Curator’s Introduction | The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture


I’m the Neil Westreich
Curator of Post-1800 Paintings here at the National Gallery. It has been my distinct pleasure
and learning experience over the last few years to work very closely
with our guest speaker today in the realisation
of the remarkable exhibition, ‘Monet and Architecture’,
that opens to the public today. Some of you have seen it, the rest of you, I assume will be seeing
this extraordinary compilation of works that allow us to think about Claude Monet in quite a new way. Richard Thomson
is the Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh. He is a leading scholar of French
– but wider than French – European art in the final decades
of the 19th and into the 20th century. He is a great scholar of Monet and other major artists such as Seurat. But he is also extraordinarily
well versed in the minutiae, in the often-forgotten artists
who swelled the Paris and French art world at the end of the 19th century. I know simply no other person who has been to
so many provincial French museums, to so many town halls
in tiny little villages, so many railroad station hotels looking for these works by French artists
at the turn of the century. This has led him to write
extremely important books on that period of French art
in all its complexity, on the traumas that beset the French and the ways in which
they try to use art to salve them. In addition to these important books
and areas of study, Richard also has
a most important career as a curator of exhibitions. And, I must say, he is hugely in demand
around the world, by the world’s leading museums
to head up projects of major exhibitions such as the great
retrospective exhibition of Claude Monet at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the other year, an exhibition last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York
on Seurat. An exhibition a year or two before that at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on that perennially favourite topic:
prostitution. And it has been, in fact, 21 years
since we last had the opportunity to work with Richard, that, on our really
ground-breaking exhibition: ‘Seurat and The Bathers’. Finally, however,
we’ve been able to work together. Again, he has proposed, as I say, a very exciting, new reading of Monet, it opens up new doors,
it opens up new ways of thinking and I could do nothing else
but introduce Richard to you and thank him for all he has done for us. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this opening lecture
on the exhibition, ‘Monet and Architecture’. I wouldn’t want you to think that the title which has
that name and that noun in it is simple, that one’s proposing one line of thought, one line of argument. What this exhibition has at its centre is the absolute belief
that Monet was a splendid painter and the pictorial was always at the centre
of what he was thinking about. You can see
in this wonderful exhibition we have 78 beautiful works, almost a quarter of which
are from private collections, that Monet is a really rapturous painter. It’s an exhibition that brings joy. And the reason why I thought architecture
was a useful theme is because it illuminates Monet from
all sorts of different points of view. I’m going to, in this lecture, run through
the structure of the exhibition, not talking about every picture in it, and bringing in one or two other images. But what I want to get across is that there are a number of
different ways of looking at Monet, that looking at the buildings
in his pictures help out with. First, Monet used buildings
as regular shapes in the irregularity of nature. Second, he used buildings
to give an accent of colour in his landscapes. So, you might find a red roof set against green vegetation, setting up a complementary contrast. Sometimes he used
the surface of a building as a screen on which light played or have water underneath the building so you get the reflection of it. So, those are all
pictorial reasons for Monet using buildings in his work. There were also cultural reasons. Monet lived at a time of growing tourism, he was born in 1840 and the first French railways
were opened in 1843. So, he grew up as people
were beginning to move around much more freely by railway. So, he engages with
the growing culture of tourism. Another suggestion
that one wants to make in this exhibition is that sometimes buildings
have a psychological role, and I’ll come into that
with some examples later on, where you see a fairly empty landscape
with no human figures in it, but just a lone building with which you or I,
the viewer of the picture, identify. And sometimes, buildings can serve
as a gauge of modernity because Monet tackled
very modern, up-to-the-minute subjects in his pictures. So, those are the range of possibilities that looking at buildings
in Monet’s work opens up. It’s really quite diverse. He was never a painter
strictly of architecture, like Canaletto, for example, though he did paint some pictures
where buildings by very famous architects – the 16th century architect, Palladio, the 18th century architect Soufflot, 19th century contemporaries like
Sir Charles Barry and Charles Garnier – can be found. But he did not, it has to be admitted, write about architecture in his letters. His letters are much more
concerned with pictorial matters, particularly with things like the weather and other significant features
of Monet’s life, particularly food. The first section of the exhibition
is called ‘The Village and the Picturesque’. The picturesque was an idea, a concept
that had been developed in England at the end of the 18th century and in France, it was picked up
after about 20 years of the 19th century as French people
were encouraged increasingly to look at particularly medieval buildings
in their heritage and reconsider them
in terms of national identity. Often, the stimulus
