At the time of their completion in 1904, Monet's views of the Thames constituted the largest and most ambitious series the artist had ever made. In the catalogue essay prepared for the pictures' first exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel in that year, Octave Mirbeau called the series:
A miracle. It's almost a paradox that one can, with impasto on canvas, create an impalpable matter, imprison the sun...to make shoot forth from this Empyrean atmosphere, such splendid fairy lands of light. And yet, it's not a miracle, it's not a paradox: it's the logical outcome of the art of M. Claude Monet. (Quoted in G. Seiberling, exh. cat., Monet in London, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1989, p. 83)
Critics and collectors agreed with this assessment: buyers at this exhibition included major museums as well as some of the greatest private collectors, such as Sergei Schuchkin and Louisine and Henry Osborne Havermeyer.
This series was the result of a long campaign dating back to 1899. In September of that year, Monet traveled to London to begin the project, taking rooms at the newly opened Savoy Hotel. From his suite, Monet had excellent views of what were to be the principal subjects of the series, Waterloo Bridge and Chelsea Bridge. "In the morning, as Monet looked east, the light was behind Waterloo Bridge. Later in the day he painted the afternoon light picking out the columns which ornamented the bridge. As he followed the course of the sun, he looked toward Charing Cross Bridge and painted midday and afternoon" (G. Seiberling, Monet in London, London, 1988, p. 1). In the late afternoon, Monet would leave the hotel for St. Thomas Hospital, from which he painted views of the Houses of Parliament at sunset. Monet followed this routine during three extended stays in London: September to November 1899, February to late March 1900, and January to March 1901.
Monet was fascinated by the interplay of form, light, fog and smoke, and chose the winter months for the project because that was when the smog was most intense, due to the burning of bituminous coal for heat. Years later Monet said to an interviewer:
I so love London! But I only love it in winter. It's nice in the summer, but nothing like it is in winter with the fog, for without the fog London wouldn't be a beautiful city. It's the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak. (Quoted in ibid., p. 55)
Hippolyte Taine, the polymath and critic, has left a contemporary description of the atmosphere over the Thames:
[The river is] enveloped in a fog of smoke irradiated by light. The sun turns it to golden rain and the water, opaque, shot with yellow, green and purple, gleams and glitters as its surface lifts and falls, with strange and brilliant lights. The atmosphere seems like the heavy, steamy air of a great hot-house... Everything is transformed, violently changed, from the earth and man himself, to the very light and air. (Quoted in ibid., p. 39)
This description could serve as an exphrasis of one of Monet's pictures. In depicting such effects, Monet sought to extend the range of his earlier series. Even more than the views of Rouen Cathedral, the pictures of the Thames describe fleeting shifts of light and atmosphere, color and reflection--a Fata Morgana of ephemera.
Monet, moreover, hoped to surpass two painters who had preceded him in this genre: Turner and Whistler. The latter may have served as a special source of inspiration. Whistler and Monet were friends; Whistler, who had been a guest at the Savoy Hotel in 1896-1897, may even have suggested the place to Monet; and Whistler's Nocturnes were the closest precedent for the kinds of effects that Monet hoped to achieve. Whistler wrote of the atmospheric events he wanted to depict in his Nocturnes:
When the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us... Nature, who, for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone. (Quoted in ibid., p. 41)
Monet was obsessed with the Thames series; he painted at a feverish pitch, working on dozens of canvases at the same time. He wrote to Durand-Ruel:
I work without stopping, but I have a great deal of trouble because of the continual changes in weather, which oblige me to do many more paintings than I will be able to finish. (Quoted in ibid., p. 66)
In much the same terms he wrote to his wife, Alice:
I work like a madman and that's the right term, as you know, and if it weren't for my evenings out and dinners in town...I would become stupefied with it, not being able to stop myself from looking at my canvases and thinking about them without stopping. (Quoted in ibid., p. 68)
Years later he told an interviewer:
At the Savoy Hotel or St. Thomas' Hospital, from which I looked at my points of view, I had up to a hundred canvases under way--of the same subject. By searching among the sketches feverishly, I chose one that didn't differ too much from what I saw; despite everything, I altered it completely. (Quoted in ibid., p. 65)
The fascination--and frustration--lay in the evanescent nature of the appearances Monet wanted to capture. He wrote to Alice in 1901:
I can't tell you about this fantastic day. What marvelous things, but only lasting five minutes, it's enough to drive you crazy. No, there's no land more extraordinary for a painter. (Quoted in ibid., p. 58)
The same year he told an interviewer:
The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs. My practiced eye has found that objects change in appearance in a London fog more and quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is get every change down on canvas. (Quoted in ibid., p. 62)
After his three campaigns in London, Monet returned to Giverny with hundreds of canvases, none of which he considered finished. For the next three years, he continued to work on the pictures. In 1903 he wrote to Durand-Ruel:
I cannot send you a single canvas of London, because, for 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, and I don't yet know how many of them I will be able to show because what I do there is extremely delicate. One day I am satisfied, and the next everything looks bad to me, but anyway there are always several good ones. (Quoted in ibid., p. 72)
Monet continued to work on the series almost until the day of the exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel. In the end, he finished nearly one hundred pictures, of which he exhibited thirty-six in 1904, the present one among them.
The pictures were extraordinarily successful with the public. Typical of the critical response are the remarks of Gustave Kahn, who called the series:
Unique, so rich in beauty, in diversity, in luxury, that they could for an instant seem as unreal as the realm of Queen Mab... harmonies executed not by a virtuoso, but by a master composer for symphonies, gifted with a profound sensibility and an infinitely fresh, lively, and inventive imagination. (Quoted in ibid., p. 82)
And Arsène Alexandre wrote, "This goes further than painting. It's an enchantment of atmosphere and light. London appeared fantastic in its fogs of dream, colored by the magic of the sun" (quoted in ibid., p. 82).
(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, effet de soleil, 1903
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, soleil dans le brouillard, 1899-1905
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, matin brumeux, 1902
(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, 1900
Museum of Art, Santa Barbara