After moving to France I discovered that the answer was of course a negative one. Argenteuil today is the archetypal Paris suburb; sprawling, cumbersome and grey, with rows of tower blocks pointing skywards in the place of an artist’s poppy meadow. Was Monet’s painting ever the reality though, and is there truly nothing left in the town today to inspire an artist?
Walking through Argenteuil today, there is an immediate sensation that something is not quite right. It is an ancient site, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. The river Seine still flows powerfully past the town, but it is cut away from the centre by a very busy four lane road. It has become literally impossible to walk down to and alongside the river. Running adjacent to the river are the historical arteries of the town, ancient roads with low stacked buildings and houses, many still fulfilling a commercial role that has been theirs for generations.
This is the town that Monet would have known. An agricultural centre, and one of the most important producers of grapes and figs in the region. The heart of the city, where Monet’s home was situated, was still built around ancient fortifications. Of course, industry had arrived in the area after the construction of a bridge and the arrival of the railway in 1851, but the site offered sufficient calm and inspiration to attract not only Monet but also Sisley, Manet, Caillebotte, Pissarro and Van Gogh. None of them would recognise the town today.
It is certainly not an attractive place, albeit very interesting for any students of urbanisation, but I was glad to find that even in these fields of concrete there are still some flowers. Perhaps the most surprising of all are two Art Nouveau constructions along the historical axis of the city. At one end, the Post Office designed by the architect Léo Batton in 1909, and at the other, a similarly decorated house dating from 1906. Batton’s bureau de poste is a fascinating polychrome building, featuring curved stone balconies and a handsome carved entrance doorway.
Tellingly, the inside of the building today is as banal as any other post office, the original fittings surely hidden behind false ceilings and modern panels. Tacked on to the back of the construction is an ugly post-war concrete extension. These buildings mark perhaps the last time that the city cared about its appearance. Art Nouveau was decoration with no specific purpose, bourgeois frivolity that would no longer be acceptable in the city of the worker.
Like much of Western Europe, the schism came during the Second World War. The town now sheltered many industrial sites and became an important target for air raids. Much of the centre was destroyed during this conflict, but the longer lasting damage came afterwards. In 1935 the city elected a Communist council, and the focus changed from agriculture to industry. After the war, it would become the heart of the famous ‘ceinture rouge’ around Paris, and would celebrate the worker and the practical. The urbanist Roland Dubrulle drew a new plan for the city, turning the centre around 90° and running a wide central boulevard up to a new town hall from a bridge across the river. On either side, 15 and 20 story tower blocks sprang up, and the population of the town reached 100,000, ten times more than it had been in 1900. The ancient streets that wound through the centre were cut in half by the boulevard and dwarfed by the new scale of the plan, and found themselves demoted to the role of simple side-streets.
Monet’s escape from Paris is now the third biggest town in the Ile de France region, and the brutal urbanisation of the 1950s and 60s has left deep scars on the landscape and on the social conditions of the inhabitants. Somehow Art Nouveau survived, but what new art will grow here again?