CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
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CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)

Le Parlement, soleil couchant

CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
Le Parlement, soleil couchant
signed and dated ‘Claude Monet 1903’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
32 x 36 1⁄4 in. (81.2 x 92 cm.)
Painted in 1900-1903
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired from the artist, May 1904).
Elizabeth and William Lowell Putnam, Boston (acquired from the above, 1907).
Anna and Augustus Lowell Putnam, Boston (by descent from the above).
Katharine and Harvey H. Bundy, Boston (by descent from the above, until at least 1962).
Private collection, United States.
Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 1982).
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 22 January 1982.
R. de Bettex, "Échos de partout. Cl. Monet" in La République française, 10 May 1904, p. 1.
R.M. Ferry, "Notes d’art. La Tamise par M. Cl. Monet" in La Liberté, 18 May 1904, no. 13.889, p. 3.
L. Venturi, Les archives de l'Impressionnisme, New York, 1939, vol. I, p. 393, letter 280.
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1985, vol. VI, p. 186, no. 1604 (illustrated, p. 187); p. 365, letters 1723 and 1724; p. 427, doc. 170 and p. 428, doc. 196.
J. Heilpern, “The Bass Reserve” in Vogue, December 1988, pp. 347 and 388 (illustrated in color in situ in Mrs. Bass's home).
C. Irvine, Remarkable Private New York Residences, New York, 1990, p. 11 (illustrated in color in situ in Mrs. Bass's home, p. 10).
D. Wildenstein, Monet: Catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1996, vol. VI, pp. 712-713, no. 1604 (illustrated, p. 710).
D. Hampton, Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, New York, 2009, p. 132 (illustrated in color in situ in Mrs. Bass's home).
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Monet: Vues de la Tamise à Londres, May-June 1904, p. 11, no. 28.
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, Monet, 1904, no. 10.
Toledo Museum of Art, Opening of the New Galleries Devoted to the Permanent Collections of Paintings and Sculpture and Exhibition of One Hundred Paintings by the Impressionists, November-December 1905, p. 6, no. 54.
Montreal, The Art Gallery, French Impressionists, February 1906, no. 7.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, An Exhibition of Paintings by Claude Monet, August 1911, no. 35.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Impressionist and Barbizon School, 1919-1920, no. 2 or 42.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Monet: Memorial Exhibition, January 1927, no. 60.
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Special Loan Exhibition of Monet, 1962.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Claude Monet, October-November 1976, no. 60 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

“There’s no land more extraordinary for a painter” (quoted in G. Seiberling, Monet in London, exh. cat., High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1988, p. 58). Claude Monet’s emphatic passion for England’s capital is magnificently displayed in his monumental, landmark series, the Vues de Londres. Started in London in 1899 and completed in Giverny in 1904, this series remains today among his greatest achievements, as he transformed the city into magical, elegiac visions at once timeless and modern.
Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament served as the principal subjects of this seminal group, each landmark a pretext for symphonic, often near abstract combinations of light and color. A host of both subtle and dramatic meteorological conditions—from the soft, gray morning light, to spectacular, fog-filled evening skies streaked pink, purple, and orange by the setting sun—gave rise to a theater of effects that Monet reveled in from his vantage point at the Savoy Hotel and St. Thomas’s Hospital. The largest series of paintings the artist had yet produced, numbering almost a hundred canvases, the Vues de Londres pushed Monet to the extremes of his artistic powers, testing the fundamental Impressionist tenet of capturing the ephemeral, fleeting atmospheric effects of nature.
Crowning this series are the nineteen paintings of the Houses of Parliament, of which Le Parlement, soleil couchant is one of the finest (Wildenstein, nos. 1596-1614). Begun in either 1900 or 1901, on his second or final painting campaign in the capital, and completed in 1903, this painting shows the golden orb of the sun, having burnt through the impenetrable cloak of clouds and fog to cast the scene into an atmospheric array of jewel-like violets and lilacs, cobalt and inky blues, and deep pink tones. Dwarfing the tugboat that noiselessly crosses the river, the majestic, windowless silhouette of the Houses of Parliament appears mystical, the rising and falling pattern of towers seemingly both emerging from the sulphurous light and at the same time, dissolving into the expansive, still waters of the Thames, London’s silent witness of epochs past.
