Say the name Claude Monet and anyone with a vague clue about art thinks of country landscapes and gardens. It wasn’t just water lily ponds that tickled the fancy of this founder of French impressionist painting, though: Monet was also moved to paint cities too, as is highlighted in the National Gallery’s glorious new exhibition Monet & Architecture.
“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,” says Professor Richard Thomson, of the Edinburgh College of Art, who curated the show. Indeed, while there are some paintings that tread familiar territory – flowers, gardens, idyllic bodies of water – there are plenty that subvert your expectations – smoky train stations, heavy labour in filthy docks, crowd-filled promenades and big city monuments.
Fittingly, perhaps, one driver of Monet’s painting spree of grubby cities was the slightly grubby issue of money. There was an exposition universelle in Paris in 1867, the second of its kind in France, a kind of world fair of industry and art. Recognising that thousands of people would be flocking to the French capital, savvy Monet figured, if he painted some pictures of Paris, he could probably flog a few. From there he moved on to painting other cities and towns: London, Venice, Rouen, Le Havre, Trouville.
Of course, the views a city offered would have attracted him for artistic reasons. Buildings provide a regular shape or clear colour to contrast with the irregularity of nature; or they can act as a screen on which light plays in an interesting way that he’d want to capture.
But the paintings also illustrate an interest in the concept of modernity and how cities represent that, according to Thomson. The urban motifs that captured Monet’s eye as representing modern life evolved over time.
‘On the Boardwalk at Trouville’, Claude Monet, 1870. Image: public domain.
At first it was all about depicting movement, to highlight the fast pace of modern city life. Monet did this by using perspective: take for instance his painting ‘On the boardwalk at Trouville’, which as the title suggests shows the fashionable seaside resort. The boardwalk divides the middle of the painting, creating “a steep perspective which encourages the eye to rush into the picture and it gives a sense of momentum and with it the pace of modern life,” as Thomson puts it. Painting people mid-stride, as he does in ‘The Quai de Louvre’, which then evolves into a mere brush stroke to represent a person – or “cat lickings”, as one contemporary critic put it – adds to this atmosphere of bustle.
Striking architecture such as Gare St-Lazare in Paris also became a subject of Monet’s exploration of the meaning of modernity. Railways emblemised the idea, as they were both a new invention and one which encouraged movement.
“He almost used the railway station as a perverse kind of landscape,” says Thomson. Where the sky should be is a glass ceiling, and the plumes of smoke are in the middle of the painting where clouds in a traditional landscape would be on the top. What better way to emphasise that modernity turns tradition on its head?
‘The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (La Gare Saint-Lazare)’, Claude Monet, 1877. Image © The National Gallery, London.
The motif that went on to obsess Monet though as the epitome of modernity was fog caused by pollution in London. He loved it, he loved the colours and the shifting shapes it created (a Green Party member, he would not have been). The paintings of Embankment or Big Ben or London’s various bridges painted between 1899-1901 play second fiddle really to the colourful fog obscuring their shape. French critics, unsurprisingly, loved all this because it showed how dirty London was.
Naturally though, tastes change and modernity stopped interesting Monet. This is visible in his pictures of Venice, the last city he painted before devoting his old age to immortalising his garden. There are practically no people in them (unlikely, given Venice was already a tourist hotspot), and the buildings seem to float melancholically above the water with no clear definition about where the buildings end and the reflections begin. These paintings display more of an obsession with different forms of light, and of how combining that with his brushwork technique could envelop the identity of the buildings and create a sense of mystery.
The true mystery though is how this more urban side to Monet’s works have remained under the radar, eclipsed by landscapes. They are beautiful even if you would not traditionally consider their subject beautiful. Perhaps as our population and cities grow, so too will an appreciation for these lesser known Monet paintings.
Monet & Architecture is on at London’s National Gallery until 29 July.