(The Metropolitan Museum of Art; H. O. Havemeyer Collection)

Claude Monet (b. 1840)

La Grenouillère, 1869

On view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Great Works, In Focus

Broken brushstrokes

In this gorgeous early Monet painting, some see a cesspool of sex and vice

Claude Monet’s “La Grenouillère,” 1869. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; H. O. Havemeyer Collection)

One year before France’s Second Empire collapsed and Paris was besieged by Prussians, three years before he painted “Impression, Sunrise” and five years before the first impressionist exhibition, Claude Monet painted “La Grenouillère,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With its rapid, broken brushstrokes (apparent especially in the water), and its rendering of the physical world as colored light rather than meticulously modeled space, this 1869 work is often celebrated as a turning point in the history of art: one of the very first identifiably “impressionist” paintings.

There were, however, precedents. And Monet himself talked down the canvas as a bad pochade — a hastily executed, unresolved work. (His bigger, more resolved painting of the same subject went missing during World War II and is presumed destroyed.)

The scene is La Grenouillère (the Frog Pond), a bathing spot with a floating restaurant on the Seine near Chatou, just west of Paris. It’s the summer of ’69. Monet is down on his luck, destitute. He’s staying nearby with his soon-to-be wife, Camille; he comes to La Grenouillère to paint alongside his pal Pierre- Auguste Renoir.

To our eyes, the image looks reposeful, soothing, sedate, like the opening of a Merchant Ivory film. It was actually a cesspool of sex and vice.

Guy de Maupassant set his story “Femme Fatale” at La Grenouillère. In the adjacent park, he wrote, “busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes.” The restaurant’s patrons kept an eye on the freshly hooked-up couples who cruised by in small, rented boats.

Maupassant noted the suffocating summer heat and slow-moving current in this “dead branch” of the Seine and the ambient smell of spilled drinks, cheap perfume and talc. He wrote that the place “reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society.” Those who congregated there were “cheats, con-men and cheap hacks” who, he said, “mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps and racketeers.”

Maupassant’s passage reminded me of Grandmaster Flash’s description, in his 1982 masterpiece “The Message,” of “the number-book takers/ Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big moneymakers/ Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens/ And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh/ Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers/ Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers.”

A gratuitous comparison? Sure. But I’m trying to take you briefly away from received wisdom regarding Monet and impressionism. When you go to an impressionist exhibition, you tend to imbibe the hagiographical, gift shop version. When you study impressionism in college, you’re drilled in Marxist interpretations of the social inequities these beloved pictures of everyday life are said to reveal (or repress).

But Monet and Renoir were out in the world, with their bodies, their backstories, their hunger, their senses. Intoxicated by what they saw, they felt moved and energized to invent a new style of painting that might capture it with the immediacy it warranted — to make what they saw congruent with the inner urgency of their own lives.

So, rather than reduce their experience to fit either our political theories or our predilection for kitsch, why not first credit their intoxication? What did Monet see at La Grenouillère? What did it feel like to be there?

It had something to do with the light and the water and the atmosphere — that much we know. But also … What a place! Paris, with its gaslight glamour, its yawning new boulevards, its tremors of social discord, just down the river. Hustlers on the prowl up and down the riverbank. Prostitution rife. Revolution in the air. An empire about to fall.

If you were to film it, you wouldn’t choose Merchant Ivory. You’d choose Martin Scorsese.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.