for looking at the picturesque was the illustrated text, often illustrated by lithographs, with text going alongside it
describing the building. And tourism built up around these texts because they encouraged people
to look at that abbey or that chateau. It’s interesting that
one of Monet’s first paintings – not one that is in the exhibition – painted in 1864 when he was only 23, is of a building here,
Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. And that very same year,
the building in Honfleur, it was photographed by Davanne, the photographer
using the new medium of the camera to represent this picturesque building. And here on the left,
in 1865 a year later, a lithograph of it. So, Monet was very much geared in to people using other media
who were representing the picturesque. Our exhibition opens
with this painting at the bottom left of ‘The Lieutenance at Honfleur’,
the Normandy port. The Lieutenance is a very
complicated piece of architecture, it includes the medieval wall of Honfleur and lots of accretions thereafter. Monet painted two variations of it and it’s very interesting that this shows
how buildings were important for him. The first pair of pictures he painted, the same subject done twice
with a slightly different light effect were centred on a building,
The Lieutenance. He was responding to what older painters
like Corot had done and what guidebooks did,
picking out picturesque motifs. Monet also travelled
to find the picturesque. In 1871, just as
the Franco-Prussian War was closing and Monet had come
to London first to escape that, he went to the Netherlands
and stayed at the town of Zaandam just to the north of Amsterdam. There, he was fascinated,
as you can see on the right, by the painted houses and the rather elaborate
and decorative gables of the Dutch houses. These were often described
by contemporary Frenchmen as making one think one was in China which actually shows how little contemporary tourist guide writers
knew about the Far East. But nevertheless,
this was exciting architecture, it was different from what
one was used to at home and Monet was fascinated by it. Look at the way
he’s not only interested in the buildings, but the building’s reflection
in the water. That pictorial effect
is something we’re going to see throughout
his representation of architecture. Now, when you look at
the painting of the windmills on the left, painted near Zaandam, immediately one thinks:
that’s picturesque, it’s rather touristic. Monet, the Frenchman, was fascinated by
the proliferation of windmills in the Polder land of the Netherlands. And he recognised that in the summer…. …the sails would be red.
That’s the Dutch custom. But actually, the picturesque
is a bit equivocal here because at one level,
it’s a picturesque motif, but look across the horizon
from left to right and you’ll see buildings everywhere. Everything in this picture is manmade: the windmills, the buildings, the bridge, the canal. So, here is the picturesque at one level, but at another, it is indeed
the commercial or the industrial. Monet went back
a few years later to Amsterdam – we’re not absolutely certain when,
it might’ve been 1873 or 1874 – and there he painted
in the centre of the city, painting the typical,
picturesque, Dutch architecture. In 1878, Monet moved out
of the suburbs of Paris where he’d been living for a few years,
which I’ll get on to later on, and he moved to Vétheuil, a small village
with about 600 inhabitants, something like 60 or 70 km
to the north-west of Paris. And there, he painted
this picture on the right: ‘The Staircase’. It’s one of the very, very rare pictures where Monet painted buildings
that enclose one. Of course, in our common experience, sometimes we see buildings at a distance, sometimes buildings are all around us, and this picture of ‘L’Escalier’
is one of the very few of those. We’re able to put it next to
this lovely, little small picture which he painted
when he was in the Netherlands of a little footbridge in Zaandam with the very typical Dutch brick houses
and red-tiled roofs and there, unusually,
with a figure in the doorway. At Vétheuil, he arrived in September 1878 and just about the first thing he painted
was the church. Vétheuil was not a large village,
it still isn’t, but it had a very grand church
on a piece of rising ground in the centre of the village. The church was medieval
and had been reworked, like so many medieval buildings,
at several points. But it had – and still has – a very elaborate
Renaissance-style facade that had been built in the 1580s. And this had been recognised
by the picturesque literature, as you can see from the lithograph
at the bottom right. And indeed,
even after Monet had left Vétheuil, in this guidebook of 1886, the facade of the church
of Notre-Dame de Vétheuil was picked out. Monet rented a little house
which you can now visit, it’s somewhere you can go and stay
– a small house just around the corner – and only about a minute and a half’s walk, he could’ve walked down the main road,
turned left and he’d have been here. He painted the church of Vétheuil twice. The one on the right, slightly earlier,
you can see the green trees, this one on the left
with the trees turning brown so a little bit later. So, straight away, he was drawn to
the picturesque sight of this church, though it’s interesting that he didn’t,
as an architectural painter would’ve done, like the lithographs,
gone right up to the facade. He placed the church in the village and was prepared to paint
some fairly scruffy elements of rural life such as the agricultural machinery
tipped on the side of the road or the guttering of the houses because Monet, at this stage,
was very much the naturalist, painting what he saw. Monet was also somebody who
scouted around the environment he was in, he painted the church at Vétheuil
from a boat, as we can see
in the summer picture on the left and in the winter picture on the right, from the other side of the River Seine
