Before the lilies, there was the cathedral… the National Gallery’s focus on Monet’s deployment of architecture is a rewarding way of considering his work anew
When Claude Monet painted his famous depictions of buildings such as Rouen cathedral, he approached the task like a military campaign. First, he staked out and secured the best vantage point. Then he set up his canvasses, working on up to 10 consecutively throughout each day according to which light conditions he wanted to capture in which painting. After working on these for some time, he decamped to his home studio to develop them further, often over a period of several years, before returning to the original location to complete them.
The results of not only his painstaking studies of Rouen but those of his visits to Venice, London and many locations throughout France, the Netherlands and the Mediterranean are resplendent in Monet & Architecture, a new and inevitably hugely crowded exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
This themed approach to the work of such a well-known artist is a rewarding way of considering it anew. Rather than focusing on the sublime water lilies for which Monet is best known, this selection concentrates on his paintings of cities and suburbs, and his use of architecture to punctuate depictions of the rural landscape.
In the informative audio-guide to the exhibition, curator Richard Thomson describes the architectural theme as an ‘interesting and challenging way of finding new ways of looking at an artist we think we know so well’.
It turns out to be a very effective lens for viewing his work, created in a career spanning the 1860s to the early 1910s. We learn how Monet consistently used architecture as a means to structure and enliven his art, whether as a foil to the irregularity of nature or, most memorably, as a screen for the reflection of light. Sometimes the solidity of the buildings provides the paintings with anchorage; on other occasions they evoke memory and stand in for the human presence.
The exhibition kicks off with Monet’s use of buildings in the picturesque tradition. On two trips to the Netherlands in the 1870s, he was evidently very attracted to the exotic nature of the architecture and the landscape. In Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam (1871), he enjoys the contrast of the buildings and their rippling reflections – an effect that he returns to throughout his career in works such as his series of paintings of Venice.
The exhibition draws our attention to how Monet deliberately chose to include within his compositions buildings with a maximum appeal to the potential buyer – travelling armed with guide books so as not to miss out on the best views. Often, however, he was drawn to humble buildings such as a customs officer’s tiny cottage at Varengeville on the Normandy coast, depicting it in various ways in 1882 – from above, below, afar, in sun and in shade, its solidity contrasting with the agitation of the waves and the landscape. Likewise the church at Varengeville is depicted from various vantage points in paintings from 1882, most dramatically at the top of a massive, stark cliff viewed from the beach below. Trips to the Mediterranean provided fresh landscapes and architecture to fuel his work.
For a decade from 1867, Monet became fascinated by the built urban environment, depicting the hustle and bustle of the modern city and its suburbs. Often he painted recently completed buildings such as the Houses of Parliament in London (1871) and in Paris, the Gare St-Lazare (1877). The latter is shown as an ultra modern construction of glass, steel and steam. Monet is interested in conveying the pace of life in the modern city, whether it be the frenzied celebrations of The National Holiday of 30 June on the rue Montorgueil (1878), where the architecture is almost obliterated by the Tricolours, or the rhythmic drudgery of labour in The Coal-heavers (1875), which shows workers unloading barges at Asnieres.
Often Monet seems interested in architecture not so much as for its own sake as a compositional device. This is particularly the case in his famous paintings of Rouen cathedral from the 1890s, where he gave full rein to his fascination with the nuances of light and the effect of different weather conditions on the facade. Shown together, the results are startlingly varied – sometimes the cathedral appears bright in full sunlight, other times pink, bluish, even grey, the crusty surface of the paintings testament to the long creative process of refinement and reworking.
The Rouen collection shares a gallery with a series of atmospheric London paintings from around the turn of the 20th century. These are a particular highlight, with the added appeal that they are depicting scenes so nearby – Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge painted from the Savoy Hotel, and the Houses of Parliament (1904), most memorably the amazing Sunset with its startlingly fiery glow amid the gloom. There is a real sense of the fog and the industrial activity along the river – Monet never shirked smoking chimneys – but he sometimes edited out Cleopatra’s Needle.
Monet & Architecture closes with a room of beautiful paintings of Venice exploring the seemingly floating nature of the city with depictions of light on architecture and its reflection in the water, an element that sometimes takes up half the canvas. Monet’s exhibition of this series in 1912 marked the end of his engagement with architecture. With his eyesight fading, he concentrated on painting his garden in Giverny, particularly the famous water lilies, until his death in 1926.
Monet & Architecture, until 29 July, 2018. The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN.