Monet in London: ‘It’s enough to drive you crazy. There’s no land more extraordinary for a painter’
Monet made several visits to the British capital at different stages of his life, compelled by its ‘marvellous breadth’ and creating well over 100 paintings while staying there. One of them, Waterloo Bridge, effet de brume, is offered in London on 28 June
With his fondness for tea and tweed suits, Claude Monet was more than something of an Anglophile. It’s said that after trying Yorkshire pudding at London’s Savoy Hotel, he keenly obtained the recipe — but found that it never tasted as good when made back in France.
Over the course of a few decades, Monet visited the city frequently, and his paintings of it rank among the finest of his career. There was no Eurostar in his day, of course, but by a combination of train and boat, one could leave Paris in the morning and comfortably make it to London by late afternoon.
Monet’s first trip across the English Channel — in September 1870 — wasn’t in the happiest of circumstances. France had recently gone to war with Prussia, and he fled to the UK with his wife Camille and their young son in order to avoid conscription.
The Monets found lodgings in a tiny flat near Piccadilly Circus, but money was tight, and the artist spoke next to no English. The couple, both still in their twenties, felt isolated — a feeling captured in Claude’s painting of his wife, Méditation. Madame Monet au canapé (below), today part of the Musée d’Orsay’s collection. Camille sits listlessly on a sofa, holding a closed book on her lap.
Looking back in later life on his first spell in London, Monet described it as ‘a miserable time’. As the months passed, however, he did begin to meet other members of the French diaspora — including his fellow artist Camille Pissarro and, most crucially, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (more on whom later).
These men might dine together at restaurants such as the Café Royal on Regent Street, or go to see French shows at the Opera Comique theatre on the Strand.
Monet produced just a handful of canvases in the seven months he was in London — some say because he lacked the motivation to paint. Perhaps his best-known work from that time is The Thames below Westminster (now in the National Gallery). It offers a misty view of the Houses of Parliament, complete with a number of bustling steamboats on the river around Westminster Bridge.
Monet and his family left London in May 1871, the month the Franco-Prussian war ended.
Later that decade, he was among a group of artists called the Société Anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, Etc.), who organised the exhibition in Paris that launched Impressionism.
By 1880, he was already expressing his desire to return to London. In a letter to the art critic Théodore Duret, who spent a lot of time in the city, he wrote: ‘When you come through Paris, you can advise me on what the chances could be for me… to spend several weeks in London [and] paint some aspects of the Thames.’
In the short term, Monet found enough subjects to engage him in his own country — notably Rouen Cathedral, as well as grainstacks and poplar trees near Giverny, the village west of Paris he called home from 1883 onwards. He captured each of these three subjects in celebrated series of paintings.
London remained on Monet’s mind, however. Further letters from the 1880s reiterated his hope of returning there to paint — even if this didn’t actually happen until the end of the next decade.
In 1898, his second son, Michel, who was in the city studying English, fell ill suddenly, and the artist dropped everything to rush across the Channel and see him.
Monet fils ended up being fine, and Monet père was back in France within a week. The latter’s brief re-encounter with London, however, prompted him to return with his paint and canvases in 1899, 1900 and 1901. (He would turn 60 between the second and third of these visits.)
Across the three trips, Monet spent a total of six months in the city — and was considerably more productive than he had been in 1870-71, producing around 100 paintings.
The vast majority of these featured one of a trio of landmarks, which he depicted serially: Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. These are sometimes collectively referred to as his Vues de Londres (‘Views of London’).
Forty-one pictures exist of Waterloo Bridge, including Waterloo Bridge, effet de brume (above), which is being offered in the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale at Christie’s on 28 June, together with one of Monet’s iconic canvases of water lilies painted at Giverny, Nymphéas, temps gris (1907).
‘It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth. Regular blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak’ — Claude Monet
What was it about the British capital that attracted the artist? In part, it was a question of modernity and magnitude. This was a commercial and industrial hub, the centre of a vast empire, as well as the most populous city on Earth.
Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge and the Houses of Parliament had all been built (or, in Parliament’s case, rebuilt) in the 19th century.
As Henry James, the American novelist who made London his home, put it: ‘It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy… It is only magnificent.’
Most enticing of all, though, to Monet, were the conditions in which he could paint. Specifically, the fog — partly natural, partly the result of coal smoke from domestic fires and industrial furnaces — which gave London a unique light. (Monet’s three painting trips were all taken in winter to early spring, the time of year when the atmospherics he loved were at their strongest.)
‘What I like most in London is the fog,’ he told the art dealer René Gimpel in 1920. ‘It’s the fog that gives [the place] its marvellous breadth. Regular… blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak.’
These words are reflected in Monet’s paintings, where the landmarks — Waterloo Bridge, in particular — often seem to dissolve beneath the play of light. In the case of the work coming to auction, Monet used a flurry of yellow brushstrokes to capture early-morning sunlight breaking through a misty haze.
There’s a stunning sense of insubstantiality to the structures in Vues de Londres — something that can’t be said of The Thames below Westminster from 30 years earlier. The shift may have been somewhat inspired by the molten forms of Monet’s friend, James McNeill Whistler, in his moonlit scenes of the Thames from the 1870s known as ‘Nocturnes’.
‘In his desire to paint the most complex effects of light, Monet… attained the extreme limits of art’ — L’Action newspaper, 1904
Monet’s work routine generally entailed painting Waterloo Bridge in the morning (from the balcony of his suite on the fifth or sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel); Charing Cross Bridge around lunchtime (from the same location); and then the Houses of Parliament (from a balcony at St Thomas’s Hospital) in the afternoon.
He could see both bridges without leaving the Savoy, and it was just a short stroll — along the newly built Victoria Embankment and across Westminster Bridge — to St Thomas’s for his view of Parliament over the Thames. In each case, Monet favoured a high vantage point.
Letters to his second wife Alice, who was back in France, reveal how challenging he found it to pin down on canvas the changeable atmospheric effects. ‘Today was a day of terrible struggle, and it will be the same until the day I leave,’ he wrote on 18 March 1900. ‘I needed more canvases, as the only way of achieving something is to start new ones for [the different] kinds of weather.’
Monet continued undeterred, however, energised by the challenge. ‘I can’t tell you about this fantastic day,’ he wrote on 3 February 1901. ‘What marvellous things, but only lasting five minutes. It’s enough to drive you crazy. No, there’s no land more extraordinary for a painter.’
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Monet tended to finish off his Vues de Londres paintings in his studio in Giverny. In the spring of 1904, an exhibition of 37 of them was staged at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris — the dealer having been a keen supporter of the artist since their first meeting in London more than three decades earlier.
Works sold to collectors from all over Europe and the United States. ‘I’m delighted with the success,’ Monet told Durand-Ruel.
The Frenchman never painted in London again, concentrating most of his artistic energies thereafter at home in his garden. Nymphéas, temps gris, painted in Giverny in 1907 (below), was included in the exhibition Les Nymphéas: Séries de paysages d’eau, held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909 — a landmark moment that cemented Monet’s reputation as France’s greatest living artist.
What did the London paintings amount to? Well, certainly a stern test of Monet’s creative abilities. There were days when the atmospherics changed so rapidly, it was nigh on impossible to keep up with them.
The art critic for the newspaper L’Action wrote of Vues de Londres that ‘in his desire to paint the most complex effects of light, Monet… attained the extreme limits of art’. The series represents a city at the peak of its powers, captured by an artist at the peak of his.