Claude Monet (1840-1926) is perhaps best known for his en plein air paintings of gardens and countryside, particularly, for example, The Water-Lily Pond (1899). Whilst it is true that Monet produced many paintings of nature, for the majority of his artistic career, Monet concentrated on landscapes and cityscapes, focusing on the man-made buildings rather than the natural environment.
In a recent exhibition at the National Gallery, sponsored by the Credit Suisse, Monet & Architecture explored the overlooked aspects of Monet’s works with over 75 paintings spanning from the early 1860s until 1912. Split into three themes, the gallery focused on The Village and the Picturesque, which included paintings of cottages by rocky paths or sea fronts; The City and the Modern, featuring a mix of new and old buildings; and, finally, The Monument and the Mysterious, with examples of Monet’s experiments with atmosphere and light.
Born in Paris and brought up in Normandy, Monet had access to an area of France steeped in medieval history and buildings. With these scenes at his mercy, he produced many picturesque landscapes, not too dissimilar in style to his nature-based paintings.
As Monet’s reputation as a painter increased, he began visiting other areas of France and travelling to various countries on the continent. As a result, his broad collection of artwork almost reads like a photo album, documenting the places he lived or holidayed.
Many of Monet’s landscapes involve a body of water, be it sea, river or pond. Despite his Impressionist style – a name coined in 1874 to describe the works of the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres, of which he was a founding member – Monet was exceptionally good at portraying the movement of the water, both stormy and calm, and expertly reveals the reflection of the sky and buildings amongst the waves and ripples.
Whilst staying at Zaandam in the Netherlands, Monet had plenty of opportunities to combine water and architecture by studying the many commercial waterways, particularly those he saw during a trip to Amsterdam.
Often, Monet repainted scenes several times over a long period. He was always interested in the ways different lights and weather (effets) affected the landscapes he painted. An early example of this method of working took place on the coast of Normandy during 1882. Here, Monet became fascinated with a little cottage hidden between the jutting rocks of the cliffs.
The National Gallery displayed three paintings containing the hidden cottage, which was purportedly used during Napoleon’s reign as a customs office to keep a lookout for smugglers. The first painting, The Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varengeville, was most likely produced at the end of the winter months. The sea is choppy and the sky fairly dark, possibly a sign of an approaching storm. Monet stood behind and to the left of the building but near enough that the cottage became the main focus on the canvas.
The Cliff at Varengeville, on the other hand, was painted further away from the cliff edge. At first glance, it is easy to miss the roof of the cottage hidden by the uneven clifftop. This painting was produced during the summer months; the sky is clear and the sea much calmer. Although it is not shown in the landscape, the sun is bright, its rays lighting up the vegetation and reflecting off the surface of the water.
The final painting of the customs office was produced below rather than atop the cliff. The Path Through the Cliff at Varengeville is set in one of the ravines leading down to the sea. The cottage can be seen in the top left-hand corner, however, the eye is instinctively drawn to the v-shaped view of the sea in the distance. The blue water contrasts with the autumnal colours of the growth along the cliffs and the darkening sky, suggesting that this was one of the final paintings Monet produced before he left Varengeville in early October.
During the 1860s and 70s, Monet developed an interest of painting in cities, studying the more modern buildings that had begun to crop up – a contrast to the stone cottages as seen in the villages. The Exposition Universelle of 1867, the second world’s fair to be held in Paris, drew Monet to the capital. Here he sat on a balcony overlooking the Seine, painting the buildings on the opposite bank as well as portraying the crowds on the street below him. Including members of the public was an unusual feature for Monet, who prefered to concentrate on the scenery rather than the day-to-day goings on in the surroundings. This could be due to the manner of en plein air painting, in which most of the work is completed in situ; it is far easier to paint the stationary buildings than the moving bodies, carriages and animals.
Whilst in Paris, Monet painted a combination of old and new buildings, revealing the diverse styles of architecture. In The Quai du Louvre (1867), Monet contrasted the medieval clock tower of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont with the 18th-century Panthéon. Within the same landscape is the Pont Neuf, which was completed in yet another century, 1606 to be precise.
Three years later, Monet married Camille Doncieux (1847-79), who had already born him one son, Jean, in August 1867. The couple would later have another son, Michel, in 1878, a year before Camille sadly succumbed to pelvic cancer. For their honeymoon, M. and Mme Monet travelled to Trouville, a commune on the coast in the Calvados department in Normandy. Although this was not a city, it was a fashionable place for tourists with picturesque buildings. On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870), Monet provides a glimpse of the holiday resort from his position near the edge of the beach, looking over at the tall seaside buildings.
The following year, 1871, Monet and his family fled to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War. It was whilst he was here that he met artists, such as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), with whom he developed the Sociéte anonyme des artistes peintres or Impressionism movement. During this time, Monet took pleasure in painting the recently built Houses of Parliament whilst also experimenting with different effets. After it was safe to return to Paris, Monet continued to paint important buildings, including the Pont Neuf and those along the Boulevard des Capucines.
At the end of 1871, the Monets moved to Argenteuil, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre. This was useful for Monet who was often exhibiting with the Impressionists and needed to be within reach of the capital. Argenteuil was continuously being repaired and updated after the damage caused by the Franco-Prussian War, and its population was rapidly increasing. As a result, Monet was able to record the developments as they occurred, painting the modern houses, bridges and factories.
