Monet – Light and Magic

Monet was obsessed with nature, but this show shines a new light on his work featuring buildings. The show’s curator, Professor Richard Thomson, Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University, says: ‘Monet painted architecture for all sorts of positive purposes.’ Here he explains the display to us, so if you’re off to The National Gallery, take this with you!


The Thames below Westminster, 1871 ‘When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Monet quickly took his family to London. That winter, he painted this view of the Houses of Parliament from the Thames Embankment looking south. You get Big Ben silhouetted against a grey sky and, in the foreground, some scaffolding. Sir Charles Barry’s Houses of Parliament (and the Victoria Embankment, where Monet was sitting) had both been finally completed just a short while before Monet painted them. Just as he’d done on Trouville Beach, Monet used a strong perspective, giving a sense of speed and modernity – he was coming up with modern compositions for very contemporary subjects.’  

2. ONE OF MONET’S FIRST PAINTING’S WAS OF The Mediterranean View Of Bordighera, 1884
‘Railway systems that had been developed from the mid-19th century onwards enabled him to paint the Mediterranean. Monet took the train from Paris to Marseille and into Italy, staying at a small village just across the border called Bordighera. This painting is a view of the village from a hill just outside, looking through the pine trees of that part of the Mediterranean. Sticking out from the hill is the bell tower of Bordighera. It was built in the Middle Ages by the Saracens, then extended and converted into a bell tower for the parish church, so its architecture has evolved through the centuries. The white tower at the bottom was a contemporary building, built around 1870 and designed by the French architect Charles Garnier for a French financier and politician. This villa nestles into the foreground, showing the contrast between the old bell tower and a plutocrat’s villa.’

3. HE CAPTURED VENICE’S MELANCHOLY: The Palazzo Dario and The Palazzo Contarini, 1908
‘The exhibition has two paintings of palazzi on Venice’s Grand Canal. They were built for merchants, but by the start of the 19th century many had been bought by wealthy foreigners. For example, in 1900 Paris hosted a world fair (The Exposition Universelle), which led to rich visitors coming to Venice, including France’s Princesse de Polignac. Her husband pointed at the Palazzo Contarini and casually said he would like to own something like it, so she bought it for his birthday. A lot of people talking or writing about Venice at that time, such as Henry James, felt that the city was melancholic and its great age had gone: there was a tension between the excitement of tourists and how intellectuals felt. This fascinated Monet and he chose to paint these buildings without any human figures, to convey that sense of melancholy.’

‘The Gare Saint-Lazare is one of the major railway stations in the centre of Paris. The engineer Eugène Flachat designed its structureo f girders, which allowed an iron-and-glass roof to spread 40 metres across the railway tracks, unsupported. It was a remarkable piece of architectural engineering at the time. In a typical landscape painting, you would expect the atmospheric features to be in the sky, with a sense of irregularity from the clouds, while beneath them, you expect order from a man-made construction in the middle of the picture. Here, however, Monet cheekily reverses those expectations, so that in the central space, we get irregularity from the steam. Even though the steam is irregular however, it is also man-made. At the top of Monet’s painting, the iron-and-glass roof is painted almost symmetrically, which gives a powerful sense of regularity. So, in this picture, Monet was reversing the conventional idea of landscape painting.

5. MONET WAS FASCINATED BY THE GRANDEUR OF NATURE: The Church at Varengeville, Morning Effect, 1882
‘Monet walked quite far out to sea at low tide to paint this. The cliff fills up the middle of the picture like a great wall and then, perched on the top, is the little medieval church at Varengeville, Normandy. He had to escape pretty quickly when the tide turned! This is a wonderfully dramatic painting from a private collection. From this massive cliff, you get a sense of the enormous power and grandeur of nature, then the fragility of the church on top. You also feel the irregularity of nature with the jagged edge of the cliff brim, with the regular angle of the roof and the spire at the top. Although the cliff looks powerful, the face of it has the marks of crumbling. Those elements fascinated Monet and led him to paint such a magnificent picture.’

‘Trouville was a recently developed tourist resort on the Normandy beaches of northern France – the spread of the railways made this a fashionable destination at the time. On the right-hand side you can see the modern villas and hotels that had recently been constructed, such as the Hotels de Roches Noires, with the beach on the left. So, you get that contrast between nature and modernity. Monet painted these pictures from a position where the boardwalk down the middle gives a rushing perspective: your eye follows the boardwalk into the distance and that sense of speed suits the modernity of the scene.’

monet_paris.jpg7. VISITORS WILL SEE MONET’S FAMOUS WORKS AS WELL AS LESSER-KNOWN ONES:  The Rue Montorgueil, Paris, 1878
‘This picture from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is a famous picture from a famous museum, so obviously we’re thrilled to have it on display. The exhibition includes 78 paintings, but about a quarter are from private collections. To feature so many paintings from private collections – particularly by an artist of such renown – is really something special. It means that you will see some pictures that are very familiar, but also many that are not so known.’



To: 29th July.
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN.
T: 020-7747 2885.
Monet & Architecture by Richard Thomson is out 15 May

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