at the village of Lavacourt. In both pictures, the Church of Notre Dame
is central and dominant and I think this makes one consider how buildings worked at this period. We’re so used to
speeding around in our cars we forget that in the 19th century
and previous centuries, people typically went at walking pace even if they were sitting in a cart pulled by a bullock or a donkey
or riding a horse. People went slowly. And buildings, particularly
prominent buildings like churches, were a key way of reading a landscape. If you saw that tower, you’d know
it was such-and-such a village. And if you saw that spire,
you would identify another village, that would tell you which way to go. Also the size of the building
would give you a sense of distance and with that, a sense of how long
it was going to take to get there. That looks 3km away,
that will take me half an hour. So, prominent buildings like churches gave a sense of identity, destination, distance and time. And other artists,
other contemporaries like Lavielle, used buildings in the same sort of way. I would encourage you
to think of these pictures in that way, to cast your mind back
to how people lived in those days. But Monet
didn’t give up on the picturesque. Just when he came back and moved into his house, Giverny,
where he lived for the rest of his life, he painted this picture
of ramshackle old watermills on the bridge at Vernon which, as you can see, in the 1860s had been picked out by this print-maker as rather fascinating,
old, picturesque buildings. So, Monet was rooted into
that sort of sense. In 1882, he went to work,
as he had before, on the Normandy coast at Varengeville, very famous for its cliffs. And he worked for several months
on two campaigns there in 1884. When Monet arrived in places, he typically would begin
by going around with a little sketchbook, making very rapid drawings
of the lie of the land. There’s one of
his sketchbook pages up there. And in this early drawing, he registered the Church of Saint-Valéry
in Varengeville and this little custom officer’s cottage
on the bottom right, but he never painted
the two of them together. There was
a customs officer’s cottage there, but it’s dropped into the sea
with the erosion of the cliffs. And there’s a gorge that comes down
through the cliffs here and there’s another gorge further on
which comes down to the cliffs which also had
a customs officer’s cottage in it. And so we can see him picking out
the things that he wanted to paint. He painted this group of pictures of the church seen across the gorge
in different light effects and also from slightly different heights. So, this picture on the left
is an afternoon picture, one can tell
from the shadow of the church, gradually the light fades, and in the Birmingham picture
on the right, we get the evening sunset light. But the church is there,
as I said earlier, giving that regular shape
in the irregularity of nature. And we get that in some of the pictures
of the customs officer’s cottages. So, in this one on the right here, the building fits in pictorially, the slope of the roof
echoes the slopes of the gorge around it. Chromatically it works as well because that rather
russety brown of the building makes it rhyme
with the colours of the landscape. In the picture at the top,
a beautiful picture of a sun-lit day, one has to seek for the building. One’s first drawn, I think,
to those vertiginous cliffs and, again, the irregularity of them
as they’ve been eroded by the sea. Once again,
that roof gives a sense of regularity. At the beginning of my lecture
I talked about the psychological effect, look at this picture
of the customs officer’s cabin where you have an isolated building. There’s no human figure in it, you can tell by the way
the vegetation is painted and the way the sea is behaving that it’s a very windy day
and there’s a sense of isolation. It’s the sort of day
one would look for shelter and there is the shelter. So, we identify with that building
naturally, Monet understood instincts. He was also interested in modern elements
when he was there and in the summer of 1882,
he painted this wonderful painting of not old or picturesque buildings, but modern villas
constructed from holidaymakers at Dieppe. It’s interesting that here,
he turned his back on the picturesque, he painted from here, looking this way. So, he didn’t paint the Chateau of Dieppe, he painted the cliff
with the modern buildings on top of it and I suspect that
this rather precarious fence here is the same one that we see
in Monet’s canvas. In 1884, Monet paid his first visit to paint on the shores
of the Mediterranean and he worked at Bordighera down here which is… …a few kilometres
across the Italian border. When he first arrived, he booked into a hotel
and he found it was full of Germans and this was 13 or 14 years
after the Franco-Prussian War. He went to another hotel, it was full of British, that was OK. There were a couple of Scotswomen
who staggered him by their ability to walk huge distances
with great enthusiasm. He met a couple of English painters and they went up this valley on the left,
actually out of the picture, out of the map, and painted at… …the town of Dolceacqua. Monet painted these two pictures
and one other in a single day which must’ve staggered his British pals. So these are
very rapidly-brushed pictures. Here is one that we have in the exhibition and you can see in it
Monet’s marvellous drawing, the way he knows how to place forms
very solidly and surely in his compositions. And when he was at Dolceacqua, he wrote back to his lady friend,
Alice Hoschedé, and used the word, ‘picturesque’
because he found the place picturesque and he actually
bought a couple of photographs of it and sent them to her
very much in the tourist manner. But most of the time
when he was at Bordighera, he worked in the village itself. Here are two pictures
we’ve got in the exhibition and they’re very interesting
