Architecture might seem an unexpected premise through which to explore the work of Claude Monet – the forefather of impressionism most known for painting waterlilies. But it works.
From his early painting of A Hut at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 to his later series of London’s Parliament, the Cathedral in Rouen and Venice’s Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Monet anchored many of his works with manmade structures. As early as 1868, Zola said of him: “everywhere he likes to find the mark of man. Nature seems to lose of its appeal… as soon as it does not bear the stamp of our mores.”
In each of the 77 works on display, that stamp is clear. From bridges to windmills, churches to houses, Monet captured the way humans imprint on their surroundings, carefully juxtaposing nature with construction.
His rigorous approach when rendering subjects – painting them from different angles, in different lights and at different times of day – showed how fluid the relationship between architecture and landscape can be. In 1882, Monet spent time in Normandy, depicting views of the steep Varengeville coast complete with a customs officer’s hut. At times, the cottage is dark and dominant, perched on the cliff edge, scouring the water for incoming boats. From other angles it’s barely visible, nestled innocuously into a crevice, blending into the idyllic landscape.
Regardless of whether this architectural lens intrigues you, you don’t need a pretext to see the UK’s first solo showing of Monet’s work in 20 years. Quite simply, the exhibition is terrific. Sadly, today is its last day (albeit with extended opening hours), so do everything in your power to enjoy this showcase that spans the breadth of Monet’s career – capturing the evolution of his style and palette as he journeyed through different countries. Witnessing the transformation from his earlier works, with their hint of realism, to the marvellous alchemy of colour produced later in his career is fascinating.
Although the exhibition uses architecture to unite the vast body of work on display, it doesn’t deceive about where Monet’s interest really lay. Manmade structures may have intrigued him, but more importantly, they offered a surface through which he could explore his real passion – the fleeting refractions of light and colour. “I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of light in which they exist,” he said.
That beauty is evident throughout his work. On the Mediterranean, Monet captured Antibes as a city bathed in delicate pink, shimmering shell-like under a pastel-hued sky. In Snow Effect at Giverny, Monet’s home town, a handful of buildings huddle together in practical defence – appearing as a wintry apparition through a delicate spectrum of white.
But the most powerful effect takes place in the last two rooms, filled with scenes of London and Venice, produced when the artist was in his sixties. In the first, it’s impossible not to feel awed by the majestic chaos of Monet’s Thames series, where the Houses of Parliament emerge resplendent through London’s industrial fog. Captured in unfathomable combinations of colour, at times Westminster is reimagined in shadowy mauves, illuminated by glowing orange waters. In others, the city is lit in the most delicate of lilacs, while iridescent, golden brushstrokes glimmer across the sky. These pictures have been gathered from around the world and, in themselves, are a reason to brave the crowds.
Continue into the final room, though, and the frenetic scenes of London are replaced by instant calm as the scene changes to Venice. Awash with watery blues and pale, ethereal skies, these tranquil images capture a stately but surreal city where buildings melt into water; scenes made more otherworldly by the stunning luminosity of Monet’s work.
Of course, this dramatic emotional shift could have much to do with the artist’s own state of mind. When painting in London, he struggled to capture the ever-changing effect of the city’s fog and destroyed numerous canvases in frustration. Venice, by contrast, reinvigorated him, claiming the city had freed him from feeling his age. Monet enjoyed a happy period there with his wife, Alice, and her death three years later prompted him to complete these paintings to commemorate that time.
After this, while the first world war raged around him, Monet withdrew to paint from his home in Giverny, where he constructed a Japanese peace garden complete with a graceful white bridge – carefully arched to offset an exquisite sea of waterlilies.
After walking through this thrilling exhibition, you may be persuaded that Monet’s work was indeed underpinned by architecture; a subtle frame through which he illuminated the world around him. But even if you don’t, you’ll still revel in his masterful studies of the beauty of light.
Monet and Architecture ran at the National Gallery, London, from 9th April to 29th July 2018. To find out more and explore the archive, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk.