Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery

I highly recommend, if you're in London this summer, that you go and see Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery - until 29th July. 

The 75 paintings in the exhibition spans 1860 - 1912 and includes series paintings of Rouen, London and Venice and wonderful paintings of places he knew well in Normandy, Paris, the Netherlands and Italy.

Some 25% of the paintings are ones in private collections - making this probably the only time you will ever see them.

While I'm not 100% behind the curator's analysis of what the exhibition is about, I'm absolutely delighted that there are so many excellent paintings on display - including some of my all time favourites!

The thing is Monet did not paint architecture per se - not like those who simply love architecture. He didn't even paint "things". What he was painting was the light and colour around rather large equivalents of squares and oblongs - as per the famous quotation below.
Try to forget what objects you have before you - a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, 'Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow,' and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene before you.
Rouen Cathedral series - dawn on the right (east) and sunset on the left (west)
It was an absolute joy to be able to see the Rouen series from a decent distance so you could admire  them all together.

However I doubt if you'll be able to do that once the hordes arrive - unless you make a point of going late in the day and waiting until almost everybody has left!

That's because I'm very sure this is going to be a very popular exhibition. The National Gallery has been able to assemble some world class paintings from public and private collections from all over the world. Some I have never seen before in exhibitions or books.

What follows is an introduction to the exhibition - with images to give you a sense of what it looks like - and a note of how the exhibition works

I must emphasise that no book and certainly no blog post can ever emulate the way these paintings when viewed face to canvas. Some of them are quite extraordinary.

The structure of the exhibition

The exhibition is in the galleries in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing - which always seems to be the favoured location for any exhibitions which have enormously valuable paintings! It's very secure.

There are three sections to the exhibition
  • The Village and the Picturesque (3 rooms)
  • The City and Modern (2 rooms)
  • The Monument and the Mysterious ( 2 rooms)

The Village and the Picturesque 

I don't subscribe to the notion that Monet was painting picturesque paintings - of the type that became popular in 18th century England. It doesn't seem to sit well as a theory with a man capable of independent thinking and went his own way in terms of approaches to painting and painting techniques.

I think he was just painting what was there. I can be persuaded he was painting "views" that were popular with visitors to the region especially as I think he was always well aware that he needed to sell his paintings.  However he tended to avoid the more intensely touristy areas - I tend to think of him as being a bit like all the people who like walking the coastal paths in the UK.

In other words he was capturing views that visitors might like. Nothing wrong with that. A lot of painters have done the same before and after. Plus I think he was experimenting with colour and composition.

The first room is quite boring. It's a bit like early Van Gogh - interesting to see how artists start out - but the really interesting stuff comes later.  Like Van Gogh there is a tendency to browns and greys - his more characteristic use of colour has yet to enter his portfolio.

The paintings from his early period 1871-1879 relate to Honfleur, Saint-Adresse, in France and Amsterdam and Zaandam in the Netherlands - with a section of four paintings of Vetheuil where the family moved in 1878.

Bear in mind however that he painted Impression Sunrise in 1872 - so a lot of the paintings are representative of Impressionist painting. They just somehow manage to seem quite muted.

Room 1: The Village and Picturesque
Room 2 however is full of interesting compositions and chromatic contrasts associated with the coastline of Normandy and has more paintings from the early 1880s particularly 1882, when Monet was well into painting 'atmosphere'.

Room 2:  Normandy coastline - not a lot of buildings!
Room 3 includes his paintings of the the coastline at Antibes and the Villas at Bordighera. 

I wrote a whole post about this in Gardens in Art: Monet and the Mediterranean. The whole point is he is not really painting buildings - he is luxuriating in the gardens which are always his first love alongside painting! He is also getting to meet some of the people living in the villas, courtesy of his Durand Ruel,  who are very keen for him to stay and paint some more.

Views and Villas of Bordighera (1884) by Claude Monet
(the on the right comes from the Armand Hammer Collection, the one on the left is in a private collection)
Views of Antibes (1888)
His paintings of Antibes are some of my favourites - and I've drawn the one at the Courtauld!

All in all a very pleasant room and one which I greatly enjoyed. In fact I had to break off in the middle of this post to go and order the catalogue of "Monet and the Mediterranean" exhibition held in 1997 in Texas!

It also includes a painting called Snow Effect at Giverny which again isn't so much about the buildings in the village as it is about the snow and how it reduces everything to shades of white

The City and Modern (2 rooms)

"The City' doesn't feature much in Monet's paintings - unless trains or rivers are involved!

