‘No man is an island’ philosophised John Donne. Well I’m hardly the best candidate to verify his musings (what with my giveaway lady lumps), but I have learned recently, that if that man’s an artist, then he may or not be an island, but he certainly needs one for inspiration. The Île-de-France may lay claim to inspiring, housing and incubating some of the world’s greatest talent, but that’s just cheating – an area that includes Paris, its famous winding river and numerous sprawling suburbs can no doubt lay claim in some way or another to most things (yes, even Kim and Kanye have been here. Shudder).
Zoom in to the city further and you hit the creative ‘islands’ of Montmartre and Montparnasse, the pavements of both practically sagging with the weight of history that surrounds them, not to mention the footfall of eager art tourists making sure they hit all the right spots. But for some of France’s great painters, it wasn’t the hedonism of Paris’ central districts that acted as muse, but some of the greener spots a few kilometres away from all of the gaiety. Monet’s legacy will forever be wedded to Giverny, but if it’s impressionism that gets you stroking your brush, then a trip out to Chatou and the Île des Impressionnistes is well overdue.
You thought the Seine fizzled out into a sorry little trickle the minute it crossed the périphérique? Oh no my dear, naive explorer; head out into the wider, leafier parts of the Île-de-France and you’ll find it flowing serenely out into the unknown (according to Parisians anyway, but no, actual people really live this far out). The very same river, just not quite as brown, without bobbing crisp packets clinging to the banks and sans an endless procession of tourist boats pootling up and down.
Paris proper may have its islands Cité and St Louis, but out in the Yvelines, the Île des Impressionnistes is the only mid-Seine sanctuary worth talking about. Renoir and his fellow impressionist chums thought so, and he and his entourage (from time to time including Monet and Degas) spent a great deal of time on a this tiny green patch, discussing ideas, socialising and dining to their bellies’ content in the local restaurant La Fournaise, taking in the views on its river-facing balcony.
So good were the happy times spent boating on the water and relaxing with lunch when the rowing was finished, Renoir was moved to create one of his most famous works Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party), featuring a collection of his friends typically kicking back with food and wine in that very spot. Remember the film Amélie and the old neighbour who keeps painting the same picture again and again but can’t recreate the same expression on the face of the girl in the middle? That’s the one. The less famous Le Déjeuner des rameurs (The Rowers’ Lunch) and Les canotiers à Chatou (The Boaters at Chatou) were born from the inspiration of the same place.
Lunch spent absorbing impressionist vibes on that now-canonised balcony is a bit of a stretch (the restaurant prices are as lofty as you’d expect), but the views from the bank alongside it are as charming as you’d imagine from a place that inspired one of France’s most treasured artists. A stroll along the bank on a weekend (when the Navigo is dezoned, hooray!) is as pleasantly refined as it probably was back in Auguste’s day (that’s Mr Renoir to us humble folk). Plus Chatou’s nearby town centre has some charming independent shops and an open square begging for an afternoon glass of wine on a café terrace. You never know, maybe that doodle on your napkin could be the start of a wonderful career.
Take RER A to Chatou-Croissy, zone 4, follow your feet to the island via a map inside the station, near the main exit.