Claude Monet’s Vues de Londres remain today one of the most entrancing, ethereal and mystical series to have been composed by the artist during the final, glorious phase of his career. Majestic in their mysteriousness and spellbinding for the subtlety of the atmospheric effects they evoke, Monet’s views of the Thames established a new departure in his work, preparing the ground for his last, mythic feat: the Nymphéas. Depicting a beautiful sunset over the Houses of Parliament, Le Parlement, soleil couchant specifically belongs to a group of nineteen views which Monet started working on in 1900 and 1901. Of the series, only five—the present one included—are still in private collections. The remaining fourteen are part of the collections of some of the world’s most important museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Evoking an enveloping atmosphere that transforms the urban landscape into a fleeting vision verging towards abstraction, Le Parlement, soleil couchant is a testimony to the absorbing fascination and the impressive challenge that, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the leading figure of Impressionism found in London and the Thames.
Although dated “1902,” Le Parlement, soleil couchant was most probably begun during three successive trips Monet took to London in 1899, 1900 and 1901. More precisely, the painting was probably first sketched in 1900 and worked further in 1901, as strongly suggested by the surviving correspondence sent by Monet’s during his stay in London. If, in 1899, Monet had come to London on the pretext of a family visit and he had only tentatively started painting—he informed his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel that he had “tried to do some views of the Thames,”—in 1900 he sailed to London alone and with the sole intention of working (D. Wildenstein, Claude Monet: Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1985, vol. IV, letter 1473). As he had done with his wife Alice the previous year, he took residence in the luxurious Savoy Hotel. Positioned on the northern side of the Thames, between Somerset House and Charing Cross Station, the Savoy Hotel provided the artist with some remarkable views of the Thames: on the left Monet could see the strict silhouette of Waterloo Bridge, while on the right stood the Charing Cross Bridge, regularly crossed by steam trains, speeding over the water. Perceived from the window of his hotel room, these views provided Monet with two of his three London motifs.
In 1900, however, a new motif started to strongly interest the artist: the Parliament buildings, perceived as raising above the Thames and cloaked in fog or bathed in the evening light, as shown in Le Parlement, soleil couchant. This new theme required more organization on Monet’s part, as to paint this view the artist had to find another working post, situated further south and on the opposite bank of the Thames. Monet’s letters suggest that he only started painting the Parliament during the 1900 trip when he was granted access to St. Thomas’s Hospital on the South Bank. The idea, however, must have been in his mind for a while, since, in the very first letter he sent to Alice from London that year, Monet already mentions a Doctor, who took him to see the famous hospital. The artist rejoiced: “I saw there some superb things and I am welcome to work wherever I want” (ibid., letter 1503). The following day, perhaps already mulling over pictures such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant, Monet took a walk to the hospital, “to see the sunset” (ibid, letter 1504). Immediately after, he informed 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).
It was thus from the St. Thomas’s Hospital on the South Bank that Le Parlement, soleil couchant was painted. Immediately, the motif of the Parliament filled Monet with enthusiasm. Monet had arrived in London for barely three days, when he wrote to her: “Please excuse me for this brief lines; I am going to the hospital to do some sketches” (ibid., letter 1506). The following day, he wrote to her again, this time in ecstatic terms: “at 5pm, 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 realised as I was rapt in my enthusiasm for my work and for the new, but how difficult it is going to be!” (ibid., letter 1507).
