Wednesday, January 19, 2011


In the summer of 1880, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir was in Chatou, hard at work on a future masterpiece. He invited a friend in Paris to come for a visit. "You won't regret the trip, I assure you" Renoir wrote. "There is not a lovelier place in all the surroundings of Paris."  

Courtesy Phillips Collection
The painting that Renoir was working on was "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" (Le Dejeuner des Canotiers). In it, many of Renoir's friends, including his future wife, Aline Charigot, sit in the sparkling sunlight on the balcony of la Maison Fournaise, a guingette in Chatou. 
On a recent morning in Paris when the sun made a rare winter appearance, I decided to heed Renoir's advice and visit Chatou, which is on the banks of the Seine just seven miles west of Paris.

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay
Renoir's friend probably took the train from Paris' St. Lazare Station, a subject much painted by Claude Monet. The advent of the train line from Paris to the small towns outside the city made it easy for the young Bohemians to hone their painting skills en plein air. Painters, including Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Morisot, Pissarro and Caillebotte, flocked to the surrounding countryside along with like-minded musicians, actors and writers, including Guy de Maupassant who set many of his stories and novels in the surrounding area. Rich Parisians came as well and built the elegant villas that still line the river.  

Instead of the train, my friend Marcelle and I headed out of Paris on the more convenient RER, the regional branch of the Metro. Three stops beyond Chatou at St. Germain-en-Laye, we began the four-mile walk that would take us not only back toward Paris, but also back through time. 

The chateau of St. Germain-en-Laye, dates to 1124 and was the birthplace of King Louis XIV. We crossed the park of the chateau and headed down to the river, where the scenery in many places is still surprisingly bucolic. Glimpsed through the trees or across the shimmering water, the towns of Le Pecq, Bougival, Croissy and Chatou look very much as they did in the time of the Impressionists. 

Barges still pass as they snake their way from Paris to the sea, but the cafes, bathhouses and all but one of the famous guinguette - those raucous dance halls painted and patronized by numerous Impressionists - have disappeared.  

We walked up the river toward Croissy-sur-Seine and on to the Bougival bridge, the subject of an 1870 Monet painting. Halfway across, we descended steps to the Ile de la Chaussée. The island was also known as the Ile de la Grenouillière, in honor of a popular guinguette on the island that, in its heyday, attracted a cross-section of French society. People swam and boated during the day, and ate, drank, danced and loved away the night. A popular guide book of the time gave this succinct description: "La Grenouillière, just between us, is not exactly a recommended spot for clergymen."  

From this island, it's a short walk across a connecting dike to Ile des Impressionnistes. When we arrived at the dike, however, a locked gate barred our way. In formal administrative language, a large sign announced essentially that because of high water, the dike was unstable and we risked drowning in the Seine. Marcelle, being French, was all for defying this attack on our liberty, and urged that we go forward. What came to my mind, however, was the Great Flood of 1910  and the drowning, not far from this very spot, of Alphonse Fournaise, the son of the family that owned la Maison Fournaise and one of the young, happy people in "The Luncheon of the Boating Party." No matter how romantic, I did not want my first view of the Ile des Impressionnistes to be my last. Although still certain of her position, Marcelle agreed to turn back.

She was right, of course. From the other side of the river, we could see people (presumably French) walking the full length of the dike, high above the water. On the other hand, our detour took us past beautiful villas built in the late 1800s, small, balconied riverfront houses in Chatou and the town's beautiful Church of Saint Leonard and Saint Martin, built in the second-half of the 13th century. 

We crossed over to the Ile des Impressionnistes at Chatou and set out to find the la Maison Fournaise, the last surviving guinguette. The landscape across the river toward Paris has changed dramatically, but the Maison Fournaise looks much the same as it did more than a hundred years ago. Its exterior was aglow in the light of the setting sun, but inside all was dark. Our hopes of a warm drink on the balcony made famous by Renoir were dashed. Instead, we walked across the bridge and into an inviting, but decidedly less famous cafe, where we ordered espresso and pain au chocolate

There we sat - subjects for a modern-day artist - two good friends at a table by the window in a Paris cafe, talking and laughing and whiling away the end of a beautiful day.

To see more photos, click here.

Recommended Reading:
by Guy de Maupassant
(Chapter 2 has a lively description of la Grenouillière.)
Click here to read in English on Ebooks.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Oh, I imagine you WERE like subjects for another painting! That sounds exquisite. I could envision it all. What a wonderful outing! Thanks for the grand description, as always!

  2. What else can I say? Paris is such a beautiful place that I want to visit over and over again.

  3. Lovely...simply lovely.

  4. An ideal read would be The Luncheon of the Boating Party by S. Vreeland from 2007.It was fairly popular a couple of years ago. It's a fictionalized account of creating that painting!

  5. Thanks. I'll look forward to reading it.

  6. This post of yours is the one I quote most often; the part about it being an "attack on our liberty". I think it's marvelous and have tried to adapt your friend's perspective. Thanks for writing!


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