'I adore London, it is a mass, an ensemble, and it is so simple. What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks that they didn't see, that they couldn't see... I so love London! But I only like it in the winter... It is the fog that gives it its marvellous breadth. Its regular, massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak' (Monet, quoted in J. House, 'Visions of the Thames', pp. 15-37, Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames 1859-1914, exh.cat., St. Petersburg, FL, 2005, p. 33).
When Monet arrived in London in 1899 for a family visit, he had not been to the British capital for some time. Checking into the relatively recently built Savoy Hotel, on the North bank of the Thames, he was amazed by the view, fascinated by the ever-shifting light effects on the river, and immediately embarked upon one of his most celebrated series of paintings, all showing essentially one of three motifs in London. These were the Houses of Parliament and, painted from his bedroom, Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge. He focussed more on the latter, as in Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert, perhaps enjoying the looping rhythm of the arches in comparison to the rigidity of the ever-right-angled Charing Cross Bridge. Another aspect that may have led to his preference of Waterloo Bridge as a theme was the fact that the sun, rising in the East, shone during the morning from behind it, providing an intriguing array of subtle light effects, a smog-bound chiaroscuro. It is a tribute to the visual power of Monet's paintings of Waterloo Bridge that the majority are now in museum collections throughout the world, meaning that the appearance of Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert is a rarity, a factor that is emphasised by the sheer quality and beauty of this painting.
It was in order to see his son Michel, who was ostensibly in London to improve his English, that Monet arrived in 1899 with his wife Alice and his stepdaughter, Germaine Hoschedé. His immediate rapture on seeing the view from his room must have been to the chagrin of his family, for already during this stay he embarked upon the beginning of a campaign that would last half a decade. Canvas after canvas was used in order to capture the ever-changing view from his window, and the speed with which these view changed meant that he ended the first stay frustrated, and would return-- alone, and therefore presumably without the distractions of his family-- to the same hotel in 1900 and 1901.
Monet was intrigued but often disheartened by the weather that he faced, that he was trying to capture in oils on his canvases, and his letters during his 1900 and 1901 stays at the Savoy reflect the shifts in mood, as mercurial as the weather and often following it. Absolute joy would be followed by absolute despair as an effect vanished before the artist's eyes, providing him with the ultimate challenge. One can follow the changes in light even in reading his letters:
'I can't begin to describe a day as wonderful as this. One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad. No country could be more extraordinary for a painter. It's dark now, for a few minutes, and I had to turn on a light so that I could jot down my impressions for you... I'm seeing some unique and wonderful sights and splashing about with paint. There are moments when things look up and then once again I plunge into that terrible despair you know. But I'm keeping my courage up, hoping that these efforts won't be in vain. But here comes the daylight again, so I'll stop' (Monet, 1900, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Monet by himself: Paintings, drawings, pastels, letters, London, 1989, p. 191).
Monet developed a daily routine for his paintings that allowed him to exploit these sights to the maximum effect, focussing on the three main themes of the two bridges and the Houses of Parliament. During the morning, he would paint the bridges from his room as is the case in Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert, with the eastern sunlight gently articulated by the arches; then in the afternoon Monet would cross the river to Saint Thomas's Hospital, from which vantage point he would paint Westminster; occasional variants in timing resulted in a tiny handful of pictures of the bridges at other times of day. This rigorous timetable often exhausted and frustrated the artist, and he therefore found a necessary outlet in a surprisingly active social life, spending a great deal of time with his fellow painter John Singer Sargent and even having a chance to watch Queen Victoria's funeral procession.
In addition to the routine described above, Monet found that the weather in London forced him to evolve a new means of working:
'I had a terrible struggle today, and it will go on like this until the day I leave. The only shortage I have is of canvases, since it's the only way to achieve something, get a picture going for every kind of weather, every colour harmony, it's the only way; in the beginning you always think you'll find an effect again and finish it... I'm not lacking for enthusiasm as you can see, given that I have something like 65 canvases covered with paint and I'll be needing more since the place is quite out of the ordinary' (Monet, 1900, quoted in ibid., p.189).
This system resulted in a frenzy of activity. Each moment, he would seek out the correct canvas to continue according to the newly-perceived light effect. This seemingly crazy technique would come to shock several of his visitors, not least Sargent, who was bewildered, on making a visit to the Impressionist's rooms, to see such a flurry of whirling and seemingly demented exertion.
This system was clearly not without its drawbacks, as Monet himself was willing to admit when recalling the feverish periods of activity of his London paintings:
'At the Savoy Hotel, or at St. Thomas's Hospital, from where I took my viewpoints, I had over a hundred canvases on the go-- for a single subject. By searching feverishly through these sketches I would choose one that was not too far away from what I could see; in spite of everything, I would change it completely. When I had stopped work, shuffling through my canvases I would notice that I had overlooked precisely the one which would have suited me best and which was at my fingertips. Wasn't it stupid!' (Monet, quoted in J. House, 'Visions of the Thames', pp. 15-37, Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames 1859-1914, exh.cat., St. Petersburg, FL, 2005, p. 32).
