Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Charing Cross Bridge

signed and dated bottom right 'Claude Monet 1903'--oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm.)

Painted in 1903
Galerie Georges Bernheim, Paris
B.J. van Gelder, Paris; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, March 20, 1950, lot 125 (illustrated, pl. X)
Etienne Bignou, Paris
Wildenstein & Cie., Paris
Georges Marci, Geneva
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1985, vol. IV (1899-1926, peintures), p. 160, no. 1528 (illustrated, p. 161)
Paris, Galerie Georges Bernheim, Tableaux de maîtres modernes, 1916, no. 51
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art, Monet, Oct.-Nov., 1982, no. 47. The exhibition traveled to Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, Dec., 1982-Jan., 1983.

Lot Essay

When Claude Monet was working on his views of the Thames in 1900, Clemenceau and I went to visit him, and the three of us spent a few days seeing the city.... But the painter never neglected his work, and gave it whatever time it required. Several times we saw him set up on the balcony of his room overlooking the Thames -- Charing Cross Bridge on his right, Waterloo Bridge on his left.... In front of us the Thames rolled its waves, almost invisible in the fog. A boat passed like a ghost. The bridges were barely discernible in that space, and on them an all-but-imperceptible movement gave life to the mist's opacity: trains passing each other on Charing Cross Bridge, buses streaming across Waterloo Bridge, wafts of smoke that soon disappeared into the thick and livid vastness. It was an awe- inspiring, solemn, and gloomy spectacle.... One could almost believe that everything was about to vanish, disappear into that colourless obscurity. (G. Geoffroy, "Monet: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre," Monet: a Retrospective, New York, 1985, pp. 218-19)

It was this view of the Thames which first inspired Monet to produce his largest and most impressive series of works. He had visited London in 1870, and like many artists before him, had found the foggy Thames, its bridges and its boats, a source of inspiration. The mist and fog of London which had given substance to the colorful inventions of Turner captivated Monet. As an artist fascinated with subtle atmospheric effects, he saw great opportunities: "I so love London but I only love it in the winter...nothing is like it in winter with 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 with the mysterious cloak." (exh. cat., Monet in London, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1989, p. 55) Monet's return to London in 1899 came at a time when he was revisiting many of his old haunts. This second visit fit in with a plan that Monet formulated in 1900, around the time of his sixtieth birthday, "to take each of the categories of motifs I had worked on over the years and to create a kind of synthesis, a kind of summing up on one, perhaps two, canvases of all my former impressions and sensations." (exh. cat. Monet in the 90s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990, p. 259)

Although he never did achieve this in so reduced a form,

...the London pictures can [nevertheless] be understood as the result of Monet's evident interest in re-working older motifs and in endowing them with the grandeur that he was now able to see in them. For like the Norman Coast series and the Mornings on the Seine, the London views are far more monumental than his earlier Thames pictures. In their muffled qualities, brilliantly diffused light, and subject matter, they also appear to be tinged with nostalgia, a feeling reinforced by the purples and yellows, blues and roses with which they are painted. (Ibid., p. 259)

Monet returned to London as an established, successful artist, now able to afford a sixth floor room in the fashionable Savoy Hotel. He had conceived of his London paintings as a series from the outset, intending to paint many canvases, often simultaneously, and the balcony from the Savoy offered the perfect vantage point.

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 effects. He frequently depicted the dazzling reflections on the water as he looked toward the sun. When the sun was fairly high in the sky a shadow was cast nearly directly under the bridge, but he also showed shadows and reflections of the sun beginning to set. The views of the Houses of Parliament were done late in the day, with the effects of the sun setting and the light fading. (exh. cat., Monet in London, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1989, p. 8)

Monet was at a point in his life where he could afford the time and risk involved in undertaking a group of paintings which would not be ready for sale immediately. Around 1890 he had begun to work on multiple versions of the same motif, his greatest success to date being the thirty canvases of Rouen Cathedral painted in the early 1890s. However, although his series of paintings represent the culmination of his quest to capture the fleeting effects of nature, they also afforded him the greatest challenge and difficulty. To record momentary shifts in light and atmosphere, and to paint directly from nature, proved impossible. In his letters, Monet expressed his frustrations; he was in a state of perpetual anxiety, at the mercy of the ever-changing weather:

