A Love Affair: Monet and the River Seine

Since the late 19th century, Claude Monet has been a key influencer in modern art helping transform French painting through the Impressionist movement. He is widely known for his landscape and leisure activities of Paris but was deeply intrigued by the River Seine. Monet’s paintings of the Seine were central to his artistic growth and expression that they even surpass his defining series of water lilies by more than one hundred works. This fall, take a closer look at Monet and his primary inspiration in our course, Monet and the River Seine. You’ll hear from Helga Kessler Aurisch, Ph.D., curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Leo Costello, Ph.D., associate professor of art history at Rice University, who will share Monet’s love affair with the Seine, the importance of water and his other paintings inspired by his gardens and motifs of the surrounding countryside.

Dr. Aurisch shares a sneak peek below of how the Seine was essential to Monet’s identity.

Why was Monet attracted to the River Seine and the element of water?
Monet was first attracted to the Seine during his youth when he was living in the busy port city of Le Havre, where the Seine flows into the English Channel. Since his family was in the ship supply business, he had first-hand experience with all kinds of ships. Eugéne Boudin, his early mentor and teacher was a specialist in marine painting. He took 18-year-old Monet by the hand and showed him the value of painting landscapes outside. Monet’s earliest paintings are landscapes from around Le Havre, including a number of the mouth of the Seine. One of these was his first submission to the Paris Salon, which was not only accepted but actually praised. The water’s changeable quality, and the infinite ways light is reflected on its surface fascinated Monet from the beginning.

So, it is fair to say that Monet was attracted to water as a landscape element from the very beginning of his career. He became deeply fascinated by reflections on the water around 1869 when he was working at La Grenoullière, a popular bathing spot on the Seine, frequented by lots of Parisians. He and his friend Auguste Renoir spent the summer of 1869 painting side by side and interestingly, Renoir, who became the finest portraitist of the Impressionists, concentrates on the elegant crowd while Monet concentrates on painting water, placing each brushstroke so that it evokes the dimples on the surface of the placidly flowing Seine. He also carefully captures the reflections of trees, buildings and boats.

How have Monet and Impressionism made an impact on modern art?
Monet made huge strides in the stylistic development from realistic painting to more abstract works throughout his long career. One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is to note the changes in his style. In many ways it was absolutely true when he said (in an 1880 interview) “The Seine is my studio,” because he did a lot of his experimentation there. A very important innovation was his painting in series — this is one aspect that would become important for 20th century artists from Warhol to Dirst. His series of grain stacks, poplars, the façade of the Cathedral of Rouen and ultimately his water lilies were groundbreaking because of the concept of painting the identical motif over and over and thereby exploring the different effects of sunlight and atmosphere. These well-known series actually had a precursor in the group paintings of ice floes, painted at Vétheuil in the winter of 1879-80, which this exhibition will be able to demonstrate.

His series of Mornings of the Seine, the highlight of our exhibition, are much more lyrical and much more abstract than his earlier series, and breathtakingly beautiful.

What do you expect students to take away from the class?
I hope that students, and really all visitors, will take away a new understanding of an artist we thought we already knew very well. His variety, his originality, and his incredible tenacity of dealing with one theme, as well the sheer beauty of his paintings qualify him as one of the great landscapists of all time, something that this exhibition will hopefully underscore.

Learn more about Monet and the River Seine in our daytime or evening section starting on Thursday, October 16.

Rachael Shappard


Rachael Shappard, Marketing Coordinator

Image credit: “Boats at rest, at Petit-Gennevilliers,” by Claude Monet,
1872, oil on canvas;

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