Among the most rich and deeply colored works of the series, this painting shows Monet’s mastery at capturing the velvety darkness that gradually engulfs the vista, the “hair’s breadth” moment between day and night, “when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralize each other, leaving absolute mental liberty,” as Thomas Hardy once described (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, London, 1892, p. 120). For Monet, this moment offered him not only mental, but artistic liberty, as his subject was transformed upon his canvas into a transcendent and wholly immersive vision of color, light, and pigment, rendered in expressive, passionate brushstrokes.
Le Parlement, soleil couchant was one of the thirty-seven works that Monet chose to include in his critically acclaimed exhibition, Monet: Vues de la Tamise à Londres, held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1904. Today, it is one of only four of this Parliament series to remain in private hands. Other works now reside in museums including the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Kunsthaus, Zürich.
The idea of an extended series set in London had been percolating in Monet’s mind for some years prior to his first painting campaign there in 1899. In 1880, he had written to the critic Théodore Duret, “When you come through Paris you can advise me on what the chances could be for me in coming to spend several weeks in London where I could paint some aspects of the Thames” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 34). Yet, it was not until 1887 that the artist actually traveled to London, spending a twelve day sojourn in the city, where he especially admired his friend James McNeill Whistler’s famed Nocturnes depicting the Thames and the thick fogs that surrounded it. It seems that these works planted the seed for Monet’s own series. He described his desire to return “to paint some effets of fog on the Thames” (quoted in R. Thomson, Monet and Architecture, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2018, p. 171).
“Everyone is awaiting with impatience his series of London impressions,” wrote the artist’s Impressionist comrade, Camille Pissarro in 1891, confirming that the London series was still playing on Monet’s mind through the 1890s (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 37). After a brief stay in the capital in 1898 due to his son Michel’s ill health, Monet arrived in London in September of the following year, accompanied by his wife, Alice Hoschedé and her daughter, Germaine, ostensibly for a month-long holiday, though one for which he had made sure to bring his paint supplies.
The artist and his family installed themselves in the Savoy Hotel, the fashionable establishment set on the banks of the Thames just behind the Strand. They took a suite of rooms on the 6th floor with a balcony overlooking the river. From here the heart of London stretched before them, the panorama bathed in the pale winter sun diffused through a dense atmosphere of mist mingled with coal smoke from domestic fires and industrial furnaces. Looking to the right, Monet would have seen the Houses of Parliament rising impressively beyond the iron structure of Charing Cross railway bridge, complete with steam trains running back and forth, and to the left, the monumental, looming arches of Waterloo Bridge framed by a plethora of factory chimneys complete with bellowing plumes of smoke that lined the banks of the river eastwards into the City and beyond. This vantage point held two of his three London motifs, all of which were recent constructions amid the ever-expanding expanse of the turn-of-the-century capital. Thrilled with his setup, Monet quickly converted one of their rooms into a studio, leaving his family to sightsee together, while he explored the artistic potential of his new surroundings.
This was not the first time Monet had depicted the rapidly growing Victorian metropolis. He had spent what he later described as a “miserable time” in the city in 1870-1871, during les années terribles of the Franco-Prussian War. While there, Monet painted five works of London, one of which depicts the Houses of Parliament (Wildenstein, no. 166). Yet, after so many years immersed in the serial depiction of rural France, his Meules and Peupliers, and even to an extent the gothic façade of Rouen Cathedral, it was in many ways a surprising move for the artist to return to the modern metropolis, a subject he had more or less abandoned after his great Gare Saint-Lazare group of the late 1870s. Even more unusual was his decision to cross the Channel for such an endeavor, when he could have found such modern vistas in his own country.