Le Parlement, soleil couchant and all the other views of Parliament were painted during the late hours of the afternoon and in early evenings. Having to divide his time between three distinct motifs, Monet set himself a strict working routine: in the morning and early afternoon he would work from the window of his Savoy Hotel room on the views of the Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridge, while at around four, he would stroll to the hospital, where he would continue to work on the views of Parliament, bathed in the evening light of sunset and twilight. This cyclical routine, devised to study the changes of light day after day, hour after hour, was part of the artist’s most recent artistic approach. In the 1880s, Monet had begun working on his motifs in series, depicting the same scene across several canvases, in order to capture the shifting effects of light at different times of the day. Sensitive to Monet’s artistic vision, Durand-Ruel was quick to honor the artist’s new approach with two memorable exhibitions: in 1891 Monet’s Meules series was presented to the public, followed, in 1892, by the series of Peupliers. The following years, Monet set to work on the Cathédrale de Rouen series. From the letters, it is clear that Monet intended his Vues de Londres to be no less than those previous, successful series. In particular, he seemed to think that the views of Parliament especially would have been worthy rivals to the famous Cathédrale de Rouen series. At the end of his 1900 stay, lamenting over the fact that he was forced to stop his work at the hospital as the weather conditions had changed too considerably, Monet wrote to Alice: “It would have been so beautiful! You will get an idea by looking at my sketches; it would have been a series as interesting as the Cathédrale de Rouen, and I am sure you will be the first one to push me for another trip next year to finish it” (ibid., letter 1537).
The change of weather that forced Monet to interrupt his work in London in 1900 was seasonal. Yet, even during his stay the artist had to daily tackle an incredible variable atmosphere. If, in London, the artist had found a source of great inspiration, he had also met one of the greatest challenges of his career. In 1901 he wrote: “The weather keeps changing at each moment because of the clouds and the strong wind… I cannot explain what a wonderful day this has been. What marvellous effects, although never lasting longer than five minutes, it drives me crazy. No, there is no country more extraordinary than this one for a painter” (ibid., letter 1593). In order to keep up with the changes, Monet had to be swift in his working practice. Besides being an artistic choice, working on multiple canvases at the same time became a necessity in London. In 1900, Monet informed Durand-Ruel: “It goes without saying that I am working incessantly, but it is very difficult because of the continuous change of weather, which force me to work on more canvases than what I will be able to complete” (ibid., letter 1524). Indeed, on 1st March 1900—less than a month after his arrival—Monet was already working on forty-four canvases, three days later he informed his step-daughter Blanche that he had started his fiftieth painting and by the 18th, he had to find his away through sixty-five canvases. The memory of the challenge that painting in London had posed, would vividly persists in the artist’s mind. In 1920, talking about his studies of light, Monet would recall: “Where that became absolutely terrible was on the Thames: what succession of effects! At the Savoy Hotel or at the Saint James’s Hospital, from where I captured my views, I had up to one hundred canvases in progress—on the same subject. Searching feverishly among these sketches I would choose one that was not too different from what I was seeing; despite this, I would end up modifying it completely. Once the work was done, I would realise, roaming among the canvases, that I had neglected the one that would have served me the best and that lied just next to me” (quoted in S. Patin, “The return of Whistler and Monet to the Thames” in Turner, Whistler, Monet, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 2004, ft. no. 35, p. 242).
Capturing a very specific play of light, canvases such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant must have been particularly challenging for Monet: because of the capricious nature of the British weather, effects such as the one evoked here always threatened to never appear again. Drawing its power and suggestive force from a dramatic light, Le Parlement, soleil couchant—like several other views of Parliament—primarily relies on an actor as much essential as it was unreliable: the sun. In his letters, Monet obsessively relates to Alice even the slightest behaviour of the sun, agonising on his absence and rejoicing for his presence. During his stay in 1900, the sun was obscured for a few days, causing great anxiety for Monet. He wrote to Alice: “same weather as yesterday and still no signs of the sun, nor of light and this annoys me greatly, I have a lot on things on which I cannot work” (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., letter 1525).
