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


The town of Argenteuil lies on the banks of the Seine eleven kilometers to the northwest of Paris, a fifteen-minute train ride from the capital’s Gare Saint-Lazare. With its railway line and factories, residences and river walks, it is in many ways typical of the suburban towns on the outskirts of Paris. Yet the contribution it made to the evolution of modern French painting sets it apart from neighboring villages. During the 1870s and 1880s Argenteuil became an important source of inspiration for the impressionist artists, who immortalized its river views, bridges, streets, and gardens in their groundbreaking paintings. (from The National Gallery of Art)


Additional resources:

Claude Monet on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil (Yale University Press, 1984)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”bassin”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] How do you recognize the work of the Impressionist artist Claude Monet?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:09] This painting of a scene of leisure in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil is a good starting place.

Dr. Steven: [0:16] 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. People took full advantage of that and invented pastimes that functioned as a kind of remedy for the pressures of the city.

Dr. Beth: [0:34] 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.

Dr. Steven: [0:46] 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.

[0:56] 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. This painting, Impressionism in general, we associate with beautiful sunny days, with big, billowing clouds, with sparkling light, with the sensual quality of a day in the country.

Dr. Beth: [1:14] And so we see coming toward us three figures, a man and it looks like two women, one of them under a parasol. They look like they’re having a lovely stroll. We see figures sitting on the banks of the river, going out on boats.

Dr. Steven: [1:28] We don’t see the faces of those people, they’re at a distance.

Dr. Beth: [1:31] 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.

Dr. Steven: [1:51] 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 of the clothing, so that we know that these are representatives of the middle or upper-middle class.

Dr. Beth: [2:07] The figures populate this landscape, but the main subject is the light.

Dr. Steven: [2:12] Most striking for me is the alternation between light and shadow as our eye moves leisurely back into space. It’s as if our eye strolls with those couples through the landscape.

Dr. Beth: [2:23] 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. 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.

Dr. Steven: [2:45] Those clouds are forming and re-forming, that everything here is contingent on light and wind and the physical processes of nature.

Dr. Beth: [2:53] 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.

Dr. Steven: [3:03] 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.

Dr. Beth: [3:12] 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.

Dr. Steven: [3:25] 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.

Dr. Beth: [3:33] The rules of the Academy advocated finish, 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.

Dr. Steven: [3:45] That itself must have felt extraordinarily modern in 1872, when this was painted.

[3:50] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "How to recognize Monet: The Basin at Argenteuil," in Smarthistory, April 25, 2018, accessed May 19, 2024,