There are several reasons that explain Monet’s choice, not least his long term yearning to capture the extraordinary and famed light effects that the city offered during the winter months. Monet’s desire to create a London body of work could merely have been practical—he liked both the city and British culture, and his son also happened to be living there. At the same time, the artist, who turned sixty in 1900, was in the midst of revisiting old motifs, returning to themes and locations that he had painted earlier in his career—the Normandy coast, as well as the Seine, and now, London—“to create a kind of synthesis where I would sum up, in one canvas, sometimes two, my impressions and sensation of the past,” he explained (quoted in Impressionists: French Artists in Exile 1870-1904, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 2017, p. 230). In addition, the Dreyfus affair had divided France, leaving many, including Monet, disillusioned by their country.
Monet's interest in London at this time also stemmed from the fact that some of the greatest landscape painters in the history of the genre were English, most notably John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Monet is known to have studied these artists’ work during his stay in London in the early 1870s, and two decades later, he spoke admiringly of Turner, referring specifically to the 1844 canvas, Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railroad (National Gallery, London), with its dramatic effects of light and atmosphere. “Monet was ultimately doing battle with Turner,” Paul Hayes Tucker has written. “No one could paint atmospheric effects in England without having Turner as a point of comparison. Few landscape painters in the history of art had been as inventive or as passionate, or had captured nature's elusive ways with as much power and poetry. Few were as individualistic or as moody, and few loved the sea more. Turner, therefore, was a soulmate, a guide, and a special challenge for Monet. If one were going to be a truly great landscape painter, this was necessary business to settle” (Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, pp. 264, 266-267).
Filled with enthusiasm for his new project, Monet returned to London in February 1900. Almost immediately a new motif caught his eye. This time the artist had traveled to the capital alone for what would be a three month stay, settling once more in the Savoy, where he was at first dismayed to find his previous rooms requisitioned by Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter, to house officers wounded in the Boer War. To appease the artist, the hotel gave him identical rooms on the floor below so as not to disrupt the view of his previously elected motifs. Thanks to his friendship with the well-connected Mary Hunter, who took the artist under her wing, inviting him to lavish dinner parties and presenting him to London society, Monet was introduced to Doctor Joseph Franck Payne. As a result of this fortunate meeting, Payne facilitated access for the artist to St. Thomas’s Hospital, situated on the South Bank next to Westminster Bridge, with a perfect view of the Houses of Parliament on the opposite bank.
Monet visited the hospital for the first time on 10 February 1900, soon after his arrival in the city, writing to his wife Alice the next morning: “I saw there some superb things and I am welcome to work wherever I want” (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1985, letter 1503). The following day, perhaps already conceiving of pictures such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant, Monet walked to the hospital, “to see the sunset” (ibid., letter 1504). Soon after, he told Alice, “today I met the director of the hospital who has kindly received me and has given me the permission to paint where I want and I would have started tonight had the fog not been so thick… I don’t have a proper room, but rather an immense reception hall where I can leave my things, since I will need to paint en plein air, or at least on a protected terrace” (ibid., letter 1505).
Monet was immediately captivated by the vista of Sir Charles Barry’s recently rebuilt neo-Gothic palace. While he had included this elaborate and ornate complex of buildings in the background of a number of his Charing Cross Bridge scenes, the Houses of Parliament now became the sole protagonist. A few days later, he began painting the scene for the first time, excitedly describing to Alice a scene that could well have been the inspiration for the present work, “at 5 o’clock, thanks to a superb setting sun in the fog, I started working at the hospital. If only you could see how beautiful it was and how much I would have wanted you next to me on that terrace; they told me it was cold, I did not realize as I was rapt in my enthusiasm for my work…but how difficult it is going to be!” (ibid., letter 1507).
From this time onwards, Monet divided his days between his three distinct motifs: in the morning and early afternoon he would work from the Savoy on the views of Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges, before later crossing the bridge to the hospital, where he continued to work on the views of Parliament, backlit and silhouetted by the gradually setting sun. According to Daniel Wildenstein, at first, Monet painted Parliament at its widest, including the Victoria Tower and the Central Spire, as well as a smaller tower on the far right (Wildenstein, nos. 1596-1602) (see D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, p. 704). In another five paintings, including the present work, Monet turned slightly to the left, eliminating from the composition the majority of the spires to instead include more of the ethereal expanse of the river and sky on the other side (Wildenstein, nos. 1603-1607). To paint the remaining seven canvases in the series, he shifted his angle of vision to the left further still, resulting in the spires’ complete disappearance (Wildenstein, nos. 1608-1614).