The problem was indeed more than just momentary. A careful observer of nature, Monet knew that, over the months, the path of the sun changes, modifying its trajectory over the landscape. Any missed occasion to paint could have entailed, for this reason, an irreparable loss. This was particularly true for works such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant, which relied on a particular position of the setting sun. Monet explained: “time advances and so does the sun, so that the day it will decide to appear, it will no longer be at the same place. This is especially annoying for my canvases at the hospital. I already suspect the sun has advanced a great deal and that it does no longer set in my motif” (ibid.). Two days later, Monet’s fears were confirmed: “very nice weather today and, rare thing, with some sun, and, as I predicted, it sets well further away from the place where I dreamt to depict it, like a enormous ball of fire descending behind the Parliament” (ibid., letter 1527). Monet, however, was not afraid to re-assess and re-direct his work. A week later, he wrote to Alice: “tonight I made an important decision at the hospital. For a few days I have been thinking that I could have painted the Parliament better, so I boldly transformed those canvases whose effects could no longer be found and I am very satisfied” (ibid., letter 1530). Eventually, however, the challenge posed by the changing weather became too great. After having spent almost two months in London and not being able to continue the work on the views of Parliament because of the inconvenient new position of the sun, Monet decided to leave: “I went to the hospital, I worked badly and did not obtain the effect I wanted. Finally, tired of waiting, I closed my paintbox and here I am, and, from my window, I can now see the fog I was waiting for and the effect fully formed; but it is too late to go back. All in all, I will start arranging my departure, I no longer have the spirit to fight, it’s over; and me then, who thought to be returning happy and victorious! Not at all! (…) Perhaps France will seem easier to depict than this country, so variable, but for that very reason so admirable” (ibid., letter 1545).
Monet returned to Le Parlement, soleil couchant and his Vues de Londres in 1901, during a third stay in London, in which the artist hoped to finish what he had started the previous year. He had arrived full of hope and ardor. Three days into his work he wrote to Alice: “I finally had the chance to work at the hospital, all that is still terribly difficult, but I am full of enthusiasm and this time I must attain a good result” (ibid., letter 1595). Yet the weather was not on his side, and the following day he complained: “I was stunned this morning to find snow everywhere, I nearly went back to bed because of how angry I was… I went to the hospital, but I went in vain, impossible to do anything there, all the Parliament is covered in snow patches and I had to come back, sadly splashing around in a mess of mud” (ibid., letter 1596). The next day things brightened up: “I have just come back from the hospital where it is going better and better, tonight it was magnificent” (ibid., letter 1597). After that, however, the sun disappeared once again and, as he had done in 1900, Monet lamented to Alice: “I have not yet gone to the hospital; it is terribly windy and the weather is not very welcoming for this. I suspect, anyway, that I will have to prepare to mourn over all the motifs in which the sun in involved. Fifteen days have now past without seeing the sun and God knows what a change I would find if it ever comes back” (ibid., letter 1610). Two weeks later, probably because of the views of Parliament that obliged him to work on a terrace, Monet fell ill and was forced to return to France. By then, he had anyway surrender to the idea that it had been unrealistic to think that he would have been able to complete the series on the spot, in front of the motif. In a letter, he mused: “this is not a country where one can terminate things on the spot; effects are never found again and I should have only made sketches, some real impressions” (ibid., letter 1616). Scolding himself for having wished to prolong those very volatile ‘impressions’ his art was meant to capture, Monet had perhaps realised that in London he had found a demanding muse, capable of pushing his greatest talent to its very limit.
For all their spontaneity and freshness, works such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant were finished, years later, in Monet’s studio at Giverny. When some people critiqued Monet for not having completed the series in front of the motif, the artist retorted: “Whether my Cathédrales, my Londres and other canvases have been made after nature or not concern no one and has no importance. I know many painters who paint after nature and only produce horrible things… The result is everything” (ibid., letter 1764). Indeed, the result greatly concerned Monet, who continued to work on his Vues de Londres until the very day of their exhibition in 1904. In his studio, although he was no longer obliged to jump from canvas to canvas to accommodate the changes of weather, Monet nevertheless continued to develop his Vues de Londres as a group, approaching the various works as a coherent whole. In 1903, Monet explained to Durand-Ruel: “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 definitely finished. I work on them all at the same time, or at least on a certain number of them” (ibid., letter 1690). In Monet’s studio at Giverny, Le Parlement, soleil couchant was thus ultimately completed next to and in harmony with the other views of the Parliament buildings.
