Painter of Disquiet

Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.

Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.

At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.

The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.

In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).

Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.

Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.

Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.

Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.

Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.

One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.

Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.

La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.

One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.

felix_vallotton_interior_with_couple_and_screen_28intimacy29

Five O’Clock, 1898

Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.

Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.

The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.

By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.

Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.

Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.

Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.

These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.

Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.

From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.

Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.

Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.

Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.

“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
– Vallotton

In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.

C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.

In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.

“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
– Vallotton

Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.

On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.

Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.

Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.

The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.

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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire

“We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.”
– Thomas Cole

Throughout the year, the National Gallery puts on several exhibitions about famous artists, art movements, styles and so forth, however, every once in a while, an unknown name crops up. These artists have generally been forgotten about over time and the Gallery endeavours to bring them back into public knowledge. The current exhibition, Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire, focuses on the founding father of American painting who, despite his importance across the pond, is virtually unheard of in Britain.

Thomas Cole was born in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, England in 1801, however, nothing much is known about his early years. In 1818, the Cole family emigrated to Steubenville, Ohio where Cole taught himself to paint, relying on books and studies of other artists. His first artistic career was as an engraver but his painting soon took precedence. Working as a portrait painter, Cole was encouraged to turn his hand to landscapes, which is where he found his métier.

Cole perceived nature as God’s great gift to the world and aimed to capture its transcendence. At 22, Cole moved to Philadelphia, however, by 1825, he had settled in Catskill, New York where he set up a studio at Cedar Grove. Enamoured by the landscape, Cole was often travelling up and down the Hudson River, capturing in oil paints nature at its most powerful, a romantic portrayal of the American wilderness. This was a complete contrast to the urban, industrialised scenery Cole experienced growing up in England.

 

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire comprises of 35 works by the American artist, alongside landscapes by those who inspired him. Two British painters from the Romantic-era, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), impressed Cole with their naturalistic landscapes. Although Turner and Constable were less precise in applying paint to canvas, particularly Turner whose colours often blur into each other, once the viewer is familiar with Cole’s work, it is clear to see exactly why he enjoyed these paintings. Cole preferred natural, unadulterated scenes where the landscape was in a pure, God-intended condition. Turner and Constable’s countryside landscapes reflect this idea.

Another artist Cole admired was the English Romantic painter, John Martin (1789-1854), however, he was not specifically regarded as a landscape painter. Martin was mostly known for his spectacular painting of religious subjects, preferring dramatic and violent Biblical stories over the more humble ones. When he painted the story of the writing on the wall, Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), based upon Daniel chapter 5, he claimed, “it shall make more noise than any picture ever did before …” His mezzotint engraving of a scene from the story of Noah’s Ark, The Evening of the Deluge (1828), was equally as dramatic.

Cole also ventured into biblical painting, which is most likely one of the reasons Martin’s work appealed to him. Martin also included imposing landscapes in the background of his scenes, which was another element that would have gained Cole’s favour. The brushstrokes are much finer than Turner and Constable’s, in fact, they are barely discernable. Cole’s paintings were also produced in this manner, resulting in scenes that could have been imagined by one English artist but painted by Martin.

 

Living in the Catskills with his wife Maria Barlow, who he married in 1836, and their five children, Cole had plenty of opportunities to paint the idyllic landscape. A good number of Cole’s masterpieces were produced in this area, however, he also travelled around the United States to places he wished to paint and also returned to Europe to study the masters and explore various countries. Many of these scenes involved natural landscape, water and an expressive sky.

In 1830, Cole travelled to the border between the U.S and Canada to view the powerful Niagara Falls. Something to be understood about Cole’s work is that he rarely painted exactly what he saw, rather he portrayed what he wished to see. At the time, the landscape surrounding the Falls was crowded with factories and hotels, whereas, Cole depicted an unspoilt natural environment. Throughout his life, Cole was increasingly anxious about the industrialisation of the country believing that it was destroying the American wilderness.

When visiting Europe, Cole spent some time in Italy during the year 1831 where he made sketches of various vistas. Back in his New York studio, Cole transformed his drawings into oil paintings, using artistic license to add extra trees and foliage. View of Florence from San Miniato (1837) reveals the old and new buildings of the beautiful city combined with Cole’s ideal aspects of nature.

Cole’s landscapes tend to be very deep, stretching as far back as the eye can see. One of Cole’s influential paintings officially titled View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm but commonly referred to as The Oxbow (1836), shows a panorama of the Connecticut River Valley. On the left-hand side, the sky remains grey, the storm clouds have not yet completely passed over, whereas, the sky on the opposite side is much brighter, the sun shining onto the river below. Some of the vegetation under the dark clouds look dead or damaged, however, fresh foliage determinedly grows up around the lifeless plants, proving that nature will continually renew itself.

It could be argued that Thomas Cole’s landscapes are fictitious on account of the added natural aspects and removal of urban developments. Whilst this is a fair point, Cole produced completely fictional scenes as well. Cole was interested in history, particularly of native America, fiction, and the Bible and often incorporated notions of these into his paintings.

On a cliff edge, Cole depicted a couple of Indians making a sacrifice to a god. Indians refer to the indigenous people of the Americas who lived almost at one with nature. It was only with the arrival of people from Europe that America began to be developed and urbanised. Cole mourns the loss of the pure, natural environment by imagining what the world may once have looked like; a time when nature was bigger than anything else.

Cole painted another landscape set at a similar time period to Indian Sacrifice (1827), however, it was inspired by a work of fiction. Based on the historical novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cole painted his interpretation of a scene that took place in the year 1757 during the French and Indian War. Titled Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827), Cole depicts native Delaware Indians encircling two captives, Alice and Cora Munro, the latter who lies prostrate at the feet of the chief, Tamenundin a desperate plea for mercy.