Despite sharing near identical subject matter, no two works of this group are the same—each one rendered in a distinct palette and evoking a different mood. Sometimes Parliament and the river appear enveloped in a soft gray fog, other times they remain resolute amid dramatically windswept or storm laden skies. Gulls sweep through two of the compositions, their presence adding a Romantic drama (Wildenstein, nos. 1612-1613), and in another, the sky threatens to crack open, filled with dazzling streaks of golden light (Wildenstein, no. 1603).
With each day that passed, the “pretty red ball” of the sun, as Monet had once described (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1985, letter 1597), moved gradually higher, meaning that the striking effect of Parliament backlit by the setting sun would soon cease to exist for the year. Another work of the group, now in the Kunstmuseen, Krefeld (Wildenstein, no. 1602), features the same coin-sized sun, this time hanging lower and closer to the turrets, a sign that the present Le Parlement, soleil couchant was begun later in Monet’s campaigns, the sun ascendant as spring inched closer. “Time marches on and the sun too, so that when the day comes that it decides to appear, it will no longer be in the same place” (ibid., letter 1525).
The Houses of Parliament offered Monet a different kind of motif to the bridges of his other series. Aside from the obviously contrasting compositional effects of the structure and appearance of these subjects, this site was also imbued with an alternate symbolic resonance. Trains and vehicles pass in a cavalcade across Monet’s visions of Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridge, while river traffic moves beneath them, all of which charge these scenes with an energy, and above all, an unmistakable modernity. By contrast, as Le Parlement, soleil couchant encapsulates, the Parliament works are endowed with a solemnity and stillness that lends them a greater sense of monumentality and timelessness. Appearing, “like specters, their towers rising to various heights as if replicating some ancient hierarchy or medieval form of competition,” the Palace of Westminster appears otherworldly in these works, the vivid color and atmospheric effects that surround it transforming bricks and mortar into ethereal visions (P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 169).
Yet more than solely the edifice they depict, with all its symbolic resonance, it is nature itself that is rendered extraordinary in these works. Monet has conveyed to the viewer the magical power of light and its ability to transform the tangible into the intangible. Color too is lent a new role in the theater of painting; no longer solely descriptive, but expressive and mystical. Rendered on a large scale, with open, impassioned, and visible brushwork, with these works, Monet broke new ground in the realm of painting, the example of which would come to serve as a vital influence on future generations of artists.
While Monet could enforce a clear painting routine for himself during his days in London, the weather remained steadfastly out of his control, much to his frustration, anguish, and at times, awe, all of which he often conveyed to Alice in his copious correspondence. For an artist who had built his career upon mastering the depiction of the elusive, fleeting effects of atmosphere on the landscape, Monet found the depiction of London one of his greatest challenges so far. “This is not a country where you can finish a picture on the spot,” he wrote dejectedly to Alice during his last visit to the city in 1901, a reflection of the fact that even after two extended stays, the weather could still outfox him. “The effects never reappear. I should have just made sketches, real impressions” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Monet in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 27).
At one minute there could be bright sun, the next gray skies and drizzle, all the while the quintessential, near omnipresent London fog draped itself over the city and its inhabitants. As a result, Monet worked across numerous canvases at the same time, returning to one he had previously been forced to abandon due to a change in the effects of the weather. “Today was a day of terrible struggle, and it will be the same until the day I leave,” he wrote on 18 March 1900. “Only I needed more canvases, for the only way of achieving something is to start new ones for all kinds of weather, all kinds of harmonies, it is the real way, and, at the beginning, one always expects to find the same effects again and finish them, hence these unfortunate alterations which are useless” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2017, p. 232).
