Monet's Views of the Thames
More than one hundred years ago, the French Impressionist Claude Monet exhibited his long-awaited series of London paintings, Vues de la Tamise (Views of the Thames). This series marked Monet's return to urban themes after a period of several decades, and it was his first attempt to paint London since he had been there as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71.
The London series resulted from three separate painting campaigns from 1899 to 1901. Monet stayed at the elegant, recently constructed Savoy Hotel, where he had a suite of rooms with a balcony view of the Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges on the Thames. While he concentrated on these two bridges during his first stay, he added the Houses of Parliament on his second trip, thanks to the American painter John Singer Sargent, who secured permission for him to paint them from the vantage point of St. Thomas' Hospital across the river. Staying a few months for each visit, Monet would return to his home in Giverny with his unfinished canvases. He then took an additional three years to complete the almost one hundred canvases in the series.
Nearly sixty years old when he began the series, Monet was already a successful and sought-after artist who nonetheless continued to search for new subjects that challenged his eye and his art. The London paintings embody the paradoxes of his work: the wish to record instantaneous notations of a transient effect while at the same time acknowledging the laborious process that was required to produce them. As he had once said about his series paintings: "I'm becoming so slow in my work that it makes me despair, but the further I go, the better I see that it takes a great deal of work to succeed in rendering what I want to render: 'instantaneity,' above all the enveloping atmosphere."
By the time he painted the London series, Monet was searching for qualities that allowed people to "live for longer" with his pictures, seeking to portray both the moment that was the starting point of the picture, and the idea of the subject, which evoked a completely different temporal sensibility. In a letter written during his second stay in London, he said he realized that some of his paintings, though he thought them almost finished, were "not London-like enough," and required "some bold brushstrokes" to bring them into line with his idea of London.
The complexity of capturing the changing effects of light and atmosphere is revealed by the increasing number of canvases that Monet chose to paint. Arriving for one visit on February 11, 1900, by March 1 he had begun forty-four pictures, a number that had increased to fifty by March 4, and to sixty-five by March 18; by the end of the month, he returned to France with eighty canvases. After five years of work, Monet exhibited thirty-seven canvases at the Paris gallery of the noted art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in May 1904, to great acclaim. In one of the exhibition's many favorable reviews, the critic Charles Morice dubbed Monet "master and king of the ephemeral," the true hero of his painted "drama" being the fog on the Thames.
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