Smudges of blue paint like footprints speckle the snow beside a mud-worn path. A traveler in a blue coat, which seems to have been stamped on his torso by a divine finger, ambles forward, proceeding down the muddy trail to leave the town behind.
In “Snow at Argenteuil” by Claude Monet, a handful of travelers wander through a suburb of Paris, but the snowy scene captures the feeling of winter in any rural town.
The painting accompanies several others by the famed impressionist at the Detroit Institute of Arts in “Monet: Framing Life,” an exhibition that opened last fall and will run until March 4. Monet spent four years living in Argenteuil (ar-jahn-toi-yuh), France, where on canvas after canvas he painted his wife and young son, the town’s harbor, and its blotted skyline.
But Monet tended to shrink from the industrial. He preferred painting gladioli flowers.
On the two-hour car trip to Detroit’s Art Center, snow rests on wooden homes with peeling yellow paint and mimics the pallor of “CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO” spread in giant white letters on the side of rotting barns. Old, aging factories flank a father-and-son tire shop that shuttered years ago.
The signs of decaying industrialism contrast with the crisp stone walls and massive murals in the halls of the DIA. But most of all, they belie the sailboats and sunlit gardens of almost a dozen paintings in the small, dark room that hosts an exhibition of impressionist art.
“Framing Life,” with its paintings of gardens and homes, centers around the only Monet painting in the DIA’s permanent collection. Known for 99 years as “Gladioloi,” the painting was recently renamed “Rounded Flower Bed (Corbeille de fleurs)” by the museum to reflect what it may have been called when it was displayed in 1877.
A plaque underneath the painting explains that an inscription on the back led curators to believe it was displayed under this alternate title at the 1877 exhibition where artists first labeled themselves “Impressionists.”
“Rounded Flower Bed” caps Monet’s artistic successes in Argenteuil. Thanks to Monet’s ivy-coated home, the town became a center for artistic activity, where he cultivated a cultural center for impressionism by drawing other artists into his orbit. But soon after the painting’s completion, he would move to his home in Giverny and paint his famous water lilies.
The other paintings in “Framing Life” develop the context of “Rounded Flower Bed” by expressing the whole of Monet’s activities in Argenteuil. He paints his son standing outside their home as his wife appears in the doorway. He depicts a great bridge over the Seine and the little skiffs that approach it. And his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir paints Monet himself, standing in a garden with a paintbrush and canvas.
Renoir’s portrait of Monet as painter (named, appropriately, “Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil”) depicts him surrounded by society: A series of homes and a smoking chimney loom in the background. But Monet in his indigo coat directs his eye, and his canvas, toward the garden.
Amid Monet’s scenes of idyllic greenery, “Snow at Argenteuil” stands out with its cream and pink puffs of powdered-sugar road. But like the artist’s other paintings from Argenteuil, its frame is filled with not industry, but natural imagery.
The town sprouts up like a monument from the snow, but our eyes turn to the blue footprints by the muddy path.