Claude Monet, The Thames below Westminster, about 1871
“Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat, I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist.” – Claude Monet
The French Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) is best known for his brilliant paintings of landscapes, coastline and water-lilies, but this month saw the opening of a new exhibition ‘Monet & Architecture’ at the National Gallery, London.
This show highlights his interest in architecture, not only compositionally, but how he used it as a backdrop and tool to capture the changing effects of light and I was fortunate enough to catch it this week!
Bringing together over 75 of Monet’s paintings from all over the world, the rooms are unconventionally grouped following architectural subject matter, The Village & the Picturesque, The City & the Modern and The Monument & the Mysterious.
The idea of creating paintings based on ‘picturesque ideals’ influenced Monet’s early work and this concept was part of the larger ‘picturesque landscape’ debate originating in England.
Professor Richard Thomson, the curator of the show, explains,
“One of the points of this exhibition was to take a very famous artist, who people think they know, but to take a look at his work in a different way”
The Village & the Picturesque
William Gilpin, 1724-1804, Hints to form the taste and regulate ye judgment in sketching landscape | © The Yale Center for British Art
In 1768, an English priest, artist and schoolmaster William Gilpin published a series of works “An Essay on Prints.” (see manuscript) describing what he coined as a ‘picturesque view’.
Gilpin wrote down notes and sketching techniques of his journeys through various parts of Britain detailing the natural beauty of the landscape and illustrating the work with his own pen and wash sketches. He described picturesque as “A term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.”
He published his notes as sketching guidebooks for tourists to learn how to observe a view and also how to arrange elements within a composition to create a pleasing subject.
Elements of the picturesque should be “full of variety, curious details, interesting textures, and roughness and irregularity” marking a new appreciation for the rugged landscape and finding beauty in old buildings placed in rustic settings.
Claude Monet, The Hut at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 | Ville de Geneva, Musees d’art et d’histoire.
Born in Paris but brought up in Normandy, Monet’s journey begins here in the North of France, with its rich heritage of medieval buildings and strong architectural history. He spent the Summer of 1867 in Sainte-Adresse near Le Havre and painted this view of The Hut at Sainte-Adresse from a modern villa he was staying in.
Rather than paint the modern architecture of the day, he chose to focus his gaze on the rugged shoreline and crumbled down fisherman’s hut and you can see elements of Gilpin’s description. The variety of shapes and colours, textures of the greenery, the roughness of the sea and the irregularity of the fisherman’s hut, alongside brilliant sparkling passages of colour.
Claude Monet, Windmills near Zaandam, 1871 | Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Travelling to the Netherlands in 1871, Monet was captivated by Holland’s windmills and colourful houses, here he used strong flashes of a rich orange-red to give energy and movement to the sails.
Claude Monet, Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam, 1871 | Stadel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In this painting, we can see a great example of the use of square brush strokes to indicate the movement of the water, the strokes keep with the same width but vary in length. By choosing a composition that already has coloured elements within the painted houses, Monet used these reflections to add colour throughout the scene.
By placing these simple blocks of colour next to each other you have movement and an ‘impression’ of the subject.
“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you,” he said. “Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you.” Claude Monet
Thinking in these abstract terms about the subjects you’re painting is often the essence in capturing a realistic rendering of what you see in front of you.
Claude Monet, The Old Bridge over the Nervia at Dolceacqua, 1884 | Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Close up of The Old Bridge over the Nervia at Dolceacqua with sample ground colour swatch
It was really great to see some of the unfinished painted sketches around the show and above you can see the underpainting tone Monet used. Many of the canvases look to be painted onto an off-white, muted light grey tone with a little warmth to it.
Claude Monet, View of Bordighera, 1884 | The Armand Hammer Collection
Throughout the exhibition, we follow Monet’s journeys along the Normandy Coast and to Vernon near Giverny but by the 1880’s Monet had begun to travel more and for extended periods.
Inspired by the picturesque ideals, Monet took advantage of the new expanding network of European railways and followed the tourist guidebooks looking for inspiration in the south of France.
He arrived at the Mediterranian coastal resort of Bordighera in mid-January 1884, bright sunshine and blue skies led him to this iconic view of Bordighera and later to the amazing colours of Antibes. The colours of the works here are vivid and jewel-like, in comparison to the muted tones in his earlier work. The amazing light of the Riveria inspired a new saturated colour palette.
“The point is to know how to use the colours, the choice of which is, when all’s said and done, a matter of habit. Anyway, I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.” – Claude Monet, 1905
These are other colours known to be used by Monet:
- Lead White (modern equivalent = Titanium White)
- Chrome Yellow (modern equivalent = Cadmium Yellow Light)
- Cadmium Yellow
- Viridian Green
- Emerald Green
- French Ultramarine
- Cobalt Blue
- Madder Red (modern equivalent = Alizarin Crimson)
Claude Monet, Snow Effect at Giverny, 1893 | New Orleans Museum of Art
From the luminous colours of Antibes, Giverny in the snow shows a much more subtle handling of the subject.