I am not at all discouraged and am still full of ardour, but I'm anxious and I'm fretting because I can't work often enough on the same canvases, there are some on which I've only worked once; others twice; it's terrible but is also so's sad because it's so beautiful.... I'm working eleven hours a day. (Ibid., pp. 68-69)

Four days later he wrote to his wife, Alice:

Every morning it's the same, I get carried away until the weather gets in my way. Today, a day of terrible struggle, and it will be the same until I leave. Only I need more canvases; because it's the only means to achieve anything, in starting them in all weathers, all harmonies, it's the only means and, at the beginning, you think you will find the effects again and finish them: but then, these wretched transformations which don't do any good.... I have something like 65 canvases covered with colors. (Ibid., pp. 68-69)

Monet worked in London during the winters of 1899, 1900, and 1901. Although he completed twelve views of Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridges in 1899 and 1900 while he was in England, he did not finish the remaining eighty canvases until 1904. His three separate sojourns in London were followed by three years of intensive work at his studio in Giverny. Monet worked on as many canvases as he could in a single sitting, keeping them constantly before him, viewing them as a single entity. Clemenceau reported that Monet never stood back from the canvases, working close-up on the paint surface. He would alter the tonality, change the emphasis, vary smoke, clouds and reflections both to create a chromatic harmony within each work and to link it to others in the series. Throughout this process, Monet clearly subjugated topographical exactitude in the interest of heightening the effects he desired. When he returned to France in 1902, the artist worked from memory, and the London pictures became increasingly his personal vision, demonstrating more than ever the empirical, subjective nature of his art.

However, his technique still suggests spontaneity. When viewed closely, the brushwork seems almost chaotic: the combination of rich impasto with broad, gestural strokes or tiny dots and dashes of color create an illusion of immediacy and speed, but in reality these works were the product of a very protracted, deliberate period of work. Initial impressions recorded in London could be transformed into something quite different in the studio. "The London paintings embody the paradoxes of Monet's naturalism: the wish to complete instantaneous notations of transient effects, and to retain spontaneity in laboriously re-worked paintings, and to achieve both a convincing illusion and a satisfactory personal expression." (Ibid., p. 20)

The final result of these efforts was, however, quite remarkable: a series of paintings filled with diffused light and a thick, rich atmosphere. In his struggle to capture the evanescent effects of light and atmosphere, Monet here creates a scene which appears almost visionary. In his view of Charing Cross Bridge, the blurred silhouettes of London's landmarks are seen through the clouded sunlight, evoking an eerie illusion. The lightly-blended pastel colors suggest the instability of the fog, opaque paints somehow evoking translucent, shimmering mist. In contrast to his earlier renderings of London, the color combinations, brushwork, and spatial illusions of these works are far more complicated, demonstrating how far Monet intended to develop his art.

Monet was extremely reluctant to declare these works "finished". Nonetheless, the London paintings were considered a triumph when they were first shown in 1904, inspiring glowing reviews. Georges Lecomte wrote that Monet had never "attained such a vaporous subtlety, such power of abstraction and synthesis." The stunned critic for the conservative L'Action was forced to agree: "In his desire to paint the most complex effects of light," he observed, "Monet seems to have attained the supreme 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 has succeeded." (P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, London, 1955, p. 173)

Kahn for one was mesmerized by the view of Charing Cross Bridge:

The Charing Cross Bridge series numbers the fewest paintings.
The motif for it is given in an airy vision of the river, where
one seems to see light passing, mobile and brief, the fragile
shades of dawn. The water is like a mirror on which vaporous
shadows chase and succeed one another -- fragile, slow harmonies, like those of Schumann, if you will, or of Faure. Trains arrive,
their grey columns of smoke turning to violet as they rise
towards the sky and billow into heavy, then powdery sashes.... Like another strain in the symphony, the fog blurs a part of the
bridge, consumes it, bites the green reflection that cuts the
water like a rigid bar. Here the bridges of the bar cast diffuse shadows, like great, moving, trembling leaves on the green water. (G. Kahn, "L'Exposition de Claude Monet," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, July 1, 1904)

Pic. 3: London, Charing Cross Bridge, 1938
(Photograph, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England)

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