MONET’S LONDON SERIES
After completing his series devoted to the facade of the Rouen Cathedral and before beginning the monumental series inspired by his Japanese gardens at Giverny, Monet began work on a large group of paintings of the Thames River in London. In preparation for these, he made several trips to London in the winter months, during which he recorded and studied three motifs: the Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges and the Houses of Parliament. "I love London," Monet wrote. "It is a mass, an ensemble, and it is so simple. Then, in London, what I love, above all, is the fog." So intent was he on capturing gradations of light as it is affected by fog that he undertook about one-hundred canvases. Of these, he finished thirty-seven, completed primarily in his Giverny studio.
In 1870, on his first trip to London, where he had fled during the Franco-Prussian War, Monet had painted the Thames and Westminster Abbey. The architecture of the latter he dissolved in mist — which suggests his appreciation at that time of J.M.W Turner’s evanescent visions and James McNeill Whistler’s evocative city nightscapes, his Nocturnes of the same year. Five years later, he experimented further with effects of atmospheric haze, this time the steam of the trains at Saint Lazare station. By the time the fifty-eight year old artist began work on his ambitious group of London paintings, he had already decided to work in series by fixing his motif for a group of canvases and varying their temporal, chromatic, and atmospheric effects.
In the London series, Monet chose to create an ensemble of urban paintings, in which the movement of pedestrians and carriages, of trains and boats, gives way to the greater rhythms of light playing, through fog and mist, upon enduring architectural forms. He planted himself in the Savoy Hotel, from which he could see the Charing Cross Bridge to his right and the Waterloo Bridge to his left, and at the Saint Thomas hospital, from which he painted the Houses of Parliament. But, it was the London fog, in all its pervasive nebulousness, that became the artist’s predominant theme. For Monet, it was the indefinable nature of the fog that transformed or, in fin-de-siecle terms, "dematerialized" the river, the great stone bridges, and the rugged contours of the Parliament buildings. These became essential forms that anchored his pictures during the five years he elaborated and corrected the works in his studio.
In these paintings, Monet showed even less concern for detail than in his previous series; with their reduced value contrasts, these works depend for effect on subtle transitions in hue. The Art Institute’s Houses of Parliament, Westminster resembles a tissue-thin screen of shifting blues and pinks, suggesting the changing light of the sky through the fog and in the water’s reflections. In Charing Cross Bridge, London, Monet succeeded in capturing the way in which a light fog can catch and disperse sunlight, transforming here the underlying pinks and blues into scrims of yellow. In the museum’s two views of Waterloo Bridge, each with its sweep of smokestacks and buildings lining the riverbank, the artist reversed the lights and darks: in one, the bridge is a band of light; in the other, its dark shape is defined by the lighter water surrounding it. In both compositions, the city’s life is indicated by dabs of paint that suggest the vague shapes and lights of a carriage, a small boat, smoke. Running through the paintings like a constant current, the city’s energy becomes timeless in this series, which, more than any other up to this time, came from the depths of Monet’s memory and imagination.
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