Monet was always responsive to the changing light and how the weather affected a landscape and here the snow effect acts almost as if the scene is enveloped in a thick snow fog. Monet has built up the surface texture to indicate the different elements of the composition. You can just make out the line of trees in the background and the actual surface texture of the painting is quite thick.
Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond, 1899 | The National Gallery, London
In 1893 Monet and his second wife Alice made Giverny their home and it was the beautiful gardens here that inspired his most famous work of the water-lilies.
In 1899 Monet painted several canvases of the Japanese bridge within his garden, this square composition was a new way of working for Monet and a break from the traditional landscape ratios. It came after the death of his first wife Camille and marks a sense of harmony and calm against the discord in his personal life at the time.
The City & the Modern
Claude Monet, On the Boardwalk at Trouville, 1870 | Private Collection, Milan
The ‘Exposition Universelle’ in Paris 1867 initially inspired Monet’s exploration of modernity for a collection of urban cityscapes for sale.
Ocasionally he would explore Paris and London enjoying the newly completed buildings and the port of Rouen for the hustle and bustle of the crowds but ultimately his more relaxed economical country retreat proved more enjoyable.
Many years later, a more affluent Monet would return to London, a city he very much enjoyed but he would focus more on the play of light and reflections over the water rather than the architectural details.
In these two paintings, On the Boardwalk at Trouville, 1870 and The Thames below Westminster, about 1871 we see two examples of different views, in different countries, yet both looking at new modern subjects at the time.
Claude Monet, The Thames below Westminster, about 1871 | The National Gallery, London
The strong perspective elements reflect this sense of modernity and speed. The horizontal line of the boardwalk and bridge, balance out the strong diagonal. Even when the compositional elements are very similar, by changing the hardness or softness of the edges, Monet creates an entirely different mood and atmosphere.
Claude Monet, View of Rouen, 1872 | Private Collection courtesy of Pyme Gallery, London
I was drawn to this small study as I loved Monet’s strong use of tonal values in the painting to control the gaze. The view is of the port of Rouen, (Monet’s brother ran a chemical works there). The viewing position is from a boat on the river Seine and captures the juxtaposition of the spires of the cathedral with the modern motifs of the chimneys of the factories.
The highest contrast section is the boat in the foreground and Monet uses the vertical lines of the masts, chimneys, spire and trees to again combine the colours of the land and the colourful reflections in the water, as one.
Claude Monet, The Promenade at Argenteuil, 1872 | National Gallery of Art Washington
This view in Argenteuil is just outside Paris, and I love the simplicity of the composition. The strong dark silhouette of the trees on the right frame our view and the little ping of white sails on the left, give us a focal point. The distant landscape is muted and blurred to give that sense of depth and atmosphere whilst little dashes of dappled light on the path just dance across the canvas.
Painting in collections
In a previous article ‘a painting truth you can learn too late‘ I’ve written about the power of painting in collections and in the exhibition rooms covering Rouen Cathedral and London, it was interesting to see how Monet often painted a series of the same (or similar) view but with a different colour palette or time of day.
He was aware of the business of painting and often painted a collection of pieces together so they would hang well as a show and offer a range of colours and styles and architecture.
The Monument & the Mysterious
Now we’re up close and personal with Rouen Cathedral and the start of a repeated style that crops up again and again throughout the show. What I found interesting was the back story, the stories behind the viewing position where Monet actually painted from.
It appears at first glance to have been captured from the streets below, amongst the tourists, but it was actually painted from inside the first-floor room above a fashion shop opposite.
On these painting expeditions, Monet stayed at Louvet House, Home of Madame Louvet. He set up a studio above a clothing shop at 23 Place de la Cathédrale and the next year above the shop at 81 Rue Grand Pont. This enabled Monet to work on larger scale pieces and start to paint ‘in collections’.
During this time in Rouen, Monet was becoming more and more interested in trying to capture the changing light conditions.
Paintings recorded the shifting effects of light and shadow at different times of day and during variant weather conditions, so he would prepare a number of the same sized canvases and then swap between them as the light changed.
You usually have between 1-2 hrs of painting time before the light begins to change the colour temperature and shadow patterns you first observed.
From his painting position, the sun began to hit the front of the Cathedral just after 12 noon, Monet, therefore, insisted on ‘being at work from midday to two o’clock’ to capture this effect.
