Painted 11 years after Henry Ossawa Tanner first settled in Paris in 1891, this rapidly executed plein-air oil sketch is one of the artist’s rare depictions of the French capital. Topographically accurate, the view is from the right bank of the Seine looking west toward the twin towers of the Palais du Trocadero, the ornate convention center erected for the 1878 Exposition Universelle. A diffuse, hazy light fills the scene, which is devoid of human activity save for a solitary figure at the lower right. Utilizing short, loose brushstrokes laden with paint, Tanner captured the scattered reflections of light across both river and sky.
Art historian John Wilmerding observed that The Seine is surprisingly modern when compared with the majority of Tanner’s works, noting that “the soft colors and gauzy silhouettes, the open expanse of water and sky, and the high horizon serving to flatten the spatial recession are all Whistlerian in character.” Perhaps intended as a memento for a friend in Philadelphia, The Seine was an impromptu study and not destined for exhibition. Though small, this exceptionally evocative painting possesses some of the mood and mystery characteristic of the artist’s better-known religious subjects.