From source to estuary, the Seine has lavished her curves and geniality upon those drawn to her, particularly artists who have endlessly pursued her image, thus each finding their own.In the mind’s eye, one sees the Seine only in the eternal afternoon of French impressionism where the time of season is most often summer. French art and literature owe a great debt to the Seine. The Seine was to artists, poets and philosophers what the Silk Road was to traders in the East.  The prestige of the Seine is quite disproportionate to her length. It is a mere stream in comparison the the Mackenzie, St-Lawrence, or Danube. Yet it is a paragon of rivers, incorporating elements of the mythical and mysterious similar to the Nile, the Jordan and added exoticism of the Amazon.

Paul Cezanne, Bridge at Maincy (1879) For Cezanne this was a rare sortie into impressionist territory. Cezanne remained for the most part unmoved by the Seine.

Paul Cezanne, Bridge at Maincy (1879) For Cezanne this was a rare sortie into impressionist territory. Cezanne remained for the most part unmoved by the Seine.

Through the centuries Paris has been the center of France, and Paris owes its predominance to the Seine. She runs through 800 miles of French countryside and twenty centuries of French history and civilization. Morphologically, the Seine is a snaky, curvy river that winds reluctantly from source to estuary; just about half of her actual length if put in a straight line. ” In Paris she behaves like the American student who comes to visit, is conquered, and finds a pretext to stay: it is not until she has meandered three times through the city that she consents to move on.”

Alfred Sisley, Nut Trees at Thomery. (1880) Seine near the edge of he Forest of Fontainebleau

Alfred Sisley, Nut Trees at Thomery. (1880) Seine near the edge of he Forest of Fontainebleau

On the whole, the Seine is smooth and slow, mainly the result of a difference of altitude of only 500 metres between spring and estuary and a low quota of clay in her bed that permits it to absorb sudden increases in the flow of water. The virtue of that slowness has deeply impressed itself on the French character and spirit; the Seine,s course is a literal demonstration of how a little can be made to go a long way. French vocabulary appears limited when compared to English, but every word is made to bear a maximum weight. Racine’s tragedies seem narrow and paltry compared to Shakespeare’s, but the compensate in intensity for what lacks in extensiveness.

A few apples, a small mountain, and some pine covered rocks were all that Cezanne needed to revolutionize modern painting. An analysis of the mainstream of French culture points to, in large measure, the conclusion that its behavior parallels that of the Seine. The Seine’s origins are based on the pagan legend of the nymph Sequana fleeing neptune in hot pursuit,from which she was turned into water to avoid his lecherous advances….or the Christian legend of Saint-Seine drinking from a spring welling up at the spot where his donkey had kneeled. Tying these two theories together in the incontrovertible curative virtues of the Spring in history. Archaeological evidence, interpreted by medical science showed that Seine water was effective against eye sores, sterility, imbecility, venereal disease and a plethora of other irritations both real and imagined. The Seine is embraced by thousands of bridges which for centuries was the circuitry of community life. The oldest surviving of which, ironically,is called the Pont Neuf became known as an open air salon  where mountebanks,quacks and barbers performed, watched by crowds of ”flaneurs”; hence the expression, ”At any time on the Pont Neuf, you are sure to meet a monk, a white horse, and a whore”.

Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou. The man in the foreground in Gustave Caillebotte, part time painter and wealthy painter

Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou. The man in the foreground in Gustave Caillebotte, part time painter and wealthy painter

In fact, the art of insult, the invention of the ”vespasienne” ,a synonym for public urinal from which came the immortal phrase ”money doesn,t stink”,  may not be the consequence of a pressing need, but a gesture freely willed inculcated by the vitalistic qualities of Seine water mixed with the river’s poetic sweep. Resulting in a deliberate affront to sublimity. Restif de la Bretonne, engraved these immortal words into a parapet on the Ile Saint-Louis, Paris’s loveliest island as a commentary on an enchanting love affair, French style: ”She made me happy, I made her pregnant, we are even.”