The limitations of the system meant that Monet's London paintings remained incomplete at the end of his 1901 visit. Ill health was one of the considerations that prevented him from returning-- some critics, with not a small dose of melodrama, attributed this to the artist's fanatical self-sacrifice in the cause of art, the Impressionist almost, as they saw it, dying for the sake of art, brought to the brink of death by London pollution... This was a great exaggeration: nonetheless Monet did not return to the Savoy.
After the 1900 stay, Monet felt obliged to explain that his impressions of London were precisely that:
'you mustn't expect to see any finished work; they're only essays, studies, preparatory sketches, in short ridiculous and vain research, and as you say, I must be cut out for such work, both mentally and physically. Just imagine, I'm bringing back eight full crates, that's eighty canvases, isn't it frightening?' (Monet, 1900, quoted in Kendall (ed.), op.cit., 1989, p.190).
This was again the case the following year: Monet returned to Giverny with a group of oils which he then continued to work upon for several years. He treated them as an entity, a whole, a series, jealously guarding them from his dealer Durand-Ruel, insisting that he could work upon each one only with the others nearby. Thus, to Durand-Ruel he wrote in 1903 that,
'No, I'm not in London unless in thought, working steadily on my canvases, which give me a lot of trouble... I cannot send you a single canvas of London, because, for all the work I am doing, it is indispensable to have all of them before my eyes, and to tell the truth not a single one is definitively finished. I work them out all together or at least a certain number' (Monet, quoted in S. Patin, 'The return of Whistler and Monet to the Thames', pp. 179-83 in K. Lochnan, Turner Whistler Monet, exh.cat., London, 2004, p. 182).
This work was completed by 1904, and it is for this reason that paintings such as Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert, though begun years earlier in London, only now came to completion and bear that date. For during the intervening years, Monet had put his finishing touches to each of these impressions, consolidating them and even apparently using the various light effects and features in his own rambling gardens as inspiration for some of the effects.
Both Monet's garden and Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert show some crucial influences that tie into his experiences in London, both during and before the momentous campaign in which he captured the Thames in oils. For it was during the 1880s that Monet became increasingly involved with another painter, James McNeill Whistler. In 1887, he wrote to Duret:
'Did you know that I went to London to see Whistler and that I spent about twelve days, very impressed by London and also by Whistler, who is a great artist; moreover he could not have been more charming to me, and invited me to participate in his exhibition' (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 179).
It was from Whistler that Monet inherited much of his fascination with Japanese art and culture, a fascination that would result in the construction of the famous Japanese bridge in his own gardens. And surely it is in part as a tribute to this love of Japanese art and of the importance of bridges within it that he turned so willingly towards Waterloo Bridge as a theme when in London? At the same time, Monet's enthusiasm for London itself was reignited by Whistler. During the same period, he wrote that, 'I plan to go to London... I would even like to try to paint some effects of fog on the Thames' (Monet, quoted in ibid., p. 179). Perhaps this was a response in part to his exposure to Whistler's famous Nocturnes, lyrical and often semi-abstract views of the Thames that are filled with a unique poetry. Likewise, in the 1890s, Whistler himself had executed a series of pictures from one of the bedrooms at the Savoy, implying that Monet may have been responding directly to the example set by his friend and the predecessor.
And yet intriguingly, even before his friendship with Whistler, Monet had painted the Thames. For during the Franco-Prussian War, Monet had fled with his young family to brief exile in London. There, he became acquainted with Pissarro and, through him with the legacy of another painter of the Thames: Turner. While in later years, Monet tried to belittle the influence that Turner had had, Pissarro was always more than willing to proclaim the revelation that his work had inspired in both Impressionists, and certainly Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert shows a fascination with light effects that can trace itself to the British artist. London was a melting pot for Monet, a place where many influences collided to dramatic effect, both in terms of his paintings-- often responding to his predecessors and to contemporaries such as Pissarro and Daubigny and in terms of acquaintance. For it was in London that Monet was introduced to Durand-Ruel, the man who would remain his dealer for decades. It was thus in London that Monet made two of the friendships-- with Pissarro and with Durand-Ruel-- that would be integral to the development of the history of Western art over the last century and a half. And perhaps it was with an eye to this, as well as to his fascination with the smog and its strange light effects, that Monet returned to this theme at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.
Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert was, by the 1950s, in the collection of Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956), the founder and guiding force behind the British film industry throughout the 1930s and the first motion picture producer ever to receive a knighthood. A devoted art enthusiast, Korda, produced Rebrandt (1936), which is still considered by many to be the best drama ever made on the life of the painter as well many other films revered as classics today. The posthumous sale of Kordas's Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection in June 1962, included celebrated paintings by Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Monet, Renoir as well as Chaïm Soutine's Le pâtissier de Cagnes, sold at Christie's, 7 February 2005, for £5,048,000. The present work was a gift in 1952, from Korda to his friend, the celebrated New York physician and fellow Hungarian, Dr Henry Lax, in whose possession it remained for almost fifty years.