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Monet, Architecture & Possibility

Claude Monet (1840-1926), “La Tamise et le Parlement (The Thames below Westminster),” 1871. Oil on canvas 47 x 73 cm
(© The National Gallery, london)

The name Claude Monet invariably evokes visions of water lilies, haystacks, seascapes and iridescent skies. The man who gave Impressionism its name is perpetually equated with nature. And yet buildings were a crucial part of his oeuvre, and the subject of some of his most famous series. From huts and suburban homes to cathedrals, palazzos and parliaments, Monet represented a vast range of buildings in his lifetime. The National Gallery in London has devoted a major exhibition to the subject.

“Monet and Architecture” (through July 29) looks at the pre-eminent role that buildings played in Monet’s work for much of his career — all the way up to his final decade (when he retreated to the gardens of Giverny). At times, the architecture he represented was basic: a customs officer’s humble cottage in Normandy, the functional exterior of the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. At other times, he depicted major architectural landmarks: Rouen Cathedral in Normandy, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the Houses of Parliament in London.

The idea for the exhibition can be traced back to one man: Richard Thomson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, and a specialist in late-19th-century French art. Thomson curated the outstanding Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2010.

It was an opportunity for him to examine Monet’s 60-year career in minute detail. “Gradually, I began to think that buildings were extremely important in his work, for all sorts of different reasons, and for almost half a century,” said Thomson in an interview. “I put pictures together, and thought: ‘There’s an exhibition here.’ “People tend to think of Monet as a painter of landscape, of gardens, of the sea,” he continued. “There’s that slight sense of surprise, I hope, that comes with ‘Monet and Architecture’. ”

Thomson proposed that counterintuitive exhibition theme to the National Gallery in 2015, and received the green light the following year. The resulting exhibition counts 78 paintings in all, coming from museums in France and around the world. Of that total, 19 — almost a quarter — are from private collections, meaning works that the public has rarely, if ever, seen. Art historians unassociated with the show said they were intrigued by the subject matter. “It’s extremely difficult to come up with a new angle on an artist who’s been as well worked over as Monet. That in itself is interesting,” said Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy of Arts, who curated “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse,” a 2016 exhibition there. “Nobody has ever really focused on buildings. They mention them in discussions of individual themes, but not as an overarching theme or as an exhibition.”

“I don’t think Monet was interested in architecture in any kind of historical way,” Dumas added. “He was primarily interested in nature and gardening. But he did use architecture as part of an element in a composition: to give it structure. And he was interested in relationships between a building and nature.” Thomson would certainly not disagree. “I don’t pretend that he was interested in buildings or even knew a lot about the history of architecture,” he said.

Monet’s letters, the professor noted, made hardly any mention of buildings or architecture, except as shelters or vantage points from which he could ply his trade. Monet himself made quite clear that he was not interested in structures per se. On a visit to Norway in 1895, he was interviewed by the Danish author Herman Bang for the publication “Bergens Tidende.” Here is what he said: “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.” That begs the question: what is the point, then, of staging a show of Monet and architecture? Because of architecture’s multiple purposes in his art. As Thomson explains in the catalogue, buildings served as markers or identifiers of particular towns and cities or sites.

They could also be signs of modernity at a time of great social, economic and technological transformation, or reminders of France’s great history and heritage. Perhaps most important, they were shapes and forms that helped Monet structure a composition visually. “In other words,” concludes Thomson, “the inclusion of buildings in Monet’s paintings opened up for the artist a broad palette of possibilities, covering resonance of subject, the crafting of the picture and the reading, even the psychological association, of the finished canvas.” 

The Rouen Cathedrals — six of which are in the show — are a case in point. Monet painted more than 30 views of the cathedral’s Western facade in the early months of 1892 and 1893, then probably retouched them at his studio in Giverny in 1894 (the date on most of them). Standing in front of each painting, you instantly get a sense of the time of day: that quivering Gothic mass is depicted between sunset and sundown, with all the gradations of light in between. Monet completed the series using a “haphazard and improvised” method, Thomson explained. He would paint on one canvas for a while, then change it for another one. He might paint one canvas late one morning for 15 minutes, then not go back to it for three days because the light effect was different.

Throughout the process, he approached the cathedral “as a cliff,” said Thomson, quoting a local Rouen art critic who overheard Monet using that very description. “To Monet, nature and architecture were interchangeable.” Nature and architecture also complemented each other. When Monet exhibited 20 paintings from his Rouen Cathedral series in 1895 — most of them depictions of that western façade — he paired them with natural vistas, including 13 pictures of Mount Kolsaas in Norway, which he had recently visited. As the Royal Academy’s Dumas explained, he was not the least bit concerned with giving a precise visual rendering of the Cathedral. “This is a building full of associations about French culture, French history — a great Gothic building. But his way of dealing with it is completely radical,” she explained. “He takes a very close viewpoint. You don’t get a sense of the building situated in space. What he’s interested in is the play of light over the encrusted and highly decorated stone facade.” To the viewer, “it’s as if Monet were standing just a few feet in front of it.”

Another famous series — from which three paintings will be in the show  — is Monet’s views of the Houses of Parliament. (Dumas described them as beautiful, but “a little bit more conventional.”) Monet started the series in February 1900, on one of several stays in London. He was able to paint them from a special angle thanks to a patron of the American painter John Singer Sargent, who arranged for him to park his easel on a covered terrace of nearby St. Thomas’s Hospital. That was, for Monet, a much more interesting vantage point than the Savoy Hotel, from where he had previously painted.

Monet chose to depict the Houses in late afternoon, from 4 p.m. until sunset, so that they would be backlit. He also chose to represent them in winter, when the London fog was at its thickest and most atmospheric. “I am making progress every day in understanding this very special climate,” he wrote to his wife Alice, “and have got to the point where I can work with big slashing strokes on canvases that had given me a lot of trouble, which were more or less finished, but were not London-like enough, and that is what I am trying to convey with this broad brushwork.”

Despite his experimentation with new techniques, he was never quite satisfied with the end result while in London. “You need not expect to see anything in a finished state: they are only experiments, investigations, preparatory steps, and overall, crazy, useless research,” he wrote to Alice. By the time he made his way back to Giverny — where he would put the finishing touches to the Parliament series and his other river views of London — he was taking with him a total of 80 paintings packed in eight separate crates. Museum goers coming across these and other series in the National Gallery will, Thomson hopes, view Monet through a different prism. “What I would like people to see is that Monet is a complicated artist whose pictures are worth looking at very attentively, and whose pictures are worth contextualizing,” he said.

— This article appears in the April 2018 edition of Art+Auction

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