A Weekend on the River Seine in paintings: 1 Saint-Mammès to La Grande Jatte

Edmond Aman-Jean (1858–1936), Saint Genevieve Before Paris (1885), media not known, 74 x 101 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Brest, Brest, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Summer is the ideal time for a river trip, and this weekend I have something rather special planned: two days travelling down the River Seine in the company of some of the finest landscape painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I hope you’ll join me now and tomorrow as we glide gracefully through their paintings.

The River Seine rises close to Dijon, but we join it at Saint-Mammès, where it’s met by the Loing Canal, linking it to a network of canals and waterways crossing much of the country. These form the Bourbonnais route to the River Saône, and from that downstream to the River Rhône at Lyon.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), June Morning in Saint-Mammès (1884), oil on canvas, 54.6 x 73.4 cm, Bridgestone Museum of Art ブリヂストン美術館, Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Sisley spent the last nineteen years of his career near here, at Moret-sur-Loing, and in 1884 painted this perfect June Morning in Saint-Mammès, showing this small freshwater port and some of its residents out on their business, as another boat makes it way up the river.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Samois. Brume du matin (le vapeur ‘L’Hirondelle’) (Cachin 370) (1901), oil on canvas, 74 x 92.5 cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, Czech Republic. Image by Ophelia2, via Wikimedia Commons.

A little way downriver is the small town of Samois-sur-Seine, visited by Paul Signac in October 1901. Samois. Morning Fog (Steamer ‘L’Hirondelle’) (1901) is his opportunistic combination of a misty river view with modern, more industrial technology.

Henri Rouart (1834–1912), The Terrace on the Bank of the Seine at Melun (1874), other details not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

We’re now approaching the outskirts of the sprawling modern city of Paris, but in 1874, the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition, this was still relatively rural, as shown in Henri Rouart’s Terrace on the Bank of the Seine at Melun, one of the paintings shown there.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Banks of the Seine at Champrosay (1876), oil on canvas, 55 x 66 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In September 1876, Pierre-Auguste Renoir went to paint the portrait of the wife of Alphonse Daudet, an author, at his house in Champrosay, to the south-east of Paris, just beyond what is now Orly Airport. While he was there, he painted Banks of the Seine at Champrosay en plein air. This shows the artist’s methodical brushwork at the height of his Impressionist landscape style, and was shown at the Third Impressionist Exhibition.

We’ve now reached the centre of the city, passing under the first of its thirty-seven bridges. Among the most famous sights, before the horrific fire of 2019, was the view of the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

Edmond Aman-Jean (1858–1936), Saint Genevieve Before Paris (1885), media not known, 74 x 101 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Brest, Brest, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Saint Genevieve Before Paris (1885) is an impressive painting from Edmond Aman-Jean’s early career. It shows the patron saint of Paris, Genevieve, who defended the city from Attila’s attack in 451, standing on the bank of the River Seine, with Notre-Dame cathedral behind her ornate halo. She is cradling in her hands a silver sailing ship, the city’s emblem which appears on its flag and coat of arms, and dates back to 1358. However, the city seen in the twilight behind her is decidedly contemporary, including the prominent bridge and the buildings rising above its quays.

Passing downstream, we reach the Louvre and the Pont des Arts.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Pont des Arts Paris (1867-68), oil on canvas, 60.9 x 100.3 cm, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir painted The Pont des Arts Paris in April 1867. This detailed realist view shows the pedestrian bridge from the left bank of the Seine. It had been the first metal bridge in Paris when it was constructed in 1802-04, and connects the Institut de France, whose dome is prominent at the right, with the Louvre, away to the left.

Next comes the Pont du Carrousel.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Pont du Carrousel (c 1903), oil on canvas, 71.4 x 100 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

When Pierre Bonnard was painting the streets of Paris, he seldom included either the River Seine or its bridges. But in The Pont du Carrousel from about 1903, he was inspired by the golden fire of an autumn dawn/dusk near the Louvre and Tuileries. Just a few years later, this bridge, which had been a feature of the front of the Louvre since 1834, was rebuilt using beaten iron in place of its wooden framework, and later in the twentieth century it was replaced altogether.

Just beyond the next bridge, the Pont Royal, is where you’ll find some of these wonderful paintings.

Johan Jongkind (1819–1891), View from the Quai d’Orsay (1854), oil on canvas mounted on wood, 43.8 x 66 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Johan Jongkind painted this superb View from the Quai d’Orsay in 1854. Made near what is now the Musée d’Orsay, at this time it was a working quay serving a busy part of the city. On the bank was the Palais d’Orsay, which had originally been intended to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it was built in 1838, but was then being used by the Court of Accounts and the State Council. Less than twenty years later, during the Paris Commune of 1871, the whole area was burned to the ground, and later redeveloped for the railway station which in turn became the Musée d’Orsay, appropriately holding one of the finest collections of Impressionist painting in the world.

Soon after that, during the nineteenth century, the landscape quickly became more industrial.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Pont de Grenelle (Cachin 328) (1899), oil on canvas, 62 x 78.5 cm, Amos Andersonin Taideomusen. Helsinki, Finland. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Signac painted this view of the Pont de Grenelle (1899), now more properly known as the Pont de Grenelle-Cadets de Saumur. The structure shown here was built in 1873, but has since been replaced in 1966. This features the Eiffel Tower, which had only been completed a decade earlier as the centrepiece of the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Its industrial design fits well with the smoking chimneys breaking the rest of the skyline, and the busy river filling much of the rest of the canvas.

Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1848–1934), Night on the Seine (1892), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect it was somewhere around here that Pierre-Georges Jeanniot painted his atmospheric Night on the Seine in 1892. It shows the river on a slightly foggy night, and plays skilfully with the effect of fog on lights, and their reflections.

When the river sweeps sharply right, we’re in Sèvres, known for its fine porcelain.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Sèvres Bridge (1877), oil on canvas, 38.1 x 46.4 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and Merion, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Sisley’s oil sketch of the famous Sèvres Bridge was painted in 1877, when the trees were still in full leaf, and he was living in this area.

Shortly before we reach the town of Asnières-sur-Seine, we come to Courbevoie and the island of La Grande Jatte, both of which have their places in the history of Neo-Impressionism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), The Seine near Courbevoie (Op 57) (1883), oil on canvas, 45 x 81 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1883, before he adopted Divisionist or Pointillist style, Paul Signac painted this Impressionist oil sketch of The Seine near Courbevoie.

Georges Seurat, Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) (1884-6), oil on canvas, 207.5 × 308.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.
Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) (1884-6), oil on canvas, 207.5 × 308.1 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Just over a decade later, the island of La Grande Jatte was the site of Georges Seurat’s defining Neo-Impressionist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, or just La Grande Jatte for short. He laboured on this from 1884-86, and his huge painting is now one of the stars of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), River Scene (1890), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 81.7 cm, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons.

By this stage we have reached Asnières, where there was an odd mix of the industrial with watersports. Although I don’t know exactly where Armand Guillaumin painted this River Scene in 1890, it shows the bustling life typical of this stretch of the river at the time.

Tomorrow we’ll resume our journey downstream as we reach Argenteuil, one of the cradles of Impressionism and more.