The Impressionists in Marly-le-Roi and Louveciennes

Even today, walking round the quiet streets of these charming towns or in the parks and woodlands that surround them, the urban sophistication of the capital seems a very long way away rather than the thirty minutes journey on a suburban train. This contrast must have been equally as marked for the likes of Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and others who lived and worked in the area for considerable periods. Perhaps it is the atmosphere created where two unmistakably different worlds collide that creates an environment conducive to artistic endeavour. Reminders of a royal and aristocratic past echo loudly at almost every turn and yet strolling along the tree-lined Rue de la Machine in Louveciennes a point is reached where the uncompromising sprawl of urban Paris suddenly dominates the whole scene and it is as if a completely different world is right there before you. Many factors were probably at work when these artists settled on the area to spend some time living and working. Rents were cheaper than in the city and this was always an important consideration for artists constantly struggling to earn a living. There were certainly fewer distractions to interfere with the single-minded pursuit of interpreting the world in new ways through the medium of paint on canvas.

Pissarro in Louveciennes
Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) was born in the West Indies on the island of St Thomas and spent his childhood there before being sent to school in Paris. He returned to the island in 1847 to work in the family business but his interests lay elsewhere and he began to make prolific sketches. At the age of 22 he ran away from his comfortable lifestyle to Caracas in Venezuela in the company of a Danish artists called Fritz Melbye who became his first real artistic influence. Finally his parents became reconciled to their son’s choice of career and he returned briefly to Saint Thomas before travelling to Paris in 1855 to start artistic studies in earnest. 

     In these early years his main influences were Corot, Courbet and Daubigny and at this time he started to paint landscapes along the river Seine and in outlying villages and towns. The 1860s was a critical period in Pissarro’s development as an artist. He became increasingly disillusioned with the work of established painters but found renewed inspiration in the ideas of the young Monet and his circle of like-minded friends. In 1863 he participated in the Salon des Refusés which was the breakaway exhibition organised by the new generation of artists frustrated with the art establishment and the strictures of the official Salon. In 1868 he moved to Louveciennes from Pontoise and produced canvases at a prolific rate, as he would do throughout his life. From his home and studio at 22 Route de Versailles he explored the possibilities of landscape painting in every season and in all weathers, be it sun, rain, snow or wind.

     In 1870 France was convulsed by the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and, in common with many others, Pissarro moved with his family to London. Here again he settled in a suburb of the capital, Upper Norwood, where he continued painting but by June 1871 he felt it safe to return to Paris only to find that his home in Louveciennes had been ransacked and most of his pictures destroyed. He was soon back at work producing paintings at a prodigious rate. However, in August 1872, he and his family moved back to Pontoise and it was there that Pissarro found inspiration for the work of his later years and where he became a pivotal figure in the Impressionist movement, collaborating with many other aspiring artists including Cézanne and Gaugin. In 1884 Pissarro moved to nearby Éragny-sur-Epte where he spent the remainder of his life.


Self portrait, 1873


Sisley in Louveciennes and Marly-le-Roi
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) was born in Paris to English parents. His father was a successful textile merchant and, as was usual in these circumstances, the idea was for Alfred to join the family business. With this in mind Alfred was sent to England in 1857 to prepare for a commercial career but it soon became clear that he had no aptitude for business and was much more interested in visiting exhibitions and galleries and became fascinated by the work of Constable and Turner.

     He returned to Paris in 1859 and soon afterwards enrolled at Gleyre’s studio, sponsored by his sympathetic father, where he studied for two years and where he first met Monet and Renoir. The Barbizon school of painting was a great influence at this formative time in the careers of this new generation of artists and Sisley, in company with Renoir and others, would often visit the forest of Fontainebleau, armed with painting materials and a change of clothes and would not return until their money had run out.
     These would seem to be have been happy times with the young painters developing their art in a relatively carefree atmosphere. However the reality of the established art world led to the work of Sisley together with Monet, Cézanne, Guillemet, Bazille, Pissarro and Renoir being rejected by the official Salon in 1867. This was an important catalyst in the development of an alternative artistic movement to that sponsored by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, eventually leading to the birth of Impressionism.