because, for example, in this painting,
you have two vertical elements. On the top, in the old town,
you get the vertical of the campanile built on Saracen foundations
dating back to 800 or 900 AD and then down in the valley,
you get another vertical of a modern building. This villa built for
Raphaël Bischoffsheim, a French politician and financier, designed by Charles Garnier,
the architect of the Paris Opera, and constructed between 1873 and 1875. So, Monet was there
using buildings for pictorial purposes and here’s a view
from lower down in Bordighera with the campanile
of the Villa Bischoffsheim on the left. In 1888, Monet
returned to the Mediterranean coast and worked at Antibes. Antibes was a town – is a town – that was actually
first settled by the Greeks and has developed since. It has the chateau of the Grimaldi family
in the middle with the tower there and it had been fortified
in the 17th century with an enceinte wall by the great military architect Vauban. These are features that you can
just about make out in his pictures: there’s the tower of the Grimaldi Chateau, here’s the Fort Carré,
the Square Fort designed by Vauban, but Monet tended to push those back
into the haze of the Mediterranean. In the foreground,
he counterpointed Antibes itself with this very vernacular
Mediterranean farm building. So, he was ringing
the variations on the site and painting very much
the tourist culture. Here’s a later railway poster which shows one of the motifs
that he painted by coincidence, but he was looking
at what tourists looked at. And indeed, if you look at
this exhibition picture here from Philadelphia of Antibes, you can see how he was painting very much more colouristic
and atmospheric paintings than a contemporary, Harpignies,
who was in Bordighera at the same time. He was making reference perhaps,
back to Corot in the composition and Watteau’s ‘L’Embarquement pour Cythère’
was his favourite picture in The Louvre. I just want to end
talking about the picturesque by saying that here is a triptych which we didn’t get together
for the exhibition, we missed that picture on the right,
unfortunately. But I think around 1900,
he painted these square pictures, or substantially square pictures, at a time of great difficulty
in his family. In 1899, his close friend Sisley died, Monet was with him when he did. And only a week later, one of his wife,
Alice Monet’s daughters – Monet’s step-daughter – died young. So, there was a lot of grief
in the family. Monet painted these very harmonised,
symmetrical pictures at the time. In 1901, he went back to Vétheuil where he and Alice had lived
20 years before, where his first wife, Camille,
is buried in the cemetery, and then painted this picture
of their home at Giverny. It’s very symmetrical
rather like the Japanese bridge – square, balanced out – as if the picturesque
was something that came back to him as something therapeutic and harmonised. I want to move on
to the central section, I have to go quite fast
because there’s a lot to see and that is about ‘The City and the Modern’. The modern subject really occupied Monet for only about a decade, beginning in 1867
where there was an Exposition Universelle, the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Clearly, he and his friend Renoir thought
that they would paint some cityscapes to sell them to visitors
who would come to Paris. In this painting, you get the horizon line with very distinguished
architectural features of the Paris skyline. You get on the left,
the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, a medieval building, in the centre, the great dome
of Soufflot’s 18th century Panthéon, and on the right, in the distance,
the dome of the 17th century Val de Grace. And on the left bank,
there’s old buildings, old houses and here, the Pont Neuf built
in the first decade of the 17th century by Henri IV whose sculpture is there. But while that shows
the old architecture of Paris, the foreground shows modernity: the new streets built by Baron Haussmann this wasn’t a new street,
but it’d been planted with new sapling trees there’s a Morris column
with advertisements on it, a newspaper kiosk, new gas lights. So, you get the momentum
of the modern Paris in the foreground. And Monet was doing the same site
as contemporary photographers like Charles Soulier up on the right. Here’s a watercolour by Harpignies which shows us a similar view
from The Louvre, but looking more
along the line of the quai. So, Monet was pretty
up to the minute at this time, though note the way
he gives a sense of pace and movement by showing men striding like that
and horses, so you get a sense of frozen movement. That will change. And here’s Renoir
doing much the same thing, both of them featuring
this advertisement on that building. In the summer of 1870, Monet, his wife Camille
and their little son, Jean went to Trouville. Trouville was a newly-developed
tourist resort, opened up by the railways, which had been substantially built up
in the 1850s and 1860s. So, when Monet painted,
as you can see on the right, the villas and hotels along the beach, he was painting very modern buildings. And from this earlier picture by Mozin, you can see how in a decade or so,
the place had developed and was photographed
by our friend Davanne. What’s interesting about these pictures is that on the right-hand side,
you get the manmade modern elements, on the left-hand side,
the more natural elements of sand, sea and sky. And in the middle, the boardwalk
that drives into the composition. There’s nothing
in the foreground of the boardwalk so the eye is sucked in
up this perspectival line and that gives a sense of speed and therefore, modernity. And while Monet was in Trouville
in the summer of 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and Monet and his family
skipped across the Channel to London. It’s wonderful that we’ve got
