“Monet is only an eye - but my God, what an eye!” – Paul Cezanne
At first glance, one could be forgiven for misinterpreting Claude Monet’s 1899-1905 series of London paintings, particularly those of Waterloo Bridge, as veering toward expressionism or symbolism and away from the comfort of his more familiar impressionist roots. Such are the vagaries of form, the ambiguous and sometimes alien landscapes and ephemeral lighting conditions that it’s challenging to accept they have any grounding in reality. When these paintings were presented to the public, Monet was accused of employing fantasy and imagination rather than painting from life. However, after a thorough historical examination of the Thames and with each painting sympathetically deciphered, any enigma fades like the London fog itself, and it becomes clear that Monet was responding directly to his observations of the prevailing atmospheric conditions unique to the location at that time during the Victorian era.
When Monet arrived in London in 1899, his personal circumstances had improved significantly since his initial visit some thirty years earlier. In 1870 he was a struggling artist and a recently married 29 year old man with a young wife and child to support. The Franco-Prussian War had broken out on the 15th of July that year and it is widely believed that Monet fled to London as a means of avoiding military conscription.
Compared to his London paintings of 1870, which were for the large part rather sombre, earthy and monochromatic in tone, his early 20th Century series were a riotous exploration of vibrant colour and chromatic harmony and form that occasionally orients us toward abstraction. His confidence as an impressionist painter seems to have reached a zenith. He revelled in the exceptional position that his hard won financial and critical success had proffered. Monet embraced this artistic emancipation and set out to capture the transient light and shifting atmospheric conditions of the Thames in a manner never before witnessed.
London had already seduced Monet’s eye with half whispered promises. Its damp, particulate filled air, transient light and colour, framed the grandeur of a prospering Victorian society in the full flow of modernity. Evanescent rose-tinted light scattered through a diffusing veil of anthropogenic pollution and the cloying mists of drifting winter fog combined to create rare fleeting hues, values and effects. It required a singular and unique eye with which to see and capture this.
“…for without the fog London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent amplitude; it is a mass, an ensemble, and it is so simple: its regular and massive blocks become grandiose in that mysterious mantle” Claude Monet, November 28, 1918
Since his now infamous painting of 1871 ‘Impression - sunrise’ Monet’s paintings had often been notionally vague, rapidly executed in an attempt to capture the most salient points of visual information in an attempt to evoke a sensation. In his London series of 1899-1905, Monet took this revolutionary approach to a new level. His paintings underwent a process of considerable deconstruction, distilling the visible information into the vaguest of suggestions and hints. Colour, rather than form and composition became his new expression. Perhaps for the first time, subject and composition were of less importance than effect.
In 1891 Monet said “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment, but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light which vary continually. For me, it's only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value”. Some years later he expanded on this by saying “To me, the motif itself is an insignificant factor. What I want to reproduce is what lies between the motif and me.”.
In his painting ‘Waterloo Bridge, sunlight effect with smoke (dated 1903)’ this ethos is readily observable. Monet has transformed the dense smog laden toxic air drifting above the Thames into a delicate and ethereal veil of ephemeral shimmering colour. On the matter of chromatic fog, Monet wrote “The fog in London assumes all sorts of colours. There are black, brown, yellow, green and purple fogs and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs.”
Whilst the majority of critics applauded his colourful rendering of London’s heavily polluted fog, there were one or two notable detractors. American critic Elizabeth Pennell, who had spent most of her life in London, accused Monet of falsity. She wrote of “a curious green light which does not exist” and “I have spent as many years as Monet has probably spent weeks, looking at the same subjects from precisely the same places, and I know what I am talking about”. However, the majority were enchanted.
Well know critic Arsene Alexandre wrote “This goes farther than painting. It’s an enchantment of atmosphere and light. London appeared fantastic in its fogs of dreams, coloured by the magic of the sun”.