     It was also at this time that Sisley began his relationship with Eugénie Lescouezec, a florist, who became pregnant with their first child. Pierre was born in June 1867 while Sisley was away in Honfleur painting in the company of Monet and Guillemet. He returned to Eugénie’s address at 27 Cité des Fleurs where the Sisley household was established for the next few years and where a second child Jeanne-Adèle was born in January 1869.


     By the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Sisley had moved to a house in Bougival but abandoned this as the occupying forces approached. The precise movements of the Sisley household during the hostilities are unclear but it is probable that a short time was spent in England. He returned to find that most of the paintings of his youth had been destroyed and  his financial security was also shattered when his father died and the support he had been dependant on came to end. Added to all this was the further tragedy of the early death of a third child, Jacques. In the chaotic aftermath of the war and the Paris Commune the Sisley family returned to Louveciennes and took up residence at 2, Rue de la Princesse.

     There followed a relatively settled period in the artist’s life when he continued his collaboration with Monet and Renoir, producing many important works including the first series of ‘flood’ pictures at Port Marly in the winter of 1872. Although Durand-Ruel was now actively promoting his work, sales were still few in number and financial difficulties were ever-present. Inspite of this Sisley made a visit to England in the summer of 1874 where he painted several major works in the vicinity of Hampton Court.

     There followed a relatively settled period in the artist’s life when he continued his collaboration with Monet and Renoir, producing many important works including the first series of ‘flood’ pictures at Port Marly in the winter of 1872. Although Durand-Ruel was now actively promoting his work, sales were still few in number and financial difficulties were ever-present. Inspite of this Sisley made a visit to England in the summer of 1874 where he painted several major works in the vicinity of Hampton Court.
     In early 1875 the Sisley’s moved to a house in Marly-le-Roi at 2, Avenue de l’Abreuvoir and it was from here that he painted numerous local views, returning time and again to the same scene in an attempt to capture the fleeting nature of wind, rain, sun and snow on the landscape. The Seine burst its banks again in the spring of 1876 and Sisley was there again at Port Marly to record the event.
     Sisley left Marly in 1878 and financial considerations may have been a factor in his move to Sèvres. From there he moved to the area around Saint-Mammès and Moret-sur-Loing in 1880 and it was here that he settled for the rest of his life. Success in the galleries and salerooms continued to allude him and added to money troubles was increasingly fragile health. In 1897 he visited England with Eugénie and it was during this three-month stay he not only painted several important canvases but finally married his companion and mother of his children at a civil ceremony in Cardiff. This may have been the underlying reason for the trip for it was in October the following year that Eugénie died from cancer of the tongue. Sisley’s own health was failing fast and he finally died from cancer of the throat in January 1899 having endured two operations and a great deal of pain before his death.

Renoir in Louveciennes
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) was born in Limoges, the sixth of seven children, his father being a tailor and his mother a dressmaker. In 1844 the family moved to Paris and the young Pierre soon displayed a talent for drawing which eventually led him to become an apprentice painter at a porcelain factory. He developed into a quick and proficient worker which meant that he was able to earn relatively good money and he returned to this job from time to time when the penury associated with being a full time artist became desperate. The money he earned also made it possible to help his parents move out of Paris when the redevelopment of the city by Haussmann made them homeless. And it was to a modest house in Voisins-Louveciennes that they moved and so it was that Renoir’s association with the area began.


Portrait of Renoir, 1867, Frederic Bazille

     Renoir spent much of his free time at the Louvre studying the work of earlier artists such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, influences which would manifest themselves in Renoirs later work. He enrolled at the Gleyre Academy in 1861 and in 1862 he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was at this time that he met and became friends with Monet, Sisley and Bazille and they formed the nucleus of a group of young painters who would subsequently challenge the primacy of the art establishment.
     Barbizon artists such as Camille Corot and Narcisse Diaz were a big influence and the group of young friends made frequent visits to the forest of Fontainebleau following in their footsteps and painting together, often side-by-side. Indeed the group, always strapped for cash, frequently shared their studios and lodgings in Paris. Bazille was the son of wealthy parents and he was never as short of money as the others and it was to him that they often turned for help when funds ran dry or when they could no longer pay the rent.