the National Gallery’s own picture of ‘The Thames at Westminster’ where you get a very similar composition. The place is different, but look again at how on the right,
you get the buildings, you get the perspectival drive
of the Embankment on the right and the more open space on the left. Again, the sense of momentum and the city. Both Sir Charles Barry’s
parliament buildings and the Victoria Embankment had only been completed in 1870 only months before
he painted this picture. So, he was painting very up to the minute. And indeed, if we look at this comparison with a drawing from
the illustrated London news of the period, you can see that perspectival device
being used by this illustrator. Monet went back to Paris
once things had settled down in 1871 after the trip to the Netherlands, and painted this wonderful picture
of ‘The Pont Neuf’, only a sketchy picture
of what he would call an effet, a weather effect
– it’s clearly rainy weather. Renoir painted from
the same vantage point, a more highly-finished picture which is a little bit more anecdotal. But you can still see
in this picture of 1872 by Monet, it might possibly be 1871 actually, the sense of the figures in movement. By the following year
when he painted this splendid picture we’re very happy to have from 1873, which was shown at
the 1874 first Impressionist exhibition, these figures that aren’t striding,
the figures are just marks. Somebody reviewing the picture
at this exhibition said, “Like palette scrapings, but it works.” And there, by blurring things, you get
an even greater sense of modernity. And here,
Monet rather hid the modern city, masking the buildings of Baron Haussmann’s
reconstruction of Paris both with the leafless trees and with a strong
winter or autumn sunlight. In 1872, he went to Rouen, very much an industrial, inland port where his brother worked
as an industrial chemist, and he painted this picture on the right which ties up
with picturesque views of Rouen drawn much earlier in the century,
it’s very much the same composition here. But look more closely
at Monet’s painting of Rouen and you will see that you get verticals
which are like the masts of the ships and these poplar trees, but these verticals are factory chimneys
of the industrial city. Here, these are barges
tied up along the quayside because Rouen
was a very, very industrial town. In fact, the man who invented
the refrigerated vessel which allowed meat from Argentina
to be brought frozen for sale in Europe came from Rouen. The first sailing of that ship
only four years after this was painted. So, here’s Monet painting modernity. He also painted Le Havre, his hometown. As you can see,
we have the picture on the right and there’s an aerial view of Le Havre
showing what a bustling port it was. And Le Havre also was
a centre for photography, as it happened, and here is a painting
by a contemporary photographer in Le Havre of the museum building
in the centre of the town which Monet painted
in this very fine painting in the National Gallery’s collection. You get the modern building of the museum,
built in the 1840s, set against the more ramshackle buildings
on the left. Of course, they no longer exist
because in 1944, Le Havre was attended to
by bomb command. At the very end of 1871, Monet moved to the suburbs of Paris and moved to Argenteuil on that loop
just to the north-west of the city with two bridges crossing the river: the black railway line
and the white road bridge. And while he was there
– when he arrived there rather – the road and railway bridges
had both been destroyed by the French army as it retreated
on Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and they were being rebuilt. We’ve got both paintings that he painted
of the bridge under reconstruction. And what you get in this exhibition,
I’m very happy to say, is a sense of Argenteuil
being reconstructed. Look at the picture here on the right where you get this villa up here, a villa with a rather steepish turret, and you’ll find that here
in another painting of 1872 seen from closer up, a summer picture with a very strong
right-angled composition, everything very calm. This is a picture of national… …confidence regathered,
national prosperity restored with the factory chimneys
bringing in wealth – the bourgeois villa in the foreground
a sign of that wealth. Here are some designs
of the same sort of building that Monet painted. Monet also, when he was at Argenteuil, sometimes
masked the buildings that he saw. The building
on the right-hand side of this picture is the hospice in Argenteuil, one of its rare old buildings
constructed in 1675 – there’s a postcard of it at the top – but Monet hid it behind the vegetation. And what he featured rather instead
is this modern building with its stone or concrete armature
and its brick – but then, Argenteuil had a big brickworks. So, he rather favoured
the modern over the picturesque there. He also painted other pictures
which we’ve got in the exhibition which used natural effects
to mask the buildings. Here it’s fog, there, it’s snow and we have to look to find here
some buildings being constructed, a factory chimney and there, middle-class
villa accommodation hidden by the different weather effects. Monet also painted these bridges, here’s the road bridge repaired now in a painting of 1873. He puts into these pictures
two kinds of horizon: the horizon we naturally look for,
the natural horizon you get here and the artificial horizon
that cuts across it at the bridge. So, we look into space, but we also
get it contradicted by what goes across. He’s making a modern way of looking which was something you find
in contemporary photography. And here is a drawing
from one of his sketchbooks done in his boat, possibly with a transparent image
of his wife on the left, drawn just underneath the bridge and as you look downriver,
that’s what you would’ve seen. Both these pictures are in the exhibition, they’re not exactly sequential,
but they connect. This doesn’t seem to want to move on.
