AS PART of “Fanfare for Europe”, to mark Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, the Arts Council staged a memorable exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in January 1973, “The Impressionists in London”. The show celebrated the work of French artists who left Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and its aftermath and who painted the Thames. Many returned later.
Thirty of the 58 paintings selected by Alan Bowness then were by the Parisian Claude Monet (1840-1926), and the exhibition closed with a sunburst of unexpected colour in the 25-year-old André Derain’s 1905-06 canvases.
Fortuitously, or perhaps mischievously, the recent exhibition at Tate Britain charted a similar course (“Impressionists in London French Artists in Exile 1870-1904”) as Britain struggles to leave the EU.
Padded out with some unexceptional academic sculptures and a room of Tissot’s self-satisfied drawing-room portraits, it was predictably almost identical, and included many of the same pieces shown in 1973. The room of Monet’s views of the Houses of Parliament (only eight this time) had the visitor thrilling for more.
In an exhibition dedicated solely to Claude Monet at the National Gallery, Professor Richard Thomson, who put together the large retrospective of Monet at the Grand Palais in 2010, shows 78 canvases that will satisfy that eager thirst. Shown without labels to distract or hold up the peering crowds (see below for further comment), the works explore how Monet handled light. For that is all that we see.
© Columbus Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur J. Kobacker 1981.015The Church at Varengeville and the Gorge of Moutiers (Église de Varengeville et la gorge des Moutiers), 1882, by Monet
Monet lived in extraordinary times, not least with the collapse of the Second Empire and establishment of the Third Republic. His long life spanned the coming of the railways, the invention of the horseless carriage, and later that of the aeroplane. Consequently, the traditional inaccessibility of the countryside changed; the bourgeois could delight in the “picturesque” views of ancient ruined choirs and medieval abbeys and churches. They could travel easily across the Channel to England.
The fast train from Paris to Dieppe, albeit the longer route via Rouen, took only two-and-a-half hours, and Trouville, in 1830 a humble fishing village, but by the end of the century the most desirable watering-place in Calvados, with a population of 6000, could be reached in three-quarters of an hour by steamer (three daily sailings) from Le Havre, the second most important French seaport after Marseille.
Thomson makes the point that in the earlier period the steeples and bells of churches demarcated villages and, in the open countryside, allowed the traveller on foot or on horseback to calculate how long it might take to reach the next village and hamlet. It is perhaps, therefore, no surprise to find Monet routinely centring his landscapes on churches, as the regularity of building shapes confers a degree of order in the natural land.
Of Argenteuil, 15km west of Paris, where the Monets lived from 1871, readers of Baedeker would find: “Son vignoble, le plus considérable des environs de Paris, produit un vin médiocre: mais elle [Argenteuil] est renommée pour ses asperges. Il n’y a de remarquable que l’église, à l’autre extrémité. C’est un édifice moderne dans le style roman, avec un haut clocher, par Ballu.”
The ancient town of Argenteuil, of some 11000 inhabitants, suffered when the French blew up the railway bridge to hinder the Prussian advance. In two paintings, we see it being reconstructed in 1872.
© National Museum Wales. Bequeathed by Gwendoline Davies (NMW A2488)Claude Monet, San Giorgio Maggiore (Saint-Georges Majeur), 1908
Theodore Ballu (1817-85) won the Prix de Rome in 1840 and was the city architect for Paris from 1860, designing the church of La Trinité and the belfry of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois and restoring the basilica of Saint-Denis, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Tour Saint-Jacques. Further down the Seine, amid the fields of asparagus and, no doubt, fortified by the local wine, he rebuilt a parish church in Romanesque style, its grandeur intended to act as a shrine for the supposed seamless robe of Christ which, it was said, Charlemagne had given the village.
In 1878, a year before Claude’s first wife died, the impoverished Monets moved to the village of Vétheuil, sharing a house with another family who later took in Monet’s children after their mother died.
Here the church of Notre-Dame has a splendid façade of 1580, out of all proportion to the relative obscurity of the surrounding village. Monet painted it in all weathers, from directly below the overgrown road that rises to the west end, all muddiness and closed off by the grey sky (Halcyon Gallery), and from across the river at Lavacourt, where the church dominates the skyline.
In a madcap scheme to fund an interactive museum of the Titanic, the City Fathers of Southampton hoped to sell off the City Art Gallery’s collection, which includes the summer view of the village, painted from a boat on the river, which we see here.
Perched high above the English Channel on the Normandy coast five-and-a-half miles west of Dieppe is the little parish church of Varengeville-sur-mer.
© National Galleries of ScotlandClaude Monet’s The Church at Vétheuil (L’Église de Vétheuil), 1878 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Presented by Mrs Isabel M. Traill 1979 (NG 2385)
François I was entertained at the Manoir d’Ango here, and Monet painted the church four times in 1882 from the other side of the gorge. God’s house might be present in the steep landscape, but we are presumably meant to consider how Man has tamed the surrounding headlands.
Of the paintings on show, those of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94), from a series of 20, and of the Thames at Westminster are perhaps the most famous that Monet painted, exhilarating in the changes of light patterns to be observed during the day.
Although Monet had a high viewpoint from an upstairs room in an opposite shop, he complained that tourists got in the way of his picturing the west front, and the 245-foot Tour d’Albane of the great French cathedral. But the paintings are not at all architectural, and we can no more “read” the 1530 façade than we can readily appreciate the Palace of Westminster.
Finally rebuilt in 1870, this was a new construction when Monet first painted it (National Gallery). It will come as a surprise that in later depictions of the Thames at Charing Cross, dated between the end of the century and 1904, he cropped the image to avoid including the bell tower (“Big Ben”).
By then, the railways had taken over the land both sides of La Manche, and Monet keenly painted the cathedrals of the steam age. From Argenteuil, once the trains were running again, the Gare Saint-Lazare was the Paris terminus for all his journeys into the capital. Monet revels in the 40-metre-wide span of the roof girders, celebrating with the bustling commuters in a new age.
The exhibition is accompanied by Richard Thomson’s brilliant book, sold at a heavy discount at the gallery. It is not a catalogue and, annoyingly, does not include a check-list of the works exhibited*. This is particularly tedious, as Monet deliberately repeated motifs while the light effect varied.
*Bona fide readers may wish to apply to the Deputy Editor of the Church Times for my listing that marries the exhibits with the corresponding plate in the book.
“Monet and Architecture” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 29 July. Phone 020 7747 2885.