Think of Claude Monet’s art and what probably comes to mind are water lilies, gardens, landscapes – nature, not the built environment – but a gloriously rich exhibition at the National Gallery refines the stereotype, adds bricks and mortar to the equation and introduces another Monet: the tourist with an extraordinary eye.
Travel guides became popular in his lifetime and Monet used them to seek out sights deemed worthy of a visitor’s interest, though he hardly needed a guide for Normandy, where he grew up and painted the region’s picturesque buildings.
In 1878 he settled in Vétheuil, about a hundred kilometres northwest of Paris, where the town’s historic church, with a 14th-century tower and Renaissance-style façade, was the main attraction.
He painted it more than once and could depict as an edifice in a working town where people lived their lives and dwelt alongside it in humbler buildings.
Bordighera in Italy, just across the border from southern France, had become a tourist destination by the 1880s, renowned for its sunny microclimate and exotic vegetation.
Monet spent three months there and in one of his many paintings of the region captures its appeal, balancing a villa’s tower with the town’s clustered architecture and the surrounding lush and palmy greenery.
In time, Monet’s success as a painter brought financial affluence and he was able to travel abroad and book into fancy hotels.
On a return visit to London in 1890 he stayed at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand and began to paint from a balcony on its sixth floor; the high vantage giving views of the Thames as it bends towards the City, having flowed down past the Houses of Parliament.
He painted Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford (Charing Cross) Bridge over seventy times, blaming himself for obsessively trying to seize miniscule changes in the quality of the light.
As with the church in Vétheuil, he was not indifferent to the contemporary context and in one variant of Waterloo Bridge attention to the classical architecture of the structure is bypassed in favour of capturing the gloomy weather – the hint of blue in the centre of the sky suggests it could be daytime – and the factory chimneys belching smoke on the south bank; on the bridge itself a traffic jam of omnibuses and carts are silhouetted as darkly as the murky waters of the river below.
When put alongside his London bridge paintings, Monet’s remark – “Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat…I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist” – indicates just how broad his sense of light’s beauty was.
A book, “Monet & Architecture”, offers a fine commentary on the more than 75 paintings in the exhibition and an extensive overview of Monet’s artistic interest in architecture.
The exhibition, “Monet & Architecture”, is at The National Gallery in London until the 29th July 2018.
“Monet & Architecture” by Richard Thomson is distributed by Yale University Press.