Yes, it does, right. Monet painted
both the industrial side of the suburbs, as you can see
in these two paintings on the right, and also the more comfortable,
prosperous, bourgeois villas. And, again, here, this composition is a very balanced and symmetrical one suggesting, I think,
the restoration and prosperity to France after the war. In 1877, he got special permission
to paint in the Gare St Lazare – that was the railway terminal in Paris into which he came when he came
into the city from Argenteuil. The Gare St Lazare
had been built from the 1840s in several stages that had constantly been developed
as there were more tracks and an engineer called Flachat, had designed
this particular girder structure which allowed for a span of 40 metres – to get lots of railway tracks
going underneath it – a span of 40 metres
that was unsupported by pillars. So, it was a significant
piece of new engineering and Monet painted it, but I think when you look at pictures like
the National Gallery’s own ‘Gare St Lazare’, you get a sense of Monet playing with
the conventions of landscape. When you think of
a typical landscape painting, you get something at the bottom
– the earth, the ground – you get something in the middle, – buildings or trees,
something substantial – and at the top of a landscape painting,
you get open space, you get the sky and maybe something fluid
and loose in it: clouds. When Monet painted
inside the Gare St Lazare, he turned that around. So, you get something solid at the bottom
– the platforms and the locomotives – but instead, at the top,
of getting open space, it’s closed by that roof
of iron and glass. And the fluid, natural forms of clouds
that you’d expect at the top, are actually the steam
from the locomotives in the middle space. There’s something about
these ‘Gare St Lazare’ pictures, or some of them, like this one, which are,
what one might call ‘perverse landscapes’ or the landscape convention twisted in the modern environment. In 1878, there was a third
Exposition Universelle, a universal exhibition, and this celebrated France’s recovery
after the Franco-Prussian War. The president at the time,
Field Marshal MacMahon, who hadn’t fought at the battle of Sedan where the French
were defeated by the Prussians because earlier on,
one of his buttocks was removed by a Prussian shell. But he made it to President. He was very right wing
and he did not want to celebrate 14 July because it was what Republicans did. So, he said, “We’ll celebrate
the success of the Exposition Nationale on 30 June” and all the flags went up, as you can see from
this illustrated periodical of the time. There was a lot of joyous celebration, France had recovered from the war, a lot of wine was consumed,
people were in very good form. Monet must’ve blagged his way
in this Venus atmosphere up to the third or fourth floor of a flat, talked his way in
and here he paints the canyon-like space of the Rue Montorgueil. Its wedges driving in up the perspective, the buildings at the side
obscured by the flags and those palette scrapings to suggest
the momentum of the figures at the bottom. But, effectively, after 1878, he stopped painting modern subjects
pretty much. Now, the third and final section
of the exhibition is called ‘The Monument and the Mysterious’. And, I’ve mentioned
the spread of railways at this time, Monet was a tourist himself,
he used railways. And I was very pleased to discover this railway poster from 1908, the year that Monet
and his wife went to Venice, and what does it have? Fortuitously,
the three cities that he painted in the 20 years between when
he started to paint in Rouen in 1892, painting in London
around the turn of the century, painting in Venice in 1908 and exhibiting those pictures in 1912. And so, there we have
Rouen, London and Venice all on one poster. Bingo. Monet was a tourist himself and that, look,
here’s a tourist photograph, you don’t get any more touristy than this
with the pigeons in San Marco Square. I bet there are more than one person
in this room now who’s been photographed there. You had to be a very courageous pigeon to land on the hand of Alice Monet. Monet, of course,
had grown up in Normandy and he knew Rouen well. He went back there early in 1892 intending to paint the city. He did a few unfinished pictures
of industrial Rouen, no. Then he started
to think about the cathedral and he painted this view,
which we’ve got in the exhibition, a rather more vertical composition looking across a market square through the old medieval buildings. So, you get a sense
perhaps of the old buildings kind of sagging down and the cathedral soaring up. But, no, he didn’t finish
this composition, it was left as a sketch. It was perhaps a bit social. Pissarro painted from the same position
a few years later, but Pissarro
was much more interested in people and society than Monet was. Monet next thought what to do: let’s paint the bottom
of the Tour d’Albane where old buildings are decreated around
the massive base of the tower. So, he painted three of these pictures,
one of which is in the exhibition, as you can see from the photograph, but he didn’t continue with them,
he just painted those three. And what he settled on
was the western facade of Rouen Cathedral which had been recently represented
by all sorts of people like Lepère in this very elaborate
and detailed engraving. Monet painted, at the beginning of 1892… …at a couple of places and then in 1893,
he added a third vantage point for painting the cathedral from. He was very conscious
of the light changing on the screen of the facade
very regularly. Sometimes he could use
ten canvases in a day. He’d paint as long as that right effect
was there, the right light. He’d paint for a few minutes,
as soon as it changed, he’d put that canvas down,
pick up the other one which had the right colour
that he was working on two days ago, put that up, paint a bit more,
put that down, move onto the next one. So, the painting
of the effect of a moment… …was built up over many sessions
on each canvas, sometimes spread over
possibly three years off and on which is very paradoxical. Because he was using so many canvases
and didn’t want to paint on the street, you can see
this is painted from one floor up, Monet found places to work in, one of which