A couple of paintings I enjoyed a lot included a view which very much reminds me of Childe Hassam - except now I know how he was influenced.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet
and a view of his home town

but the truly impressive were the views of the vapours at the stations

The National Holiday of 30 June, The Coal-heavers, views of the Gare St-Lazare

The Monument and the Mysterious ( 2 rooms)

Painting cities from hotel rooms and from above shops became his habit in the 1890s and 1900s.

More importantly, he became dedicated to painting series of paintings of the same subject in different seasons, different times of day and in different weather - or atmosphere - see my very detailed post about Why and how Monet developed his series paintings


This is what they look like when seen 'en suite' with nobody obstructing your view
This is my previous blog post about Monet's series paintings - Rouen cathedral.

I sat on the bench looking at these paintings for some time. It was a view to savour especially since there not many people left by the time I got to this room.

Interestingly I've seen the (different) series in the Musee d'Orsay and expected some of those to be here - but not one single painting is from there. They come from (left to right)

  • National Museum of Wales "Setting Sun"
  • a private collection 
  • Klassic Stiftung Weimar Museum
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (The Portal and the Tour d'Albane at Dawn
  • Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel (Morning Effect)
I wasn't particularly studying my small catalogue and it took a while for me to realise they are actually hung in time sequence which I think might be the first time I've seen them like this. It's very effective.

It's also fascinating to study the very subtle differences between the two on the right painted round about the same time.


I found the paintings of London more impressive than those recently seen at Tate Britain (see
Impressionists in London - a marketing own goal by Tate Britain!).
I was left wondering whether the lighting was maybe better at the National.

Certainly seeing these paintings presented as part of a series leaves an impression on you which is quite quite different than that when you see one in isolation.

The colours are also amazing and very beautiful and positively luminescent!

Houses of Parliament on the left and Charing Cross Bridge on the right (c.1900)

Charing Cross Bridge (between 1899 and 1903)
Left from the Baltimore Museum of Art; Right from the Musee des Beaux Arts de Lyon


I spent a long time in the final room - which is all about Venice with three of my all time favourite paintings, two of which (immediately below) I have actually tried drawing - and it's not easy!

I am TOTALLY SEDUCED by his paintings of Palazzos on the Grand Canal.  These two are two of my absolute favourites. My jaw dropped when I saw that (a) they were in the exhibition and (b) were hung next to one another.

I'd come to this exhibition just to see these two and the Rouen Cathedral series.

The Palazzo Contarini and The Palazzo Dario
However on the opposite wall were two more paintings - one of which I have also tried drawing (prior to a trip to Venice) and which is another all time favourite - I was drooling by this point!

Two views of the Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal- my fave is the one on the right
Left Nahmad Collection Monaco; Right Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
I should add the room also contains three views of San Giorgio Maggiore and two views of the Doges Palace!

So there you go.

Like I said I highly recommend a visit. It's one of those exhibitions you will remember for a long time.......

The National Gallery recommends that you either:

More reviews of the exhibition

More about Monet

Below I've got a note about the blog posts I did about
  • Monet's series paintings
  • Monet's garden paintings
  • Books about Monet - relevant to this exhibition

Series Paintings

I did various posts about his series paintings
I did a major project about Monet and Gardens on this blog back in 2007. These are the posts:

Books about Monet's paintings

  • Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings by Paul Hayes Tucker.  This book was produced for an exhibition of 'Monet's paintings in the 90s'. It proposes that Monet's series paintings also related to contemporary events in France and to Monet's determination to provide active leadership for his nation's artistic production.
  • Monet in the 20th Century by Paul Hayes Tucker, George Shackleford. Covers the London and Venice paintings well plus the waterlilly paintings. I've found this book to be essential to understanding the background to and context of Monet's later paintings. It's actually the catalogue of a Monet exhibition that opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on September 23, 1998, before opening at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on January 21, 1999.
  • Monet in Normandy By Richard Bettrell (192 pages) Rizzoli (June 27, 2006) This a catalogue of the 2007 exhibition of paintings Monet did of Normandy - an area he knew well as a child and later as an artist. Monet began his painting career in Normandy. It's where he met his first great mentor, Eugene Boudin. Monet developed a deep affection for the region and would return time and again to paint its dramatic coastline and seaside villages and resorts. The catalogue also takes a new look at Monet and examines some of his most important paintings, including the paintings of Giverny, the haystacks and the Rouen cathedral series. Monet's work is also considered in the context of other artists - Corot, Millet, Courbet, Whistler, and Boudin - and his fellow Impressionist painters - Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir and Degas.
  • Monet: Nature Into Art by John House. The author studied the process which brought Monet's paintings into being and focused on its evolution over time. He focuses on various aspects including pictorial composition and his choice of viewpoint and how he built up the paint on the surface of the painting. This book has a whole chapter devoted to the evolution of Monet's Series

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