Standing in front of the church at Auvers-sur-Oise where the view has remained practically unchanged for well over a century, the image seen so many times reproduced in books or on postcards is right there before your eyes. Van Gogh would instantly recognise what you are looking at but what he painted is not a slavish reproduction of reality but an image reflecting his state of mind and thought processes filtered through the medium of paint on canvas. By comparing the two images a deeper understanding of what the artist was trying to convey may be possible and a fuller appreciation of the artist’s view of the world may be achieved.

That is an example of what this site hopes to illustrate, not only for Van Gogh but for many other painters of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, by taking the reader on self-guided tours of some of the most important locations where the artists lived, worked and found their inspiration. It is a journey undertaken in the present but with constant visual reminders, in the form of the painted record, of a fascinating period of social, political, scientific and, not least, art history.

Many of the characters who appear in this survey were born in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and therefore into a country and a continent constantly riven by upheavals of one kind or another. Only a generation before, the empire of Napolean I had collapsed after his defeat at Waterloo, bringing to an end, not only, a period of war, internal strife, social and political revolution but also a time in which the foundations of modern French identity were established.

The age-old edifice of class structure had, to some extent, been swept away in the Revolution and in the subsequent battles for political power between monarchy and republic. The latest manifestation of this was the Revolution of 1848 in which the monarchy of Louis-Philippe was replaced by the Second Republic. However, it wasn’t long before Louis Napolean (nephew of the first emperor) led a coup d’état and established himself as Emperor Napolean III, paradoxically ushering in a period of unprecedented change. More social and political upheavals were to follow in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which saw the humiliating defeat of the emperor and foreign occupation of large parts of the country. The capital was convulsed yet again by violence and anarchy in the Paris Commune of 1871 and from the political and physical wreckage emerged the Third Republic.

Added to this was the development of new industries, communications and technologies including the advent of the railways which changed the way society was organised. A relatively static, immobile, agrarian economy was superseded by a more dynamic industrial landscape which had, as one of its consequences, a massive movement of population from the countryside to the towns and cities. In Paris, until now a largely mediaeval city, this led to monumental changes and expansion, epitomised by the work of Baron Haussmann, transforming the city into the place that is, to a large extent, recognisable today. Another characteristic of the age was the rapid growth of an urban middle class with money available for leisure activities, which together with the ever-changing built environment, provided innovative subject matter for artists of the time.

Enquiring minds led to the undermining of another traditional pillar of the establishment – the Church. The certainties of Catholic faith were challenged by new theories of evolution and the history of mankind which were in complete contrast to the literal interpretation of the Bible. With most areas of life being subject to challenge and questioning it is not surprising that the art world should experience similar movements and with the exceptional generation of painters that boldly strode into this hothouse of new ideas it was inevitable that the art establishment would be shaken to its core.

Ironically, the initial ambition for most of the aspiring generation of painters was to gain acceptance to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, part of the Institute de France. For some of their number, including Manet, recognition by this bastion of the establishment remained a lifelong pursuit. Many of the principal figures in what became the Impressionist movement first met at one of the art schools such as the Académie Suisse and Académie Gleyre where students would study human anatomy and the classical tradition of the Old Masters in preparation for selection into the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was when their attempts to gain entry to this institution failed or when their work was rejected by the official Salon that artists such as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne and others found common cause and were galvanised into establishing an alternative artistic movement with exhibitions of their own.

Most of the fraternity were usually short of money and struggled to finance their risky choice of career and this led many of them to find cheap accommodation and studio space in outlying districts of the city such as Montmartre. Here they would share hardships, humble dwellings, frugal meals and, most importantly, ideas. However, as these ideas developed and interests turned to capturing effects of light and movement and atmosphere, the urban environment began to have limitations. The city would remain, for many of them, an important element in choice of subject matter, but for others horizons had to be broadened and this led them to explore the areas around Paris, now within easy travelling distance on the new railway network. Finding subject matter that gave them vehicles for exploring new ideas and techniques, many decided to move to these relatively inexpensive outlying communities. Some of the artists, not least Monet, also wanted to keep on the move for more practical reasons – avoiding creditors.

And so it was that areas like Pontoise, Auvers-sur-Oise, Port Marly, Mary-le-Roi, Louveciennes, Bougival, Chatou, Argenteuil, Asniers-sur-Seine and Saint-Cloud became important elements in the story of artistic endeavour in the second half of the nineteenth and the opening years of the twentieth centuries. It is this sweep of suburban towns and villages on the banks of the rivers Oise and Seine that will be explored over the following pages. Inevitably the physical reality of these places has changed to either a greater or lesser extent over the course of the last 150 years. In some cases the artists who lived and worked here would recognise almost nothing but in others they would recognise almost everything. In most cases there remains something of the atmosphere that was part of the original attraction and, if nothing else, some delightful and overlooked corners of the modern city of Paris will be discovered.


This website is a non-profit making work meant for the dissemination of information only. By its nature it depends on the reproduction of paintings and the constraints of copyright vary considerably. All images on this site are freely available elsewhere on the internet. Wherever possible credit has been made to the relevant institution and images have been copied from the official website and a direct link provided. Where that has not been possible the website address from whence the image originated has been given. If any individual or institution objects to any image being used for these purposes then they will be removed immediately and replaced by an explanation for their absence.

Sister sites

This site concentrates on the area in the Ile de France where Impressionism was born and developed. There are associated sites which look at different aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting in different locations. The first is which investigates the significance of the River Thames as a source of inspiration and looks in detail at the work of Alfred Sisley in the Hampton Court area and the appeal of the river in central London for an extensive list of painters including Monet, Pissarro, Whistler, Derain and many more. The second is which takes a journey through the South of France and visits places which have been significant in the history of art in the last century and a half and examines the work of many of the great names, including Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Signac, Cross, Van Rysselberghe, Matisse, Derain, Braque, Dufy and many more. Finally is a site which gives additional details about the various places visited on this site including details of suggested places to stay and places to eat and drink.

Bibliography and Selected Reading

Baily, Colin B.; Riopell, Christopher; House, John; Kelly, Simon; Zarobell, John; Renoir Landscapes

     1865–1883; National Gallery Company Ltd, 2007

Connaissance des Arts; Cézanne et Pissarro; H.S. no. 275

Connaissance des Arts; Vlaminck, un instinct fauve; H.S. no. 351

Delafond, Marianne; Genet-Bondeville, Caroline; Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity;

     Denis and Annie Rouart Foundation/Marmottan Monet Museum, 2011

Denvir, Bernard; The Chronicle of Impressionism; Thames and Hudson, 1993

House, John; Impressionism: Paint and Politics; Yale University Press, 2004

King, Ross; The Judgement of Paris; Chatto & Windus, 2006

Lacoudre, Anthony; Ici Est Né l’Impressionnisme; Editions du Valhermeil

Lurie, Patty; A Guide to The Impressionist Landscape; Bullfinch Press, 1990

Roe, Sue; The Private Lives of the Impressionists; Chatto & Windus, 2006

Stevens, MaryAnne (ed); Alfred Sisley (exhibition catalogue); Royal Academy of Arts

     (in association with Yale University Press), 1992

Warrell, Ian; Turner on the Seine; Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999

Useful general sites

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Where the artist stood