Compared with the sooty, almost impenetrable fog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Le Parlement, effet de brouillard, the present work appears all the more like a fantastical vision: backlit by a luminous pink, breaching through the cervices of the clouds, the Gothic silhouette of Parliament appears like a blue mirage, wavering above the water like a castle in a fairy tale. Even when the moment of the day represented is the same, Monet’s views of Parliament differs greatly. Both the present work and the one held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (also titled Le Parlement, soleil couchant) depict a sunset, but while in the Washington’s canvas the light of the setting sun invades the sky with an effusion of colour behind the dark silhouette of Parliament, in Le Parlement, soleil couchant the effect depicted is that of a struggle between the glowing, intense light of sunset and the thick, heavy clouds lingering over the scene.
According to the diversity of effects depicted, Monet’s brushworks evolved and changed from canvas to canvas. From the rarified paint of the Musée d’Orsay’s Londres, Le Parlement. Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard, to the coarser rendition of the shimmering effects of the water in the Washington painting, Monet made proof of a subtle and sensitive touch, able to capture the shifting impressions of nature through a rich array of textures. In Le Parlement, soleil couchant, Monet resorted to a particularly bold handling of paint: eager to convey the effects of the luminous crevices that light creates in between the clouds, he applied paint in thick, creamy strokes which—when examined up close—dissolve into pure harmonies of colors and beautiful moments of abstraction.
Monet’s firm resolution to work on the Vues de Londres as a group has important implications. If previously in his career Monet had intended his works to depict the fleeting impression of a unique moment, with the series he seemed to celebrate a more eternal time, in which light shift and transform itself perpetually creating a sense of wholeness and continuity. Thus, the Vues de Londres should be appreciated for their holistic dimension, in which the works are complementary, to be perceived together, like the different movements of a same symphony. Monet had always been convinced of the necessity to present the Vues de Londres as a series. In 1904, while still working on the views of London and having prevented Durand-Ruel to sell or exhibit any of them singularly until then, Monet wrote to the dealer: “I do not share your opinion and I do not regret not having let you have some of the canvases, because the views of the complete series will be of a far greater importance” (ibid., letter 1712).
Time proved Monet’s intuition to be correct. The exhibition of his Vues de Londres, which finally took place from May to June 1904 at Durand-Ruel’s gallery, was a resounding success. Despite many tribulations, afflicting doubts and uncertainties, Monet had come out victorious. Octave Mirbeau wrote in the preface to the exhibition: “[Monet] saw London, he experienced London, in its very essence, its character, and its light… The London fog is even more changeable, elusive and complicated than the sky of Normandy. Whether muted or bright, all the colours blend together; ethereal reflections, virtually imperceptible influences, transform objects or even deform them into fantastic shapes, pushing them back or pulling them forward according to immutable, cosmic laws” (quoted in S. Patin, op. cit., 2004, p. 183). The critics were ecstatic and were quick to notice that the series had marked a new departure in Monet’s work, venturing onto grounds that lied beyond simple representation. One critic wrote: “marvellous… one of the most beautiful demonstration of pure art’; another that ‘[Monet] never attained such a vaporous subtlety, such power of abstraction and synthesis.” Another critic celebrated the London series as Monet’s most astonishing feat yet: “in his desire to paint the most complex effects of light 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 worst still, he succeeded” (quoted in P.H. Tucker, Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings, New Haven and London, 1989, p. 267). Le Parlement, soleil couchant was among the objects of praise for the picture was exhibited on that occasion, next to ten other views of Parliament, eight of which are now part of museum collections (cf. G. Seiberling, Monet in London, Seattle and London, 1988, p. 93).
At the turn of the Century, in the “sooty soul” of London, Monet found an elusive, fascinating creature, which obliged him to push his art to its very limits. The ethereal dimension of pictures such as Le Parlement, soleil couchant, the subtle gradation of 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. 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 G. Seiberling, op. cit., 1988, p. 96).