Produced from a sketch with annotations specifying the color values, Sunlight on the River demonstrate how Maurice Denis worked. Essentially, when planning each piece, Denis would draw inspiration from the sketches he captured on location and then produce the painting in his studio.
Here, Denis developed a cold harmony of blue tones, which contrast with the light yellow signifying the sunlight. A solitary figure walks along the river. The only human presence felt in this landscape, it indicates the scale of the painting and gives the work a great sensitivity.
Denis was interested in depicting the sun and its reflection on water, as shown by one of his early works, Taches de soleil sur la terrasse (1890, Paris, musée d'Orsay), and his writings. He most frequently attempted to paint the red light of twilight, rendering its reflections either with an area of solid color or by small dabs of paint. In 1906, after meeting Paul Cézanne, he wrote: "All art consists of us depicting ourselves, translating our sensations into beauty, and joining with the sun to make color." ('Chronique de peinture', L’Ermitage, no. 12, December 15, 1906, p. 326).