The French waterways are known for their tranquility and lovely scenery, and these attributes have unsurprisingly inspired artists for centuries. In fact, some of the world’s most famous paintings feature rivers and canals in France.
There’s something about the reflections in the water, the sunlight dappling on the ripples and the idyllic countryside along the banks that makes French rivers the ideal setting for works of art. In this French Waterways blog post we look at some of the most inspirational places on the waters in France.
Scenes on the Seine
Like all French waterways, the River Seine provides stunning scenery along almost its entire length as it ambles its way across northern France. But there are some spots on this river that provide a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to a painting. The Impressionists thought so and many iconic works found their inspiration on spots on the Seine including:
The quiet backwater, northwest of Paris, became known as one of the best spots for sailing during the late 18th century. Here the River Seine meanders appealed to the Impressionists too and several key artists used Argenteuil as a backdrop to their works.
Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet loved Argenteuil so much they both owned boats here and used to take to the Seine and paint. Edouard Manet also found inspiration on the Seine at this pretty place.
Monet’s boat doubled as a floating studio and his favourite spot for inspiration was the small deck where he set up his easel. Several well-known works by Monet feature this French waterway including “Autumn at Argenteuil” painted in 1873, “Bridge at Argenteuil” and “Regatta”, both works from 1874. All three paintings mirror the intense blues of the River Seine and the reflections in it.
Renoir also painted the Seine while he was at Argenteuil, but probably his most famous river picture doesn’t feature the river at all. In “Lunch of the Boating Party”, Renoir focuses instead on the people on a boat and the laughing group of women and men in their straw hats. Today this is one of the most famous Impressionist paintings in the world.
Slightly up river from Argenteuil and nearer Paris is Asnières whose sloping river banks made it an ideal spot for bathing. Georges Seurat, who started as an Impressionist but is probably best known for his pointillism, was so inspired by the bathing station on the Seine that he painted the emblematic “Bathers at Asnières” in 1883.
The picture of a group of locals by the Seine – and of course the iconic red swimming hat worn by one of the boys in the water – has come to epitomise a relaxing afternoon by the river.
This spot on the Seine, down water from Paris, is synonymous with the water lilies painted by Monet who in the latter part of his artistic career created over 40 pictures inspired by the waterway at Giverny. Not only did he paint water lilies on the Seine itself, but also those he planted in his own water gardens in the grounds of his house near the river.
Best of Brittany
Brittany, one of the most popular places to holiday in France, is more famous for its coastline than its rivers and Paul Gauguin is best known for his pictures influenced by Tahiti. Yet Brittany’s rivers and the great post-Impressionist artist came together in the late 1880s.
Gauguin was fundamentally inspired by inland Brittany and some of his most famous works from the time he lived in the region draw on Pont Aven (on the River Aven) for their inspiration. This Breton river takes centre stage in several of his paintings such as “Brittany Landscape” and “Les Lavandieres” showing washerwomen in the river.
Waterways in Brittany also provided inspiration for Gauguin’s contemporary and pupil, Paul Sérusier. “Le Talisman” depicts reflections in a bend on the River Aven and is considered to be Sérusier’s finest work. Its style that takes a giant step away from Impressionism in its use of brilliant yellow, red and purple makes it one of the first “modern art” paintings.
The sun-drenched landscapes, lavender fields and medieval villages of Provence have long inspired writers and artists. The region became particularly popular after the 1850s when artists discovered that its warm climate and bright light made conditions ideal for painting. Many world famous painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Edvard Munch spent time in Provence.
One of the most famous Provence artists was Paul Cézanne who was born in Aix en Provence and remained throughout his life influenced by the waterways of his childhood. One of his most representative pictures of Provence is “Riverbank”, painted in 1895 and depicting buildings on a river landscape.
Probably the most prolific Provence painter was Vincent Van Gogh who was inspired by the area’s canal waterways that reminded him strongly of his native Holland. During his time at Arles, he painted over 200 paintings and made countless sketches of the landscape.
Among his pictures of rivers in the region are the several versions of Langlois Bridge, a small but unique drawbridge that crossed the Bouc Canal in Arles. However, probably his most famous painting is “Starry Night over the Rhone”, painted in 1888 and a representation of the gas lights on the east side of Arles reflected in the River Rhone. This picture later evolved into “Starry Night”, another of Van Gogh’s iconic works.