Claude Monet (1840-1926) has been the subject of so many blockbuster exhibitions over the decades that there would seem to be no new ground for a show to cover. But that’s precisely what The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture, at London’s National Gallery, manages to do — by highlighting the central role of architecture in the French Impressionist’s work.
Here, curator Richard Thomson discusses what inspired the show; how fast-modernising cities such as Paris and London fired Monet’s creativity; and why the 12 paintings he executed of the French capital’s Saint-Lazare train station are among the artist's greatest achievements.
Tell us about Monet & Architecture and how it differs from previous shows. What was your goal for this exhibition?
Richard Thomson: ‘Monet had a long, distinguished career lasting some 60 years, and the tendency is to look at all of it in a big retrospective or to focus on certain periods. Particularly popular are the years towards the end of his life, which he spent painting water lilies.
‘With this exhibition, we sought to look at Monet’s work in a fresh way. Specifically, we wanted to examine how buildings function in his paintings. He used them a great deal, much more than people think. That’s not to say that Monet was an architectural painter, that he was interested in the structure or history of particular buildings per se. That would be going too far. What the exhibition argues, however, is that buildings regularly served a purpose for him.’
What was that purpose?
RT: ‘Sometimes buildings had a pictorial function — when, say, the orderly shape of a triangular roof or vertical wall contrasted with the disorderliness of nature around it. In other cases, buildings would serve a chromatic function, adding colour accent — for example, a red roof setting off the green of a landscape.
‘Monet would also use buildings as screens: surfaces on which to capture the play of light. This was famously the case with his 1890s series of the façade of Rouen Cathedral.
‘That last point is crucial: above all, Monet was a painter who was fascinated by the effects of light, atmosphere and air. With this exhibition, we're trying to show that architecture can be used as a lens through which to understand these elements of his pictures more deeply.’
Did buildings also represent modernity for Monet?
RT: ‘At certain points in his career, undoubtedly. For instance, when he briefly relocated to London in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War and painted the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster (as well as the newly built Thames Embankment).
The British capital then was the biggest, most developed city on earth, and he was clearly taken by the dynamism there. This was also the case in 1877, when in a few months Monet produced 12 paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris.’
The exhibition features two of the Gare Saint-Lazare canvases. How did these paintings come about, and why are they so significant?
RT: ‘The Saint-Lazare works are his most concentrated series on modern life, though one shouldn’t actually call them a series as the 12 paintings are so varied: sometimes interiors, sometimes exteriors; sometimes highly finished with rich surface detail, sometimes much sketchier and rapidly brushed. He really put himself out to paint them, securing official permission to gain access to the tracks and platforms. The fact that he painted so many Saint-Lazare canvases is also telling — he could have stopped at one.
Read more about Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare, Vue extérieure, offered in London in June
‘By the time he began these paintings, Monet knew the station well. For much of the 1870s he had lived in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil; the Gare Saint-Lazare was the station he used when commuting to central Paris.
‘Saint-Lazare was only about 30 years old then, but had already undergone a number of additions and extensions to cope with the constant increase in passengers and freight. Trains were transforming life in the French capital in those years, and the Gare Saint-Lazare had become a supremely busy transport hub.’
By 1870, around 13 million passengers passed through the station per year...
RT: ‘But it wasn’t the people as such that interested Monet. He painted the station from a variety of different spots; arguably the most interesting works are the ones capturing its interior. In these canvases he was toying with, as well as updating, the traditional landscape.
‘In an average landscape, you expect to see the ground; then something of substance, like trees, vegetation, maybe a few people, above that; and, finally, something insubstantial or nebulous (i.e., clouds and sky) at the top. In Monet’s paintings inside Saint-Lazare, however, the nebulous and insubstantial effects aren’t natural but machine-made: namely, the steam from locomotives. What’s more, they’re contained by an imposing, glass-and-iron station roof.
‘These were highly contemporary landscapes, conditioned by the advances of modern technology and engineering. Where previous generations of French painters (such as those of the Barbizon School) took rivers and forests as their subject, Monet turned to stations and steam.’
Soon after painting the Saint-Lazare works, however, Monet retreated from modern subjects and never really painted them again. Why do you think that was?
RT: ‘To his immense credit, Monet never stood still artistically. His style changed greatly over the decades, and for that we should admire him.
‘More specifically, though, in 1878 he was in financial difficulty and was forced to move from Paris to the Seine-side country village of Vétheuil. [At this point he was supporting not only his own two sons, but the six children of his mistress, Alice Hoschedé.] He stayed and painted in Vétheuil for the next few years, and that wasn’t really a place where modern subject matter presented itself.’
How important were the Saint-Lazare paintings to Monet?
RT: ‘Monet clearly wanted the paintings to be seen. He exhibited seven of them at the third Impressionist exhibition in April 1877. Then, in 1889, he exhibited a number at a major joint exhibition with Auguste Rodin at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. These were works he was proud of and never wanted forgotten.’
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture is on view until 29 July at the National Gallery in London.