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Monet’s eye for architecture

Monet’s eye for architecture

An exhibition of his paintings of buildings teases out the contradictions in his art

An exhibition of his paintings of buildings teases out the contradictions in his art

Martin Oldham | April 17th 2018

Claude Monet is known and loved as a painter of light and mist, rivers and sea and water-lily ponds. It is doubtful whether he would have recognised himself as a painter of architecture. “Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat,” Monet said in 1895. “I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist.” He was reasserting the Impressionist creed: it was subjective experience that mattered, not objective description. Inconsequential corners of nature were as worthy of his attention as any of humanity’s grand designs. And yet the National Gallery has launched an exhibition called “Monet & Architecture”, which argues that  buildings in his paintings are an “overlooked aspect of Monet’s work.”
 
The gallery has assembled an impressive array of works, some famous, others rarely seen pieces from private collections. “Architecture” is perhaps too weighty a word; the exhibition considers the man-made environment in its broadest sense – there are humble shacks here alongside cathedrals – and distils what buildings meant to Monet and what purposes they served in his paintings. 

The argument the curators weave is subtle rather than a radical revision; it teases out some of the contradictions in Monet’s art, but without fully addressing the implications of these insights. We learn, for example, that Monet maintained a lingering allegiance to the Picturesque tradition, a romantic, conventional genre of landscape painting which Impressionism ostensibly rejected as unnatural artifice. We also find that, though the Impressionists famously embraced modernity, Monet’s preoccupation with contemporary urban and suburban subjects proved relatively short-lived. But when he did paint buildings, he did so in order to evoke history and the human presence in the landscape (so much for those inconsequential corners of nature). We might reach the conclusion that here is an artist who, in terms of his subjects, looked to the past as much as to the future. 

But if we consider how he painted, rather than what he painted, a more familiar Monet emerges: an artist radically redefining painting, using colour and brushwork to capture an increasingly personal vision. Buildings played a valuable role in his compositions, providing structural frameworks which he played off against the irregularities of nature. In some of his great “series” paintings, such as those of the Houses of Parliament or Rouen Cathedral, the details of the building are dispensed with. They become a silhouette or screen on which he explores the effects of changing light and weather. Seen this way, the theme of architecture proves to be a surprisingly effective lens through which to appreciate Monet’s distinctive technique, and his mastery of light and colour.

“The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris” (1873)

One of Monet’s early cityscapes, this painting was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, where some critics derided it for its apparently slapdash, unfinished appearance. But with his use of seemingly haphazard dabs of paint, Monet captured the kaleidoscopic visual experience of being immersed in the busy energy of the modern metropolis. He does not give any one element – people, trees or buildings – precedence. Yet the architecture provides order, the diagonal lines across the buildings and the shadow dividing the street creating a strong sense of spatial recession. Monet returned to the countryside in 1878, after which his interest in urban subjects waned. 

 

“The Church at Vétheuil” (1878)

This church had become well known through picturesque illustrations, but Monet’s approach here was to incorporate it into a village scene. The eye is drawn along the street, past the ordinary houses, upwards to the grand façade and spire. The complex arrangement of lines, angles and planes demonstrates his skilled draughtsmanship. The light is relatively flat, with minimal shadow, and it is with variations of colour and textures that Monet creates pictorial depth and endows the church with its monumental presence.

 

“Gardener’s House at Antibes” (1888)

During the 1880s Monet travelled to the Mediterranean coast seeking the challenges offered by stronger sunlight and more intense colours. The slanting roof of a rustic dwelling provided him with a bold, geometric shape which occupies the centre of this canvas, its coral-pink colour providing a scintillating contrast to the surrounding blues and greens. 

 

“Rouen Cathedral. The Portal and the Tour d’Albane at Dawn” (1893-4)

In 1892 and 1893, from the vantage point of rooms overlooking Rouen cathedral, Monet painted a series of meditations on the effects of light as it moved across the building over the course of the day. Five paintings in the series are reunited in this exhibition. As you can see in this example, Monet abruptly cropped the view and dispensed with nearly all architectural detail. He filled the sky with a golden light that seems to absorb the tower, while silvery highlights pick out the texture of the cathedral’s decorated façade. There is a paradox in the way that Monet made the imposing edifice appear insubstantial, little more than a play of colour and light.

 

“The Grand Canal” (1908)

Monet visited Venice for two months in 1908 and became captivated by what he called “the unique light” of the city. He chose to paint from viewpoints made famous by numerous artists before him, such as this one, of Santa Maria della Salute, from across the Grand Canal. But unlike his predecessors, Monet depicted Venice as a depopulated city, without gondolas, which accentuates the other-worldly quality of this painting. Though the vertical mooring piles provide definition to the composition, the basilica melts into the water and sky, and is made ethereal by Monet’s intense colours and flickering brushwork.

Monet and Architecture The National Gallery, London, until July 29th