Whilst based upon a book, relying on written description, it is believed that Cole incorporated a view of Mount Chocorua and Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, in the background. It is likely that the elements in the foreground had also been observed by the artist on his journeys in the American countryside.

The most famous of Cole’s individual fictional scenes is The Titan’s Goblet (1833), which has been described as a picture within a picture or a landscape within a landscape. The painting defies explanation, the artist has left no commentary to clarify his intentions. Set on a conventional terrain, a giant goblet sits larger than any of the natural elements in the background. The goblet is full of water that spills over the edge to create waterfalls whilst sailing vessels can be seen in the centre. The rim holds a mini world covered in grass and trees and is inhabited, as suggested by the Greek temple and Italian palace that can be seen on opposite edges. These buildings are similar to ancient relics that Cole would have seen when he visited Europe.

Another of Cole’s more appreciated paintings is his version of The Garden of Eden (1828). This was one of Cole’s earlier paintings and shows God’s garden as described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Adam and Eve have yet to eat from the tree of knowledge and are unashamed about their naked bodies. A young deer can be seen in the clearing, which the pair appear to be reaching out towards. The landscape is picturesque and pure, the way Cole believed God intended his creation.

Arguably Cole’s best work, and the centrepiece of the exhibition Eden to Empire, is an allegorical work that tells the cycle of the rise and fall of a classical civilisation. The Course of Empire (1834-6) shows the same landscape over centuries, from its primitive beginnings, through its development and destruction by humans, to its return to nature. This series of five paintings were a response to Cole’s fears about the rapidly developing country and his belief that nature will always renew itself, whereas, human nature is far less sustainable.

The first image, The Savage State, reveals nature as it was supposedly intended. The only human interruption is a hunter pursuing a deer, thus revealing what aboriginal North American life was once like.  The unadulterated world is green and luscious; nature and the weather are in control, working together to survive.

The second image, known both as The Arcadian and Pastoral State, is still a natural area, however, there has been a few human developments. Families have settled and converted the wilderness into farmland with lawns, ploughed fields and sheep. The people are working hard to look after the animals and the crops, however, in the distance is a suggestion of further advancements; almost hidden by the trees is a megalith temple. The entire landscape is how Cole’s idealised pre-urban Greece once looked.

There is a massive jump between the Pastoral State and the next in the series, The Consummation of Empire. Here, the entire landscape has been obscured by collonaded marble structures, balcony-fitted buildings and crowds of people. A king strides across a bridge, robed in scarlet, looking very important. Ships fill up the river, the only evidence of the original terrain. In this instance, Cole was imagining the height of Ancient Rome, when it was the most powerful city in the world.

Unfortunately for the civilians, the city was not going to last. In a scene that resembles the sack of Rome in 410AD, Destruction shows enemy warriors attacking and killing the inhabitants. The bridge has collapsed and columns have toppled, barely any of the buildings remain intact. A statue of a warrior standing in a similar pose to a Borghese Gladiator has been decapitated, his head lying smashed on the ground below amongst the blood of fallen men.

Finally, the last scene Desolation shows the results of the destroyed city many decades later. It is the remains of a ruined city, one lone column stubbornly remaining standing, although, now only used by the birds nesting on top. Trees, ivy and overgrowth cover the remaining rubble. With humanity out of the way, nature has repossessed the city, taking back what had been stolen. This is the ultimate cycle of nature; without human intervention, the plants and wildlife would roam wild and free.

As well as Cole’s pessimistic outlook about the developing world, it is also suggested that The Course of Empire was a commentary on President Andrew Jackson’s (1767-1845) policies, which, Cole clearly disagreed with. There is also evidence that Cole was influenced by Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812):

“Freedom falls and then Glory –
when that falls,
wealth, vice, corruption … “

Despite not being well known in Britain, Thomas Cole was a great influence on American painters, particularly Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) who studied with the artist from 1844 until 1846. Looking at Durand and Church’s paintings, which the National Gallery displays in the final room of the exhibition, it is easy to be fooled into thinking they have been painted by Cole. The style, tone and focus of the landscape are exactly the same as their teacher produced, insinuating that Cole was a highly regarded painter.

From approximately 1825, Thomas Cole became a leading figure and possibly founder of the Hudson River School, a term retrospectively applied to the group of American landscape artists that worked between c1825 and 1875. All of these artists, like Cole, were inspired by the beauty of nature and the 18th-century artistic movement, Romanticism. As the name of the group implies, these artists worked within the Hudson Valley, in areas such as the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains. They mostly portrayed remote and untouched areas of natural beauty in their work.

Sadly, Thomas Cole’s life was cut short when he died on 11th February 1848. In honour of his devotion to landscape painting, the fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honour. His home, Cedar Grove, has been renamed the Thomas Cole House, declared a National Historic Site in 1999 and is now open to the public.

It is surprising that Thomas Cole is not known in Great Britain, despite his English origins and painting expertise. With the first ever exhibition of his work in this country, it is hoped that Cole will become more popular. There is nothing to dislike about his work, which is realistic with a magical quality within. Compared to world famous artists, some of Cole’s paintings are more pleasant to look at, earning their reputation through aesthetic rather than a recognised name.

The National Gallery will continue to display Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire until 7th October 2018. Being an unknown artist, the exhibition is usually quiet and therefore it is not vital to book tickets in advance. Standard admission price is £10 per person, although, members of the Gallery can enter free of charge. 

Monet’s Architectural Visions

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The Water-Lily Pond

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.