However, this was no easy task, Monet wrote commenting on his Rouen paintings:
“Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.” Claude Monet
From The Encyclopedia of Impressionism by Michael Howard (Carlton, 1997)
Room with a view
Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, the Sun in the Fog, 1899-1901 | National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Monet’s paintings of the London fog remind me of the snow scene of Giverny, smokey and thick, caused by a combination of industry and nature, there’s a reason London is known as ‘The Big Smoke’!
To capture these iconic views I had images of Monet battling the elements, bustling for the same spot each day to carry on with his paintings ‘en-plein air’, wrapped up warm, against the biting wind and dampness from the river.
His vantage point was a suite at the Savoy Hotel!
Now here’s an artist I can get behind.
He first stayed there for two months as the balcony on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel proved the perfect spot to capture views of London starting his day facing towards Waterloo Bridge and the South Bank, enjoying the morning light.
Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Fog Effect, 1904 | Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St.Petersburg
In the afternoon, Monet painted The Houses of Parliament from the comfort of a studio within the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital.
The hazy impressionistic effect so familiar with Monet’s pieces is a combination of his painterly style developed when capturing the changing light of Rouen and part due to the mix of fog and industrial smog in London at the time. It’s interesting to see how his work developed from the more graphical depictions of the Houses of Parliment in 1871 where the modern building was the main focus to these later works where it seems the atmosphere and light have taken centre stage.
Monet made extended visits to London first in 1899, 1900 and for his longest stint in 1901, painting in all over 100 canvases of London. He would rework the sketchier pieces back in his studio in Giverny making dating impossible, many of paintings from this period carry the dates from 1899-1904.
Whilst staying at the Savoy, he was witness to the procession of the Queen Mother’s funeral, next to him on the balcony, a French-speaking observer explained what was happening.
It turned out to be the novelist Henry James.
The portrait below is of Henry James painted by Monet’s friend John Singer Sargent and displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
John Singer Sargent, Henry James, 1913 | © National Portrait Gallery, London. Henry James’s 1891 Novella, The Pupil, is said to be based on Sargent’s nomadic boyhood in Europe.
You would imagine that Monet and Sargent painted together, giving each other tips on what brushes and pigment choices but Monet commented:
“Sargent is a good fellow, but when he lunches with me, I do not talk painting.”
Monet in Venice
Claude & Alice Monet, Venice, 1908
Invited by his English friend Mrs Mary Hunter to make a long-awaited trip to Venice, Monet and Alice arrived in October 1908. Now 68, Monet soon got into a regular practice of painting, producing 37 works of what he called ‘the unique light’ of Venice.
They remained here for two months, first staying at the Barbaro Palace on the Grand Canal.
John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice, 1898
The Barbaro Palace has a long history of famous guests.
It was initially rented in 1881 by a relative of Sargent, Daniel Sargent Curtis, a successful lawyer and banker who subsequently purchased and renovated the Palazzo in 1885.
In 1898 Sargent painted a family portrait of the Curtis Family within the Palace. Ariana Curtis and Daniel Curtis in the foreground and Ralph Curtis, who Sargent went to Art school with and his wife in the background.
Many painters and writers stayed here, from Henry James (who describes the ballroom in his novel ‘The Wings of the Dove’ 1902) to the painters James Whistler, and most notably Claude Monet and Anders Zorn.
Claude Monet, Palazzo da Mula in Venice, 1908 (not in the exhibition)
It’s interesting to juxtapose Sargent’s detailed interior of the building telling the story of the people, in contrast to Monet’s tonal, flat perspective composition above, telling the story of colour.
Monet worked on the steps of the Palazzo Barbaro, painting the Palazzo da Mula opposite and then later during their stay, moved to the Grand Hotel Britannia (now the Westin Hotel Europa & Regina) so in the afternoon, he could paint the great expanse of Grand Canal through the hotel window.
Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore, 1908 |Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Lockton Collection
“The view out of our window is marvellous. You couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful and it is all for Monet“, Alice told her daughter.
The view over the Grand Canal in the Venice series, are almost always devoid of people, gondolas and adornments, a reflection of Monet trying to capture his most fascinating subject, the changing colours and effects of light.
After exhibiting the Venice works in 1912, Monet retired to Giverny, now a widower with struggling eyesight, he remained here painting his much-beloved garden until his death in 1926.
The exhibition ‘Monet & Architecture’ runs until the end of July 2018 and if you can wait until June you can catch the BP portrait prize that is on at the National Portrait Gallery next door. There’s even a nice gelato shop a few minutes walk away.
I missed the portrait show but maybe on our next trip down to London. (although I’m a little uneasy as Vanessa seemed to be a little too keen on Monet’s idea of a suite at the Savoy!)
The Exhibition: Monet & Architecture is at The National Gallery, London from Monday 9 April to Sunday 29 July 2018.
The BP Portrait Award 2018 exhibition will run at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 June to 23 September 2018
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