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By Patricia Boccadoro

ROUEN, FRANCE, 23 SEPTEMBER 2013 — It would be hard to find a more apt description than "dazzling reflections" for this beautiful exhibition of 100 impressionist masterpieces together with a fine collection of photographs and drawings which opened in Rouen earlier this summer. The exhibition, part of the Impressionist Normandy Festival* created by Laurent Fabius in 2010, unites some of the most famous artists of the Impressionist movement around the theme of reflections on water, exploring the attraction, the importance and indeed the preponderance of water in the work of artists such as Jongkind, Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte, Seurat and Sisley, to name but a few.

An entire room was given to the works of Alfred Sisley, of British nationality but who was born and spent most of his life in France. He was one of the rare artists to only paint landscapes, luminous and atmospheric, albeit with the small silhouettes of the local people in them pictured here and there as if by accident. Many of his best-known works are on show here, from the incredible series of those painted at Marly-le Roi, where he painted the same subject eleven times, to his paintings of the floods where the water and the sky interact dramatically, at nearby Port-Marly near the Seine, which was flooded twice, in 1872 and 1876.

Alfred Sisley: Le Pont de Saint-Mammès, 1881
 Oil on canvas, 54,6 x 73,2 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art
© John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

He completed several works depicting the Auberge du Lion d’Or and the wine merchant’s store seven times at different times of the day and from different angles, with the rising flood waters dominating the canvases. The drama has been forgotten as an impression of calm plays down the dangers of the swelling water, depicted by straight brush strokes in the early paintings and by curly strokes in the later ones. Pride of place has also been given to his later masterpiece, Le Pont de Saint Mammés, as well as to Monet’s Pont d’Argenteuil.

However, besides the interest in bridges, the river Seine itself played a dominant role in the work of Claude Monet, who would regularly set up his easel on the river banks. He lived at Giverny surrounded by his ponds of water lilies, where the changing reflections on the water’s surface became one of his most important motives. Time remains suspended in so many of his paintings, not least his well-known, Impression, Sunrise, with its brilliant zigzag of light. Time hangs suspended in his Etretat, soleil couchant, a meeting of water and light, water and sky, where the water, taking up half the canvas, acts as a marvelous mirror.

Gustave Caillebotte: Bateaux à Argenteuil, dit Bateaux à voile à Argenteuil
Oil on canvas, Paris, Musée d'Orsay (détail)
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Much the same can be said of his, Venise, le Palais Contarini, where, painting from a gondola, Monet braved the autumn wind and rain to complete the palace, a ghostly outline in the mist surrounded by lapping water, in this case water which dominated nearly two thirds of the canvas.

Admiring crowds were gathered around his well-known En norvégienne, la barque à Giverny, on loan from its Paris home at the Orsay Museum.  Indeed, boating was a craze that developed around the middle of the nineteenth century and the open-air scenes this gave place to greatly attracted the impressionists, Monet amongst them. They offered studies vibrant with light, life and colour. In this particular painting three ladies wearing hats sit in a small skiff peering at their own reflections in the calm transparent water.

Claude Monet: Etretat, Sunset, 1882-1883
Oil on canvas, 60,5 x 81,8 cm
Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art
Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina
© North Carolina Museum of Art

Even more visitors were clustered round Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s sumptuous La Yole, a less familiar, but captivating work from London’s National Gallery, where two ladies, elegantly dressed and hatted, row their way peacefully across a shimmering expanse of water. The dazzling yellows of the brushstrokes convey the sparkle of the water and the moment in time seems so realistic one can almost hear the water lapping and swishing under the gentle movement of the oars.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Yole, 1875
Oil on canvas
© The National Gallery, Londres
Dist. Rmn / National Gallery Photographic Department

But over and above any intellectual consideration of themes, whether of bridges, the River Seine, the North Sea or boating, and from the shimmering images of Caillebotte’s sailboats and Monet’s regattas reflected in the sea, the exhibition is simply a feast for the eyes and to walk into any of these rooms where so many masterpieces have been hung does one’s heart good. One simply wonders why such an exhibition had not been thought of before, for the theme of ceaselessly moving water, of how the surfaces of water reflecting the trees and countryside, runs through and practically dominates the history of Impressionism. Artists caught the brilliance of the random play of light on water, and canvases are dominated by the incandescent, scintillating effects of water.

*Three other important exhibitions are being hosted by the cities of Le Havre, Caen, and the small village of Giverny, home to Claude Monet.

Éblouissants Reflets
Through 30 September 2013 
Musée des Beaux-arts de Rouen
Esplanade Marcel Duchamp
76 000 Rouen, France
Tél. : (33) 2 35 71 28 40

Headline image: Gustave Caillebotte: Voilier sur la Seine, Argenteuil (detail), 1883
Oil on canvas, 65 x 38 cm
Private collection
© Collection particulière / photo: Béatrice Hatala

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan's Toilet Paper currently on view at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

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