CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)

Charing Cross Bridge à la hauteur du Parlement

CLAUDE MONET (1840-1926)
Charing Cross Bridge à la hauteur du Parlement
signed and dated bottom right 'Claude Monet 99'
oil on canvas
25½ x 31¾ in. (64.8 x 80.6 cm.)
Painted in 1899
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the artist in Nov., 1901)
Paul Cassirer, Berlin (acquired from the above in 1903)
Anon. sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 26, 1926, lot 72 (illustrated) L.G. Picard, Paris (1930)
"Revue des ventes," Le Journal des Arts, Paris, April 28, 1926, p. 2 (illustrated)
Curiosa, "Revue des ventes d'avril, lundi 26 avril Hôtel Drouot," Le Figaro artistique, Paris, June 3, 1926, p. 540
L. Venturi, Archives de l'Impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, pp. 382-383
D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet, Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Lausanne, 1979, vol. IV (1899-1926, Peintures), p. 162, no. 1531 (illustrated, p. 163), p. 359, letter nos. 1646 and 1647, and p. 427, document nos. 155, 161, and 163

Lot Essay

In the present painting, Monet depicts the atmospheric, fog-covered river Thames as viewed from his apartment in the Savoy Hotel, the spot from which he executed his celebrated series of both Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges (figs. 1-4). The weakening afternoon sun just barely penetrates the fog in this version, a few successful rays highlighting the surface of the river as one or two barges move slowly upstream. Through the mist one can discern on the right the silhouette of the Houses of Parliament, which Monet was also to paint frequently during his visits to London, viewed here with the effects of the setting sun and the fading light. As the critic Gustave Geffroy recalled:

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 passes like a ghost. The bridges were barely discernable 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. Geffroy, "Monet: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre," in C.F. Stuckey, ed., Monet: A Retrospective, New York, 1985, pp. 218-219)

Monet himself commented upon his preoccupation with the atmospheric effects of London, with the mist and fog which had so captivated artists like Turner before him:

I so love London, but I only love it in the winter...nothing is like it in the 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 chose to paint different views of the city at different times of the day, seeking the most interesting light.

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. (Ibid., p. 8)

The weather of London was a great attraction to Monet but so was the city itself. At the turn of the century it was the leading industrial city of Europe and as a great urban complex seemed to symbolize all that was modern and progressive. Monet, however, was not concerned with presenting industrial urban society as depicted by Gustave Doré and other nineteenth century artists. He had no interest in painting the mass of humanity struggling beneath factory chimneys in the heat of the workshop, but wanted instead to capture the overall smoky atmosphere of the city, dehumanized and impersonal. While working in London he complained that on Sundays he was unable to paint as the factories belched forth no smoke and the steam trains on Charing Cross Bridge ran too infrequently.

Although Monet worked in London during the winters of 1899, 1900 and 1901, he completed only twelve views of the Thames there, continuing to work on at least eighty more canvases back in his studio in Giverny. It was three years after his return to France in 1901 before he finally exhibited his views of London at Durand-Ruel. In the intervening period he worked extensively on the whole series, lining up many pictures and painting on each of them in the same session. Monet's efforts in the studio were therefore based not only on his memories of London, but also on the effect of seeing his semi-finished impressions arrayed in unity around him. As he worked, Monet moved further and further away from the original motif, becoming more interested in atmospheric conditions and less interested in the tactile qualities of iron, stone and water. Monet's increasing disregard for topographical exactitude can be clearly seen in his deliberate omission from the present picture of Cleopatra's Needle, a large obelisk which was in his direct line of vision between the Savoy Hotel and Charing Cross Bridge. As one critic commented the year after the London pictures were first exhibited, "They are really more of a studio series than any other works of the master." (D. Fitzgerald, "Claude Monet, Master of Impressionism," Brush and Pencil, London, 1905, vol. 15)

Monet's technique, however, still suggests spontaneity. When viewed closely, his brushwork seems almost chaotic, the combination of rich impasto with broad, gestural strokes or tiny dots and dashes of color creating an illusion of immediacy and speed, though in reality these paintings were the product of a protracted, deliberate period of work. "The London paintings embody the paradoxes of Monet's naturalism: the wish to complete instantaneous notions of laboriously re-worked paintings, and to achieve both a convincing illusion and a satisfactory personal expression." (exh. cat., op. cit., Atlanta, 1989, p. 20)

In the course of painting the Thames, Monet's aesthetic approach underwent a gradual but significant change. He abandoned his previously held belief that the most important artistic act was to paint directly from the motif in favor of a more modern canon which held that what the artist wanted to paint took precedence over what lay before his eyes. It is this change which underlies the great modernity of the works that Monet was executing at this time and which shows that -- even at the age of sixty -- he was continually seeking to expand the boundaries of painting, progressing with the avant-garde in a way that other Impressionist painters had failed to do. When the views of London were finally exhibited, they were exceedingly well received even by conservative critics.

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 fog of the Thames! And worse still he has succeeded." (P.H. Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art, London, 1955, p. 173)

Gustave Kahn, long an admirer of Monet, was particularly mesmerized by the views of Charing Cross Bridge, concluding:

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 the 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 toward 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)

(no fig. #) Charing Cross Bridge, Westminster, London
(Photo, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England)

(fig. 1) Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1899
Santa Barbara Museum of Art

(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, fumée dans le brouillard, impression, 1899-1902
Musée Marmottan, Paris

(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, La Tamise, 1900-1903 Sold, Christie's, London, June 29, 1992, $4,125,000

(fig. 4) Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1903
Sold, Christie's, New York, Nov. 7, 1995, $3,522,000

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