was above a lady’s clothes shop. And the place he was given to paint in was the changing room on the first floor. So, a screen was put up in the room, on one side of the screen, there would be
the ladies trying on their new dresses and on the other side of the screen
was Monet painting away. Monet was a very dedicated painter and we’ve got
some splendid examples in the exhibition, including these three, painted from slightly different positions. Look at the Cardiff picture
where immediately above my finger you can see a sliver of blue sky between the Tour d’Albane on the left and the central piece of architecture. In these two paintings
from the private collection and Weimar, you don’t get that sliver of sky because they were painted from
a different vantage point. But you can see the different
kinds of light that he was representing on these fabulous pictures. Monet talked about Rouen Cathedral, a journalist from Rouen remembered,
as a cliff. So, he was making an equation
between a manmade construction, this a medieval cathedral, and nature on both of which light plays. In 1899, Monet came to work in London. When he showed
the ‘Rouen Cathedral’ pictures in 1895, he sold them for 15,000 francs each. In those days, a skilled workman
like, say, a carpenter, would earn 2,000 francs a year, so if Monet was getting 15,000
for each ‘Rouen Cathedral’, he was doing nicely. So, when he came to London in 1899
to paint early in the year, he went to the Savoy Hotel, a new building put up in the 1880s. And in those days, it doesn’t now, it had balconies around it,
as you can see here, and when he first came in 1899, he worked on the balcony
on the sixth floor. When he came back in 1900
to work again, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters had taken over
the whole of the sixth floor for wounded officers from the Boer War. So, Monet had to move down
to the fifth floor which didn’t really affect
what he was looking at. And here at the top,
I’ve got a pointer here, I can’t jump, here at the top you can see
this lovely, old period map of the time
– so much better than Google Maps. Here, you get the Savoy Hotel. In the mornings,
Monet would look eastwards across Waterloo Bridge as the sun came up over here. In the later mornings
and early afternoons, he would paint from his balcony
at the Savoy looking southwards over Charing Cross Bridge. And in the evenings,
he had got a friend of his, Mrs Hunter, to get him permission to have a room
in St Thomas’s Hospital looking westwards
over the Houses of Parliament so he could paint sunset
at the Houses of Parliament. You will notice that immediately outside
the Savoy Hotel there is Cleopatra’s Needle. Don’t forget. Because when
he was at the Savoy Hotel, Whistler had worked there in the 1890s,
a friend of Monet’s, and here, there was this book produced
by the Savoy Hotel in 1900 with a cover by the poster designer,
Dudley Hardy. This was a book
with a lot of different essays on it produced by the Savoy Hotel to promote the Savoy Hotel. And Monet painted these wonderful views, as you see here,
that particular view southwards from Charing Cross Bridge, but of the 33 paintings he painted
of Charing Cross Bridge, he only painted Cleopatra’s Needle twice. And neither of those pictures
are finished pictures. We have three of Charing Cross Bridge
in the exhibition. We’re very fortunate
to have the one with the obelisk in it. And possibly it’s because it created
too strong a vertical in the foreground, so for pictorial reasons,
he just edited it out as he edited out
the sweep of the Embankment. Maybe he didn’t want an image that looked
too like the Savoy’s commercial material. And what he didn’t want
was something that obscured the surface of the Thames because that’s what he wanted to show
the light playing on. And he used Charing Cross Bridge as a horizontal across the picture,
a slightly angled horizontal, and the middle ground verticals with the Houses of Parliament
creating more distant verticals, always with the pictorial
firmly in Monet’s mind. He painted Waterloo Bridge and there’s a great sense
of the bustle of the modern city here, particularly in some of
the clearer paintings like the one from Dublin
that’s in the exhibition. But what fascinated Monet was what he called the ‘enveloppe’, the ‘envelope’,
the surrounding ambient atmosphere. In London, it was very foggy, there was no, or little,
central heating in those days, most people
lit their houses with coal fires. Monet was here early in the year in 1899, 1900 and 1901, and on the South Bank,
there was heavy industrialisation and with it, a great deal of pollution. Monet wrote these letters home saying, “It’s wonderful,
it’s really foggy, I can’t see a thing! “And the fog is dirty and it’s coloured, “it was yellow and now it’s gone green!” This is what got him very, very excited and you can see the greenish effect
in this wonderful painting from Ottawa in the exhibition. So, yes, he was painting
the modern metropolis of London, but he was fascinated,
really, by the modernity less of the streets and the people, but the modernity
of the polluted atmosphere. And here are the third group he painted, the views from St Thomas’s Hospital
looking westwards across the Houses of Parliament… …and showing
the different evening effects, particularly with a strong sunset
in the background. And what’s interesting is that that effect where you get the light of the sunset
behind the motif coming forward and being reflected
on the surface of the water and then being reflected
on the surface of the building is something he previously explored
in Normandy at Étretat where you get sunset picked up on the sea
in the foreground and then reflected back
onto not a building, but the natural architecture
of the cliffs. Now, finally, in 1908… I forgot to say something about
Monet in London which is good. When he was there in February 1901, Queen Victoria died and Monet’s friend,
the American painter, Sargent, had gotten Monet permission
to view the funeral procession from a balcony. And Monet wrote back
to his wife Alice in France saying, “I got onto this balcony
to watch the procession “and this American writer
who spoke excellent French “stood next to me
and explained everything to me.” It was Henry James. In 1908, Monet and Alice went to Venice, Mrs Hunter, who had got him permission
to paint from St Thomas’s Hospital, rented a villa, the Palazzo Barbaro,
