But Shields believes that’s just half the story. “One inevitably wonders if this balance is too perfect, if the illusion of utopia might shatter,” she writes. “Indeed, to achieve the impression of such a gorgeous day, Monet must have averted his eyes and held his nose.” Shields notes that sewage from Paris had contributed to a sludge build-up on the riverbank. The filth was so bad that in 1873, the mayor of Argenteuil asked for help to clean it, citing a public health concern.
If Monet elided the troubles of modernity in favor of idealizing nature, one painting, The Coalmen (1875), offers a darker vision of the Industrial Age. In the work, the titular laborers shuffle back and forth between coal barges and the shore. They are dark shadows against the landscape, their individual features obscured. “Here, Monet transforms the dirty, sweaty, robotic grind of his subjects into a rhythmic counterpoint, somewhere between lugubrious and funereal, subsumed into the artifice of art,” writes historian James H. Rubin in his catalogue essay for the AGO show. In contrast to Monet’s light, sublime depictions of waterlilies, The Coalmen depicts a near-Sisyphean task: It’s easy to imagine the men transporting coal all day, up and back across the water, the work never finished.