Merrily down the Seine: in the footsteps of the Impressionists

After World War II, when a large collection of Impressionist paintings was moved to the Galérie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, a curator expressed the hope that the works would help viewers overcome the horrors of war and celebrate the beauty of nature.

However, over the years, the Jeu de Paume got too crowded, and tourists and art lovers had to crane their necks to appreciate the paintings.

So, in 1987, the Impressionist collection, along with the works of their precursors, was moved across the Seine into the Musée d'Orsay, a former railroad station with crystal palace stylishness. Now it is again a pleasure to walk in its airy halls, admiring the great works of art that are the heritage of the French nation.

Another nice touch was added to the collection, but don't look for it inside the museum; you have to visit the places where the artists lived and worked.

Along the course of the Seine, poster-size reproductions of works by the Impressionists have been set up at the spots the artists had chosen as their vantage points for painting the view and contemporary life.

In the past, art book in hand, you had to search with patience for these locales where Monet, Renoir, and Sisley created many of their masterworks.

Now, to experience where this open-air painting took place, you need only travel to the outskirts of Paris, where the Seine lazily flows by the villages along its banks.

Here Parisians of all classes enjoyed themselves on weekends, relaxing in the sun, swimming and boating, and crowding the riverbanks, bathing places, and restaurants. This became the Impressionists' territory, and it is still accessible and a joy to explore.

Try to see at least three settings where Monet and Renoir roamed more than a hundred years ago: the island of Chatou and the towns of Bougival and Port-Marly.

On the island of Chatou, near the river's edge, a reproduction of Renoir's "Boating at Chatou" recalls the day when, on the balcony of the restaurant Fournaise in 1881, he painted his celebrated "Luncheon of the Boating Party," which is now in the Phillips Collection in Washington.

The restaurant was a haunt for artists and upper-class Parisians. Writers such as Flaubert and Maupassant, famous banker and philanthropist Mayer Alphonse James Rothschild, and Georges Charpentier (publisher of Maupassant and Zola) were among the regulars.

"I always went to the Fournaise," Renoir recalled later. "There were always pretty girls to paint." Little wonder that Aline Charigot, his future wife, appears on the canvas of the "Luncheon."

As time went on, the Fournaise fell into disrepair, but it has now been restored and turned into the elegant restaurant it once was.

A short distance downstream, the next stop is Bougival and the Ile-de-la-Chaussee. Cross the large modern bridge and take the small road leading to the island, and you'll find yourself facing the foundation of the old bridge that Monet painted in 1869. Thanks to the poster-size reproduction there, you can compare the work of art with its motif.

Across from the Bougival waterfront was once located La Grenouillère, a famous bathing place and cafe, which was painted by Renoir and Monet in 1869, who set up their easels side by side.

Now La Grenouillère is no more, and most of the island is private property.

The painters didn't adopt an "all work and no play" attitude. They also took part in the everyday activities on the Seine.

"Two friends and I won a first place at the regattas at Bougival yesterday, as you can see from the newspapers," Monet's friend Bazille wrote to his family. "The name of the boat is La Cagnotte; unfortunately they do not print the names of the oarsmen."

The Seine splits into two channels at this point. Pleasure boats are moored in the channel facing the Bougival waterfront, while the other one carries barge and other river traffic.

A few hundred feet downstream is the Ecluse de Bougival, the old river lock that is still used by both barges and pleasure boats. You can reach the locks from the N 13, from which a road leads to the Ile-de-la-Loge.

Here, greenery and benches invite visitors to stop for a leisurely picnic and watch what's happening on the river. Afterward, walk up to the tip of the island to see a reproduction of Alfred Sisley's painting of the Bougival locks.

The artist also worked at Port-Marly, a mile or so down the Seine from where he painted "Flood at Port-Marly" in 1876, when the Seine overflowed its banks.

The work has a poetic quality and is one of the finest by Sisley, who was known among his colleagues for his sincerity, both as a painter and a friend.

He had set up his easel just a few steps from where the N 13 today meets with the N 186 coming down from the heights of Louveciennes.

As you compare the painting with its modern setting, you'll see that hardly anything has been "modernized" save for the trees, which - no surprise - have grown.

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