Recent research by Novakov and Novakov proves beyond doubt that London fog around the Thames regularly appeared in a variety of unnatural colours to which Monet was exposed, albeit chromatic effects that lasted just a few minutes. Their research certainly validates that the palette used by Monet at the time was authentic. They have been able to identify localised airborne pollutants, that when combined, produce coloured gases ranging from radiant blue to magenta, from yellow to brown, and from purple to green. Furthermore, Mr John E Thorne says in his Royal Society paper published in 2006, "We are confident that these paintings show an accurate visual record of the urban atmosphere of Victorian London".
As Monet alluded to in the previous quotation he painted only the light effects that he could observe, whether that light was reflected, transmitted, obscured, impeded, tinted, diffused or refracted. The Thames itself with its wide expansive bridges, industrious flotilla of barges and boats, and the Thameside buildings with their imposing gothic facades were of little interest in and of themselves.
In the landscape painting, Waterloo Bridge, sunlight effect with smoke, Monet has employed a split complimentary colour scheme using familiar impressionist characteristics that are unique to his hand. Strong, horizontal and directional strokes of paint across the base of the canvas gives a robust sense of the river surface and its direction of flow. Stronger contrasting tones and larger strokes that decrease as they move upwards and towards the centre of the canvas suggests our proximity to the river itself. Through abstractions of heightened yellow colour value and tone, Monet has given us an intuitive sense of the position of the sun. Whilst invisible to us, being above our field of view, it is evidently low in the sky and rich in warmth at the red end of the visible spectrum.
Rendered in deep shadow, using a mixture of Cobalt Violet, Viridian and Flake White, the bridge itself is little more than a vague abstraction. Essentially only three of the arches are visible with any sense of the great river flowing beneath. As a visual mechanism it breaks the canvas in two and divides the atmosphere between water and air. On the elevated edge of the bridge, barely perceptible shapes suggesting traffic have been created with fractionally deeper tones. Rose tinted smoke in the foreground betrays the presence of a passing barge on the right. Monet has captured the swirling movement of the vapour as it rises from the funnel. Its movement captured in circular strokes is in marked contrast to the horizontal strokes representing the water surface
The formless air that consumes almost half of the canvas is achieved with layers of impasto paint using tints of colour robustly scumbled on top of each other. It forms a crust that is visually denser than the delicate sfumato effect of traditional approaches to painting. Monet’s method for revealing fog and smoke has yielded an opalescent shimmering effect that is impossible to describe by colour alone.
Behind Waterloo Bridge on the left, the ‘Watts Shot tower’ can be seen as an ethereal, spectral shape that emerges vertically from the fog. To its right, a trail of smoke flows right to left from the city sewers along with a fainter wisp of smoke from the chimney stack of the Waterloo flour mill . The direction smoke from the barge, lilting and dispersing across the Thames, and the smoke from the distant chimneys reveal a glimpse of the wind direction at the time Monet stood before his easel.
There is no finer example of ‘sensation’ or the freezing of time than can be witnessed in this particular painting. It is a pinnacle of impressionism.
Between 1899 and 1905 Monet painted a total of 95 canvases for his London Series forming a collection of artistic works without equal. They comprise of nineteen versions of the Houses of Parliament, forty one of Waterloo Bridge and thirty four of the adjacent Charing Cross Bridge.
When exhibited in 1904 they were lauded as a major success.
Octave Mirabeau wrote “It’s a miracle, it’s almost a paradox that one can, with impasto on canvas, create impalpable matter, imprison the sun… to make shoot forth from this Empyrean atmosphere, such splendid fairylands of light. And yet, it’s not a miracle, it’s not a paradox: it’s the logical outcome of the art of M. Claude Monet.”
Colours employed on this painting by Monet (Carnegie Museum of Art, n.d.):
1, Flake white (Lead white)
3, Chrome Orange
4, Cadmium Yellow
5, Chrome Yellow
7, Cobalt Blue
8, Cobalt Violet
(c) Lee Tiller 2021