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Seine Sketches: In the Footsteps of the Impressionists

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The Seine is the liquid heart of Paris—a conduit of commerce, a source of inspiration for artists, and a dreamlike backdrop for romance in settings provided by the dinner boat Le Calife.

“I wanted the images to be less literal, more painterly,” illustrations editor Susan Welchman said when thinking how photographer Bill Allard might approach the coverage of our story on the Seine River that appears in the May issue of National Geographic. So she turned to the Impressionists as inspiration.

It was a natural pairing. Renoir, Seurat, and Sisley all painted the shifting light of the Seine. Monet had a floating studio on the river near Verteuil. Matisse’s studio at 19 Quai Saint-Michel overlooked the river where it embraces the Île St. Louis and Île de la Cité. (Both writer—who happened to be me—and photographer tried, unsuccessfully, to get into that apartment; the woman concierge who ferociously guarded the door was singularly unimpressed with our press credentials and forbade it. Fortunately, Bill’s hotel room was just a few buildings away and had a similar view to the one painted by Matisse.)

The fluidity of Impressionism, the feeling of movement, of being halfway between realism and the abstract was an obvious source of inspiration for the story and congruent with Bill’s style. Text followed suit, and was written as a series of sketches—an early title for the piece was, in fact, “Ten Seine Sketches.”

What do the images show? People now, as then, coming to the river for a stroll, for a picnic, for romance, or simply to meet friends and enjoy life.

These days, the boat on the Seine may be powered by motor rather than sail or oar; crinolines, bustles, full skirts and top hats of those on a promenade are replaced by wearers of jeans and t-shirts. But the interplay of light and water on the river is as captivating now as it was for the 19th century painters who captured its opalescence.
And so, we present a series of pairings of paintings and photographs from the assignment for the sheer pleasure of enjoyment. Monet would have approved. “People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand,” he wrote. “When it’s simply necessary to love.” Cathy Newman

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Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923/The Bridgeman Art Library
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Friends celebrate a birthday at the restaurant “Les Pieds dans l’Eau” on Île de la Jatte. Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative
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Edouard Manet’s “Agenteuil” Musee des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, Belgium/The Bridgeman Art Library
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A couple shares a moment on the Pont des Arts. Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative
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Georges Pierre Seurat’s “The Seine at Courbevoie” Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library
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Joggers, picnickers, and a dog walker share space on the Quai de Conti. Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative
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Henri Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
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A young woman models in the photographer’s hotel room, a few doors down from Matisse’s Quai Saint-Michel studio. The buildings, bridge, river and light all can be seen exactly as it was 150 years before by the painter himself. Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative

The influence of the Impressionists upon photographers begs the reverse question: how did photography possibly influence the Impressionists?

The Kodak camera was becoming greatly popular during the height of the Impressionist’s period. One signature of Impressionism is the feeling of the momentary, the fleeting moment, the chance happening having to do with an often common subject; a candid look similar to that of the camera, with depiction of a gesture or stance more akin to a snapshot than to a posed, studio work of art.

As a photographer I find myself drawn to the Impressionists not only because of their use of light and color but for their exploration of the happenstance. Although I like to make portraits of people with the hope that I can look into them and not just at them, I often want to make photographs as an unobserved observer, with that same sense of the candid and immediate. And I love to use Paris as my subject. When in Paris I want to see the kind of subjects, at least as they exist in the 21st century, that the Impressionists saw, and make my images appear to be unobserved. And that, I suppose, makes me quite a romantic. Maybe that’s not all bad. William Albert Allard

Cathy Newman and William Albert Allard’s feature story “Love and Loss on the Seine,” was published in the May 2014 issue. A video interview with Allard on the power of photography can be seen here.

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