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Group: Modern Life Modern Vision
Artist: Claude MONET
Title: Bathers at La Grenouillère
Date Made: 1869
Lender: National Gallery, London
The Bathers at La Grenouillère is a bright and colourful portrayal of the pleasures of a summer’s day, with people enjoying themselves in the sun-dappled light.
Monet uses minimal brushstrokes to paint his bathers and their gentlemen friends. The artist owned albums of drawings by Hokusai, in which one can find a similar witty economy of line.
Monet went to La Grenouillère with Renoir to do studies for Salon paintings, but he did not have the financial resources to execute large paintings. The works he did paint suggest that he was becoming absorbed in a new kind of picture-making and new pictorial structures that were ultimately to supersede his desire to create formal Salon paintings. Japanese prints played a role in this evolution. In Bathers at La Grenouillère, Monet created a linear framework from the long brushstrokes that he used to represent the jetties, tree trunks, bathing sheds, distant boats, and oars and seats of the rowing boats that articulate the painterly flux of sun-filled water and foliage. The brushstrokes are are applied as flat patches, dabs and curls of paint that indicate patterns of light on water, the shape of a figure, a gleam of light on a tree trunk. In Monet’s painting, the whole scene is constructed from detached brushstrokes. Such practice could have partially derived from plein-airist practice, but could also have been inspired by the ways in which Japanese printmakers translated the marks of brush paintings. In Hiroshige’s Red maples at Tsu¯ten Bridge the slopes, rocky banks, foliage and water are represented by a multiplicity of graphic marks, with the darkest inks overprinted with transparent areas of colour. These marks are visibly abstract signs, as are Monet’s brushstrokes.
Red maples at Tsu¯ten Bridge depicts men and women visiting the countryside to admire autumn leaves. Its subject is similar to the Bathers at La Grenouillère. Both works locate the artifice of contemporary urban life in nature. Promenading in lovely clothes, boating and picnicking were as much the pleasures of late nineteenth-century Paris as they were of Kyoto or Edo. La Grenouillère, a popular resort on the Seine near Paris, was notorious for its casual erotic encounters, and in this it was not unlike the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Japanese cities. In Kunisada II’s Autumn moon at Fukagawa, a young man gazes up at a group of courtesans on a wooden verandah. The steep viewpoint onto the boat has similarities to the rowing boats in Monet’s painting, although the latter are more prosaic than the elegant Japanese craft, just as the elaborately dressed figures in the print are a world apart from the two women in bathing costumes and the gentleman teetering on the wooden walkway in Monet’s painting. Japanese prints on such themes are related to Monet’s paintings in that they celebrate the pleasures, rather than the dark side of what Europeans would call ‘places of ill-repute’.
In Bathers at La Grenouillère there is little active swimming, yet one can recognise the pleasant sensation of dipping in sun-dappled water. Strokes of paint suggest water lapping around the bodies or fragmenting them into reflections. Monet may have enjoyed observing how Kunisada used transparent blues and long blue lines in his Abalone fishing to suggest the oneness of figure and water. He could also have studied it to find new ways of representing river water. In Kunisada’s image the water is printed in a range of blues in strong contrasts of tone to suggest the currents in the water, the surge of the waves and the different ways the water absorbs and reflects light. Monet used contrasts of dark and light colour to suggest the current of the river, the water stirred up by the bathers, and the ripples in the foreground, while the distant river, as in the print, is almost untouched, a white gleam. Monet was able to make use of the resources of oil paint to register more complex interactions between the transient effects of shadowing, dappled light and reflections on ceaselessly mobile water.
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