     On one of these expeditions Renoir was introduced to Lise Tréhot, a stunningly attractive seventeen-year-old, who became his preferred model and his mistress for several years until her marriage. She had two children by Renoir, the first, Pierre, in 1868 and then Jeanne Marguerite in 1870 at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Nothing is known of the boy’s life but the girl lived until 1934. During the war Renoir was called up for military service in the region of the Pyrenees and it was here that he fell dangerously ill with dysentery. After treatment in Bordeaux he rejoined his regiment until he was demobilised in March 1871, finally returning to Paris in April during the period of the Commune. He rented a room on the Left Bank and managed to visit his parents in Louveciennes, an area devastated by the occupying Prussian forces.
     For the next few years he moved between various studios in the St-Germain area and painted many urban scenes, but he was also a frequent visitor to his parents in Louveciennes. A significant factor in the lifestyles of the emerging group of like-minded artists was the habit of spending extended periods in each others company, not only sharing their meagre resources, but also their ideas. Sisley and Pissarro lived in Louveciennes and Monet was close by at Bougival and later at Argenteuil. The group of friends, sometimes joined by Manet, often painted together, exploring similar subjects but interpreted in their individual styles.
     Renoir moved to the Pigalle district of Paris and continued to paint urban views and studio portraits, but also explored further the areas to the west of the city including the banks of the Seine at Chatou and Bougival. Society portraits did at least earn the artist some much needed money and several of these works were accepted by the official Salon, although Renoir continued to participate in the break-away Impressionist exhibitions.
     The Normandy coast became a favourite subject for Renoir and he made extended visits there during the summers of 1879–1883. He was also a frequent visitor to the Fournaise family on the island at Chatou where he painted several portraits and it was at their restaurant that he set the ambitious work – Le Déjeuner des Cantoniers (Luncheon of the Boating Party).
     Renoirs father had died in 1874 but his mother continued to live in Louveciennes and in 1881 she moved to another house in the town. His sister, Elisa, also moved to live nearby and so the Renoir family were firmly established in the area and the artist was a regular visitor. It was at this time that he travelled further afield and made painting trips to Algeria and Italy. On the latter trip he was accompanied by his mistress, Aline Victorine Charigot, who had modelled for him since 1879. They travelled extensively and visited Venice, Padua, Florence, Rome, Naples, Capri and Palermo.
     The couple returned to Marseille in January 1882 and Renoir took the opportunity to paint with Cézanne at L’Estaque and then stayed on in the South of France for several months, making another short trip to Algiers. The couple became an established part of the art scene in Paris and they were finally married in 1890.
     The artist’s mother died in 1896 but Renoir continued to be a frequent visitor to the town, staying with his pupil Jeanne Baudot, the daughter of his doctor, and indeed he had a studio at her house from where he continued to paint local scenes. Failing health and the onset of rheumatism led Renoir to the warmth of the South of France but he continued to make summer visits to Louveciennes, renting a house close to that of Jeanne Baudot between 1907 and 1915. 


Other significant artists
Aristide Maillol (1861–1944)
He attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Académie between 1882 and 1886 and was contemporary of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Gauguin. He became a member of the Nabis group and his early work was directed towards painting and tapestry designs. By 1900 he had contracted an eye disease and this led him to concentrate on small statues made of wood and clay from which he developed his monumental stone and bronze statues. The main subject of his sculptural work was the female form, and his voluptuous figures were reminiscent of Gauguin's women as well as of Renoir's later nudes. Maillol is often called the 'Cézanne of sculpture, as he, like Cézanne, can be seen as a link between classical realism and abstraction. He lived and worked in Marly-le-Roi between 1906 and 1939, producing some of his most important work and his house and studio can still be seen.

Jeanne Baudot
She was the daughter of Renoir’s doctor in Louveciennes and she became a pupil of the great man. She became friends with many of the Impressionists and their families and was the godmother of Renoir’s son, Jean.

Emile Philippe
He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp with a gold medal in 1905 and during his career he exhibited with many well known artists, including Renoir at the Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels in 1916. While living in Louveciennes he made many paintings of the local area.


Louveciennes, 1925, Emile Philippe

(courtesy of Jean Pierre Philippe)

The same view in 2009