Of course, Monet also continued with his more natural landscapes, as seen in The Ball-shaped Tree, Argenteuil (1876), which was lent to the National Gallery from a private collection specifically for the Monet & Architecture exhibition. This tidily balanced composition was actually one of Monet’s final artworks in Argenteuil before the family relocated to the village of Vétheuil. It reveals two large houses in the distance set within walled gardens. The main feature of the painting, however, as the title suggests, is the ball-shaped tree that stands in front of them and is carefully reflected in Monet’s signature water aspect.
Travelling to and from the city, Monet was a frequent passenger at the Gare St-Lazare which was fairly modern, having only been built in 1837, although it was enlarged and extended at the end of the 1860s. Monet was given special permission to paint the station, which he did several times, exhibiting at least seven canvases in the third Impressionist exhibition. The Gare St-Lazare (1877) is unlike anything Monet had chosen to focus on before. Instead of a broad landscape or a picturesque location, the painting reveal a dirty, smoke-filled modern construction. The steam trains are also an unusual subject for the artist.
Another painting that went against convention, was Monet’s The Rue Montorgueil, Paris (1878), which was produced on a portrait canvas. The French government had declared 30th June 1878 a national holiday and the streets of Paris were full of people taking advantage of the day to hold drunken celebrations. From a balcony, Monet painted the long street overflowing with excited crowds, the buildings covered with bright tricolour flags. The blue, white and red dominate the composition, making it appear busy and untidy. Yet, when viewed from a distance, the outlines lose their blurriness, resulting in a fascinatingly elaborate composition.
During the final three decades of Monet’s career, he visited and painted in three particular cities. After the untimely death of his wife Camille, Monet and his sons moved to a large house in Giverny, a village in Normandy, with another woman, Alice Hoschedé (1844-1911) and her six children in 1883. It was here that Monet’s famous water lily paintings were made. Almost a decade later, Alice and Monet married shortly after returning from the city of Rouen on the River Seine.
Whilst in Rouen, Monet was enamoured with its 12th-century gothic cathedral of which he produced at least thirty paintings. Rather than present landscapes as he had done in other cities and villages, Monet chose to concentrate on the cathedral facade, working on different effets caused by the position of the sun during different points of the day. One canvas, although brighter in colour, was probably produced mid-morning rather than when the sun was at its peak on account of the shadows, which bring out the features of the architecture.
In contrast, the painting of Rouen Cathedral at sunset appears to be a blurry copy of the previous painting. Seen from a distance, the muted colours have an impressive effect, however, up close, the painting feels incomplete and rushed. Nonetheless, Monet was not attempting to produce a precise study of the cathedral, he was examining the play of fading light upon the building.
In 1899, Monet took the opportunity to return to London, a city he had enjoyed so much on his last visit. On this occasion, Monet travelled alone, staying on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, which at this point was fitted with balconies, providing the perfect position for Monet to paint the iconic buildings he could see from his suite. Depending on which way he positioned his chair, Monet had an excellent view of Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
Again, Monet’s focus was on effets rather than the buildings in question, painting in different lights at different hours. At the time, the many London factories often caused the city to be shrouded in smoke and fog, which along with the sun, created a hazy atmosphere. The vast changes in the British climate can be seen by comparing a painting of Waterloo Bridge on a clear day with one produced on a foggy day, the orange sun struggling to pierce through the smog.
Likewise, Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament varied enormously due to the fog, sunrises and sunsets. In some versions, the neo-Gothic architecture is shown as a pronounced silhouette, whereas, in the foggier version, the tower blends into the clouded background.
The final city Monet visited was Venice in 1908, where he stayed for two months with his wife Alice. Whilst Alice wished to go out and enjoy the magical city, Monet wanted to paint the important buildings and their reflections in the water of the canals. Just like the Rouen and London pictures, Monet disregarded the numerous tourists, painting only the architecture and water, his focus, as always, on the intensity of effet. These paintings, as well as those from the previous cities, have an other-worldly quality due to the unique use of light.
Two buildings Monet was particularly interested in were the 17th-century church Santa Maria Della Salute, which he could see from the opposite side of the Grand Canal, and the Venetian Gothic Doge’s Palace. Both these buildings are instantly recognisable from their unique structure, however, once again, Monet was not interested in this. The various lights altered the sharpness of the buildings depicted; some appear blurred, whereas, others are much clearer.
The unfortunate thing about all of these paintings today is they are rarely shown together, as Monet intended. One gallery may own a version that was painted on a clear, sunny day, whereas, another may only have access to a foggy scene, thus not showing Monet’s skills as a painter of buildings. In order to appreciate the paintings fully, they need to be displayed together so that the different effets can be compared and contrasted. Luckily, the National Gallery was able to provide a couple of different copies of each building for the Monet & Architecture exhibition.
Venice was the last city Monet painted; his eyesight was deteriorating and he was reluctant to undergo a cataract operation. As a result, he was often unable to work. After Alice died in 1911, Monet tended to stay at home, painting in his garden. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Monet remained in safety at Giverny, painting large canvases of Nymphéas (waterlilies). He continued as best as he could, wearing corrective glasses to aid his vision, until his death in December 1926 at the age of 86.
The National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture provided a new way of looking at Monet’s work. Instead of perceiving him as an en plein air French Impressionist with a penchant for waterlilies and poppies, the Gallery provided a different insight, introducing the non-artistic to the term effets and the result of focusing on atmosphere instead intricate details. This was the first exhibition of its kind and the National Gallery did an excellent job.
Monet & Architecture closed on 29th July 2018, however, there are many exciting exhibitions to look forward to in the near future. Visit the National Gallery’s website for details.