Impressionist & Modern Art

Taking a Different View with Monet, Renoir and Sisley

By Christian House

During the latter half of the 19th century a new wave of French artists began to look at landscapes – and their depiction – in a shockingly different manner. Three works – by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, respectively – to be offered in our Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale (London, 19 June) highlight this seismic shift in viewing vistas. 

In 1876, the French critic Stéphane Mallarmé noted: “The represented subject, which being composed of a harmony of reflected and ever-changing lights, cannot be supposed always to look the same, but palpitates with movement, light, and life.”

Those palpitations were a matter of lively debate for Monet, Renoir and Sisley. As Monet put it, “Nothing could be more interesting than these causeries, with their perpetual clash of opinions. They kept our wits sharpened.”

In Monet’s Vue d’Argenteuil (1872) the artist produces a widescreen view of the town of Argenteuil, near Saint-Denis, where he spent much of the 1870s. This sleepy suburban town was just beginning to embrace industry, although for his composition Monet edited the landscape into three strips – sky, town, river – all seen from the waters of the Seine, with no figures present.

The work was most likely painted from his studio-boat. “A fair wind brought me just enough money,” he noted at the time, “to buy myself a boat and have a little wooden cabin built on it, just big enough to set up easel in.”

Renoir also eschewed figures in his country scene, Après la tempête (temps d’orage) – painted in the same year as Monet’s view. There is a farmhouse barely visible; but this is really a brooding and elemental nature study: brush, hedges and trees under a changeable canvas of clouds. “You come to nature with all your theories, and she knocks them all flat,” he remarked.

As the century drew to a close, Alfred Sisley took Impressionism to its more joyous potential with Les lilas dans mon jardin (1892), a luminous painting of his garden at Veneux-Nadon near Moret-sur-Loing.  A solitary figure – perhaps the artist himself – walks among the blooming sunlit lilac trees. Movement, light and life, indeed.

These three paintings all capture landscape at its most ephemeral. The sweet irony, perhaps, is that they were acquired by the renowned collector and art dealer Dr Fritz Nathan over fifty years ago and have remained in the same family collection ever since.

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