (see August 3rd).  Today, I am featuring another darker and more sombre painting by one of the greatest Impressionist painters of all time, Claude Monet.  He painted today’s painting in 1875 when he was thirty five years old and living at Argenteuil.  It is entitled Les Charbonniers (The Coalmen) or sometimes referred to as Les déchargeurs de charbon (Men unloading coal).

Before us is a view of the docks at the Quai de Clichy, a little downriver from Paris.  Framed at the top of the painting in the background, we can just make out through the haze, the broad arch of the Pont de Clichy railway bridge, one which Monet would have crossed many times as he took the train from Argenteuil to Paris.   It is also a bridge which he featured in a number of his paintings.  Horses and carts can be seen crossing the nearer bridge, the Pont d’Asnières.  These carts will transport the coal from the quayside to nearby factories, the chimneys of which we can just make out in the distance as they pump out their smoky pollutants.   Also on the bridge we see a few pedestrians gazing down at the unloading operation.

It is a dark and atmospheric picture.  We do not have the brightness of a summer’s day.  It is a dull grey wintery day with a smoke-filled sky.  We see the men struggling with their heavy bags of coal perched on their shoulders as they struggle up the narrow wooden ramps between ship and quay over the murky waters of the Seine, balancing like tightrope walkers on a high wire.  The wooden walkways bend ominously under the strain of man and his load.  We can just imagine the ominous groaning and creaking of the wood as it takes the strain.  Hour upon hour these men will trudge mechanically back and forth until all the coal has been discharged from the boat.  This is a labour intensive operation.  Les charbonniers have an unenviable job with its physical strain on the body coupled with the inhalation of coal dust into their lungs.  In the holds of the vessel itself we see men filling baskets with coal ready for the charbonniers to take them ashore.  These men will probably not live to an old age.  Unfortunately for them, the invention of quayside cranes and cargo escalators had yet to be realised.  This discharge of the coal from the boat would be a long operation, as fully loaded, the coal barge could probably transport about 300 tons of coal, which could take anything up to two weeks to manually unload.

The sailing barge has probably brought its cargo of coal from the mines in Belgium and Northern France along the Canal de Saint-Quentin which connects the rivers Oise, Escaut and Somme.  The canal, a great feat of engineering, was opened by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810.

The painting by Monet is simply a depiction of urban life and he might not have intended it as a political treatise with regards the conditions suffered by some working class people.  However the artist has given the painting a dark and solemn ambience which emphasizes the plight of some of the lowest paid workers.  This work was one of 29 works Monet presented in the fourth Impressionist exhibition.