Blame it on the water. The fine art of the french insult is renown as a cultural ”quality” to some and a challenge to the unprepared. However, over the centuries, France has received as good as it has been gracious enough to  offer:”France is a country where the money falls apart in your hands and you can tear the toilet paper ( Billy Wilder )The friendship of the French is like their wine, exquisite, but of short duration ( German saying )Paris is like a whore, from a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. Five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.(Henry Miller)The ignorance of French society gives one a rough sense of the infinite. (Joseph E. Renan, French philologist, religious writer and historian)PAUL BOURGET: Life can never be entirely dull to an American. When he has nothing else to do he can always spend a few years trying to discover who his grandfather was.TWAIN: Right, your Excellency. But I reckon a Frenchman’s got a little standby for a dull time too; he can turn in and see if he can find out who his father was. (Mark Twain, US writer)”

The main weapon in the French arsenal of the insult is of their own creation; Prose poetry. A hybrid that contains the power and punch of poetry’s conciseness, metaphor and special attention to language married to the polemics and antagonistic potential of the micro-story or mini fiction. Its origins herald from nineteenth century writers such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Aloysius Bertrand among others including the inimitable Alfred Jarry. The genre was subsequently found notable exemplars in Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein and Allen Ginsberg and Grouch Marx to name but a few.

The hero and heroine of Flaubert’s ”Education Sentimentale” meet on the ship that carried Napoleon’s ashes, and AlainFournier made on a  ”bateau mouche” the brief hopeless encounter that was to inspire the most romantic scenes in ”Le Grand Meaulnes” . But, the river’s rhythm and mentality was really defined by barges, and the barge spirit characterized by excruciating slowness, a quasi meditative existence borderi

n cult status. Barge people as nomadic Bedouin incapable of an existence on terra firma.

Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating pary, 1881.

Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating pary, 1881.

The affinity between words and rivers is enhanced with the Seine’s conjunction with Paris. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote,” the Seine flows between banks and books”. Few french writers have remained unreceptive to it.  The poet Leon Paul Fargue once claimed that a ”clochard” assured him he slept on the quais facing he Louvre because he dreamt more distinguished dreams there. French literature is littered with wistful, resigned pessimism and it may be the Seine,s influence for inculcating a profound sense of flowing away and universal nothingness in the writings of Baudelaire, Racine and others. This was acknowledged by Guy de Maupassant when he wrote, ” Ah! the beautiful calm, varied and stinking river, full of mirages and filth. I believe I loved her so much because she revealed to me the meaning of life.”

The proportion of filth to mirage today in the Seine is staggering, yet the french cling obstinantly to the mythical illusion of pristine purity of their river; what 150 years ago Gautier scoffed, ”loathsome river fed by gutters”. Its value ultimately lies in its insualtion from the follies of modern life. The picture and romantic imagery evoked from the Seine artistically has its own estuary. And where the water rolls of the lips that is Auguste Renoir. What attracted painter like Monet, manet, Pissarro and Renoir to the river was impressionism. The Seine furnished them the instruments of light and water that made it possible to break out of the closed forms and the dark, compartmented colors prevailing around 1860. Stable facts gave way to fleeting ”impressions”. Monet continued to pursue those passing impressions on his pond strewn with water lillies at Giverny, until he dissolved all objects and wed sun and water so indistinguishably that his ultimate paintings are hailed a prefigurations of neo-geometric abstraction.

However, impressionism was not a spontaneous outpouring , but perhaps a an extension of the political, social and technological forces in place. After the Paris riots of 1848,  visual representations of bourgeois leisure on the Seine exemplified an historical forgetfulness that  many believed were a necessary illusion   inherent to nation-building and reconstruction. The link  between riverine leisure as depicted in Impressionist painting and the construction of national and cultural identities in the early Third Republic is apparent.  Idealised views of pleasure-boating on the Seine, symbolic heart of the capital, celebrated the affluent middle classes on whom the new Republic depended and located them in an iconic national riverscape. Such painting was also perceived to embody the modern Republican values of secularism and science, and it was consequently invoked in support of the developing Republican nation. Also, beginning in the 1860’s, paint became available in soft metal tubes instead of the cumbersome process of mixing pigments with oil, and this facilitated outdoor work. In addition, the invention of the Daguerre photographic processes and their popularity among the better off,  required artists to invoke visual representations that would ensure the art market’s viability.

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  1. mason mckibben says:

    Prose poetry. Bitter laughter, but not without mirth. How many more iterative cycles or meanderings. This really helps me get a grip on impressionism: “visual representations of bourgeois leisure on the Seine exemplified an historical forgetfulness that many believed were a necessary illusion inherent to nation-building and reconstruction.”

    In a similar vein. what are your views of the Artistic lineage and Cultural/Historical periodicity of Bosch or Bruegel?


    • Dave says:

      Not enough of an expert! But am working on something within the next couple weeks that preceded them and that marked the end of the end and the beginning of a beginning so to speak. Am strictly a layman. thanks for the comment, and a satisfactory response will be forthcoming shortly.

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