Painted in 1883, Gustave Caillebotte's La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage reveals both his Impressionist credentials and his love of the river, and in particular of sailing. This picture, formerly in the collection of his fellow Impressionist and friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is filled with light and colour and Caillebotte has clearly revelled in capturing the fleeting reflections of the boats and the buildings in the surface of the river, lending the picture an atmosphere of freshness, invoking the pleinairisme espoused by the Impressionists in particular. The striking modernity of Caillebotte's unique Impressionist idiom is shown in the rich colours of the scene as well as the compositional architecture provided by the boats with their masts and rigging, the building with its red roof in the foreground and most importantly the river itself: the plunging view leaves the barest sliver of sky at the top, instead focussing on the lapis blue expanse of the water.
By 1883, Caillebotte was spending more and more time at the house that he and his brother Martial had bought and improved at Petit Gennevilliers, by the Bassin d'Argenteuil. This area had been one of the birthplaces of Impressionism, providing the scenery for many of the breakthrough paintings by Renoir and Claude Monet in the early 1870s. Then, at the dawn of Impressionism, Monet had benefited from the fact that his friend Edouard Manet had a house nearby and had stayed there, enjoying hospitality and camaraderie alike, painting river scenes alongside his fellow artists. Interestingly, Marie Berhaut wrote in her catalogue raisonné of Caillebotte's works that both Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, two of the most important art dealers linked to the Impressionists, claimed that Caillebotte too had stayed nearby during the 1870s, and that he knew Monet and Renoir even then. Berhaut has pointed out, however, that the evidence points to the contrary: Caillebotte's earlier river scenes appear instead to have been painted near his family's house at Yerres (M. Berhaut, op. cit., 1994, p. 8). Regardless of this, by 1883, when he painted La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage, Caillebotte knew both Monet and Renoir very well, and they largely depended on his support and patronage for their survival. One wonders if the palette and motif of this picture was not in part inspired by his friends' works from the previous decade; that Renoir was given this painting by Caillebotte may even be a reflection of its tributary status.
As well as supporting Monet and Renoir, Caillebotte had become one of the cornerstones of the Impressionist movement, acquiring the works of his fellow artists and exhibiting alongside them. Caillebotte had in fact been one of the key organisers of several of the Impressionist exhibitions, but by 1883, disheartened by the in-fighting within the group, had withdrawn his involvement. From 1882 onwards, he would almost never participate in any exhibitions, a rare exception being that of Les XX in 1888. His works were elusive enough that, on that occasion, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo asking for a description of them. Nevertheless, Caillebotte's importance as a supporter of the various artists who still form the celebrated canon of Impressionism remained, as evidenced by his incredible collection, which he bequeathed to the state on his untimely death in 1894. That bequest was highly controversial, as the government was loath to accept and exhibit the works of these still-scandalous, avant garde artists. Eventually, a large group was accepted, and caused a sensation when finally exhibited; those pictures now form the core of the collection of the Musée d'Orsay.
Caillebotte's collection, and indeed his bequest, included several of Renoir's paintings. Early in 1883, he had lent several of these to the one-man exhibition that Durand-Ruel had organised in his premises at 9, boulevard de la Madeleine. This revealed Caillebotte's discerning taste and also his friendship. Indeed, the pair often sat on the same table for the artistic-literary dinners at the Café Riche; Renoir apparently even acquired an encyclopaedia in order to be able to keep his end up in the discussions (see K. Varnedoe, Gustave Caillebotte, New Haven & London, 1987, p. 9). It comes, then, as little surprise to find that Caillebotte gave La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage to Renoir, making it a token of an important artistic friendship and alliance.
Caillebotte was able to support his friends amongst the Impressionists in part because of the formidable wealth he had inherited. This also granted him an independence that meant that he was not obliged to sell or exhibit his works, and therefore could avoid any of the artistic compromises that his friends sometimes found themselves forced to make in order to tempt the market and increase sales. This resulted in his paintings often featuring daring perspectives and compositions as is visible in La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage. These techniques were sometimes inspired by photography and the spontaneity that it allowed; indeed, Caillebotte appears to have used photographs as source material for some of his works, rather than painting solely from nature. He cleverly used these techniques to convey all the more intensely that notion of the impression that was at the core of his work and that of his fellow artists, while also imbuing his pictures with a heightened sense of modernity.
Caillebotte's fortune also allowed him to indulge another of his favourite hobbies: sailing. While in his earlier works, Caillebotte had shown Canotiers, revealing his own passion for rowing, by the early 1880s he was a convert to sailing regattas, and this passion is clearly evident in his loving depiction of the vessels in La Seine à Argenteuil, bateaux au mouillage. Although he had only been involved in these regattas for a relatively short time, Caillebotte was dedicated to it enough that had been nominated vice-president of the Cercle de la Voile de Paris. His enthusiasm and intelligence were such that he was soon able to design his own boats. By 1883, he owned four and had toured one of them, Cul-blanc, taking it to the Trouville and Cabourg regattas and winning first prize at each; later that year, he had also competed in Argenteuil with the same boat. According to anecdote, when he was taking his boats along the river he would sometimes drop Monet at Vétheuil or Giverny. Similarly, it is believed that it was Caillebotte who had given Paul Signac his legendary passion for boating, having talked to him on seeing the young artist painting by the riverside.