from some Americans about here, here, actually, and invited Monet
and his wife, Alice, to stay and later on, they moved to
the Grand Hotel Britannia which is about here. And Monet, when he arrived in Venice, very aware, I think, of how
many people had painted there before. Indeed, Henry James had once said 20 years earlier, he said, “Venice is the city we can all see “without having been there.” Because it was so famous. Monet, when he arrived, said,
“I’ll just paint a couple of pictures, “just so I’ve got a memory of it.” Of course, he got really engrossed,
he was fascinated by what Venice offered and also, competitive, if you think of all
the previous painters who’d painted there: probably Turner, his friend Whistler, some of his younger contemporaries
like the Norwegian, Frits Thaulow, his old mentor Boudin, he thought:
if they can do it, I can do it better. And he set about painting Venice. And he painted from the steps
of the Palazzo Barbaro looking down the Grand Canal
towards the Salute which many painters had done before. Here’s a picture by Corot painted
on the other side of the Grand Canal. This print from the right
by Pierre Gusman, he was an artist
who’d written a guidebook to Venice published in 1907, the year before
Monet and Alice went there. Monet owned Gusman’s guidebook. So, there’s Monet,
the very active tourist, being provoked by the imagery in the book that he’d purchased
before travelling. He painted from the Grand Hotel Britannia looking across the Bacino di San Marco and we’ve got these three pictures
of very changing light of San Giorgio Maggiore,
the great Palladian building which Whistler had painted
almost three decades earlier. It’s interesting
when contrasting these pictures, not only was Monet more colourful, perhaps he was more subtle than Whistler. Look at the way Whistler
balances out San Giorgio Maggiore and its campanile with a ship to give a sense of the modern,
commercial identity of Venice. Monet didn’t do that,
he edited out things like that and although there are gondolas
in some of Monet’s pictures with these very,
very schematic gondoliers, they don’t function to give a sense of
people living in Venice. These are pictorial marks on the surface, the gondola is giving
a nice, curving shape, essentially horizontal,
fixing the middle ground and so on. So, here’s Monet,
always the pictorial artist. Monet was also, as we saw
in the pictures of the church of Vétheuil or that painted house at Zaandam, using the architecture with,
or in relation to, the water beneath it. Most of his Venice pictures are binary with the building at the top and the water underneath
with the reflection. So, in the splendid paintings
we have of the Doge’s Palace, he, like with Rouen Cathedral, used the surface of the building
as a screen on which light played and used the water beneath
as an aqueous screen on which he got the reflections. He was not interested in
having a good time in Venice. There was a lot of cultural activity,
Alice wanted to join in… …but Monet would just paint. So, while Alice
would’ve liked to have gone out on the gondolas like this at night
and so on, Monet really wouldn’t have it. He was once invited to dinner… …no, to a dinner and a musical party
at the Princesse de Polignac’s palazzo and he went very grumpily because he was going to have to
stay up late and he liked to get up at 5:30am
so he could paint the dawn light. Here is a page from Gusman’s book
with another one of the palazzi, this is what Monet owned, so, when he chose to paint
the Palazzo Dario, he’d already briefed himself
from Gusman’s book. And here’s the Palazzo Dario,
which we’ve just seen, and the Palazzo Contarini on the right. And I just mentioned
the Princesse de Polignac inviting him to a concert… …in 1908, her husband, the Prince,
who’d been a composer, he died. But the Polignacs
had come to Venice in 1900 to escape
the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris which was going to have
too many people there, so, like a lot of the Parisian rich,
they got out to Venice. They were staying
at the Palazzo Barbara themselves and the elderly Prince,
a composer of music, looked across the water of the Grand Canal
at the Palazzo Contarini and he said, just dreamily, “How lovely it would be
to live in a place like that.” And the Princesse said to him, “It’s your birthday soon”,
and she bought it for him. But she was Winnaretta Singer, so she had the sewing machine fortune
which helped a great deal. I have a wonderful wife
who I’ve been married to for 40 years, but she is deficient in palazzo provision. In these paintings, you can see, again, the use of the buildings
as a screen for light playing on it and the water underneath,
they’re very binary pictures. And I put this Lévy-Dhurmer in
as a final image because a lot of the writing about Venice
at the beginning of the 20th century talks about Venice
as being very melancholy. I think one gets that sense
in Monet’s pictures, there aren’t any people. And that sense of… …the abandoned city,
the city rather in decay, which people like Henry James
were writing about at the same time, gives these a rather melancholy quality as well as the fascination that Monet felt with the light of the Adriatic
playing on the water. So, ladies and gentlemen,
I’ve come to an end, I hope I’ve shown you
the very, very diverse ways in which Monet painted architecture
and inserted it in his pictures and I hope that you enjoy the exhibition,
many thanks.

3 Replies to “Curator’s Introduction | The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture”

  1. Worthy exhibition, I surmise… but i do find that we merely interact with the obligatory artists under different project titles… whether it be klee and various other european artists enmeshed within political connotations or such as this man juxtaposed with the theme of architecture… Would it be too much to request other less well defined artists of the past as future points of reference to study?
    it would be an easy jump from this subject to the notions of the dandy/flaneur….

  2. Visited it today and was in total awe of it. I highly recommend visiting it, while you still can. Went to see the Picasso in Tate Modern and was left with a bitter taste afterwards, but this was something special. Went through it twice and go could again tomorrow.

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