• May 6, 2014

Seine Sketches: In the Footsteps of the Impressionists

Cathy Newman
William Albert Allard

“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

Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party"
Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1923/The Bridgeman Art Library
Friends celebrate a birthday at the restaurant "Les Pieds dans l'eau" on I'le de la Jatte.
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
Edouard Manet’s “Agenteuil”
Edouard Manet’s “Agenteuil”
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, Belgium/The Bridgeman Art Library
Picture of a couple on a bridge over the Seine River
A couple shares a moment on the Pont des Arts.
Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative
Georges Pierre’s “The Seine at Courbevoie”
Georges Pierre Seurat’s “The Seine at Courbevoie”
Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library
Picture of people enjoying the Seine River.
Joggers, picnickers, and a dog walker share space on the Quai de Conti.
Photograph by William Albert Allard/National Geographic Creative
Henri Matisse’s "Studio, Quai Saint-Michel "
Henri Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Picture of a girl sitting in an apartment overlooking the Seine River
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.

There are 13 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Beverley Kinnear
    May 13, 2014

    One never ceases to be impressed by the “impressionists”. They seemed to always get at the heart of their subjects, and paint with such reality, underneath the veiled overlay. And, the photographs depicted here are amazing also. It is all art, and the artists are more than amazing! I am an artist of more simple things, but I appreciate it all! One never gets tired of the beauty and illusive reality.

  2. Yvonne
    May 12, 2014

    Mr. Allard’s talent for capturing beauty in photography is superb. The paintings on show are some of my favorites.

  3. elsa cuervo
    May 12, 2014

    Much talent

  4. Neal Rattican
    May 11, 2014

    Bill Allard has one of the best photographic eyes of our age, and remains one of my favorite photographers since I was first introduced to his work by Allard himself years ago in a presentation at the Southern Short Course in News Photography. That presentation featured his pictures of the Amish and from the West, which, as I recall, he titled “Fathers & Sons.” This new work is simply stunning. Thank you, Bill Allard.

  5. Barin Das
    May 11, 2014

    Beautiful & interesting juxta-positioning. We do tend to gloss over photos though due to over proliferation. Paintings by the masters remain timeless.

  6. Rob Wright
    May 11, 2014

    The recent article in this months NGL magazine, itself paints a very interesting picture of the Seine. – an excellent insight from different perspectives..

  7. Arnie Tracey
    May 11, 2014

    I have always felt that the spark towards impressionism, onwards to abstraction was the unequalled ability of a camera to replicate reality, thereby, it seems to me, freeing the painter to do his thing. Great shots. An American in Paris, I live on Rue Frederic Sauton. (See the “Devil Loves Prada” about 1 hour 26min. in for a street scene.) Thanks for the artistic words & shots.

  8. Claudia
    May 11, 2014

    Nice, simular feelings arise. But, thru drawing/paint , you also look deeper to examine the the artist thoughts .Very nice

  9. s c vellal
    May 11, 2014

    all are beautuful.
    renoirs is fantastic.

  10. Clementine Moriarty
    May 11, 2014

    Loved it all..Beauty Abounds! TYVM!

  11. Stephen
    May 8, 2014

    I had similar thoughts out a Giverny a few weeks ago. I think you guys pulled it off a bit better than I, though!


  12. david d. hoskins
    May 7, 2014


  13. evelyn s. solomon
    May 7, 2014


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