Claude Monet is best remembered for his landscapes. But the French impressionist loved cities, too

‘The Thames below Westminster (La Tamise et le Parlement)’, Claude Monet, about 1871. Image © The National Gallery, London.

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. 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.