While the capricious London weather was clearly a source of angst for the artist, there was one aspect in particular, the fog, that beguiled Monet, as it had for many artists before him. “What I like most of all in London is the fog,” he told the dealer René Gimpel. “Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, p. 258). He quickly learnt the city’s routines: on Sundays, the dense smog would not appear until later in the day, when domestic smoke took the place of that which was usually emitted from the factories. “Then the sun rose so blindingly one could not see,” Monet described on one such occasion. “The Thames was just golden. God it was beautiful, so good that I went to work in a frenzy following the sun and its reflections on the water. During that time the kitchens lit up. Thanks to the smoke, fog got up, then clouds, etc.” (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1985, letter 1593).
Though Londoners found the fog an unpleasant hinderance, visitors found this meteorological condition a source of rapt fascination. “And 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 whole city hangs in the heavens and fairyland is before us…”, Whistler had evocatively described in his famous “Ten O’clock” lecture of 1885 (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2017, p. 228). Likewise, for Monet, the fog conjured a kaleidoscopic array of subtly harmonious color, which he sought to convey in his paintings. “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, the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas” (quoted in ibid., p. 230).
After three campaigns in London, Monet decided to finish the series in his studio at Giverny rather than returning to the Savoy Hotel. The series continued to cause Monet great difficulty, and he worked on it at Giverny for nearly three more years. In March 1903, he wrote to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, “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 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 exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 80).
Monet finally exhibited thirty-seven paintings of London at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in May 1904: eight views of Charing Cross Bridge, eighteen of Waterloo Bridge, and eleven of the Houses of Parliament, including the present canvas. The exhibition was a resounding success. Marc Joël of La Petite Loire called it “ of the most beautiful demonstrations of pure art,” while Georges Lecomte believed that Monet had never “attained such a vaporous subtlety, such power of abstraction and synthesis” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1989, p. 267). “In his desire to paint the most complex effects of light,” another critic wrote, “Monet seems to have attained the extreme limits of art. He wanted to explore the inexplorable, to express the inexpressible, to build, as the popular expression has it, on the fogs of the Thames. And worse still, he succeeded” (ibid., p. 267).
Of the three London series, Monet seems to have been most satisfied with Le Parlement works. He included more than half of the Parliament canvases in the 1904 exhibition and asked a higher price for them than for the paintings of Charing Cross or Waterloo Bridge. The views of Parliament were well-received by critics. As the poet Gustave Kahn wrote, “Parliament appears as though constructed of different densities. Here, in the sunset, it looks like a great green forest; its pinnacles, in their hazy outlines, look like foliage; thick clouds—violet, green, blue, streaked with purple and blood—roll across calm waters that reflect both the building and the sky, in a convent-like peace and solitude. And here, it appears woven in violet mist; behind it, in deep perspective, the forest of factory towers; it looks like a palace of Thule, a temple of silence, mystically conjured up, outlined, in the magic of the hour, in the ringing and brutal city, by Claude Monet’s precise art” (G. Kahn, “L’Exposition Claude Monet,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1 July 1904).
Anticipating the success of the Parliament series, Durand-Ruel purchased nine of the finest, including the present work, just before the opening of the exhibition in May 1904. Over the course of the following years, many of these paintings were acquired by prominent collectors such as Henry O. Havemeyer, Isaac de Camondo, and Sergei Shchukin. The present work was acquired from Durand-Ruel by the prominent Boston lawyer, William Lowell Putnam in 1907. He also acquired another of Monet’s London series, Waterloo Bridge, effet de brouillard (sold, Christie’s New York, 13 May 2021, lot 8B), from his sister, Amy Lowell. It remained in his family's collection until at least 1962.
At the turn of the century, in the heart of London, Monet found some of the most spectacular and elusive vistas of his career. The ethereal dimension of pictures such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant, the palette of rich hues and the atmospheric mysteriousness would pave the way to Monet’s ultimate artistic achievement: his Nymphéas. Volatile, capricious and unpredictable, the atmosphere of London, made of shifting fogs and subtle light effects, had provided Monet with a subject worthy of his most daring ambition. Octave Mirbeau commented: “It’s a miracle. It’s almost a paradox that one can, with impasto on canvas, create impalpable matter, imprison the sun... And yet, it’s not a miracle, it’s not a paradox: it’s the logical outcome of the art of Claude Monet” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 96).

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