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. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.