Monet and Architecture is the National Gallery’s monster summer show. It is large, 73 paintings apparently and when I went, 2pm on an Monday afternoon, it was crowded. It is also very good. Like many people I find the architecture thesis a little strained but the title paintings with buildings in them apart from the ones that don’t have them is a little cumbersome. Still if you are fan of Monet, Impressionism or chocolate boxes you should definitely go. There are pieces here from far off museums and private collections that you may very well never see again. I really enjoyed it and here are my highlights.
The show runs chronologically but also thematically, so for example you have Rouen and Westiminster grouped together, but we shall get to that later. The national gallery is rather stingy with the photos of the art work but where I can get them I can show them. To begin at the inevitably crowded first room of the beginning.
The Hut at Sainte Addresse (abvove) is a small battered fisherman’s hut the roof and chimney peeking out over the foliage. Beyond that the sea and in the far distance ships sail past. The sea, plants and the building are all beautifully rendered although there is not the range of colour you see in Monet’s later work. The various elements make a good counter point.
Monet does water and reflections very well and does so particularly well in the picture that I think is the star of the first room, Houses on the Banks of the Zaan. Monet’s titles are all a bit like that and I suspect he never really bothered naming his paintings. Anyway it is this strong pink and green building, superbly reflected in the water. I love the way it is slightly refracted and obscure.
Vetheuil is obviously a fairly inspirational place as Monet painted a number of versions of the church there, all of which are excellent, with again the sublime water reflections. Actually my favourite of these is the winter scene which gives a real sense of cold and has a calming meditative quality to it.
Then you move through the aperture and into room 2.
One of the excellent pieces is the Cliff at Varengeville, noticeable perhaps for its entire lack of buildings, but as I have said before, the title of the show is just an excuse. Worry not though it is an excellent piece. The grassy scrubland is made super-real by the many colours added into it. We are now firmly into the territory of what you may think of as the Monet palette. Likewise the cliffs, leading you down into a blue and turquoise sea which fades away at the horizon into the sky. Very nice. Incidentally this is a painting from a private collection (lucky swines) so you are unlikely to see it in the flesh again.
There is a church at Varengeville and Monet paints it twice, you see it perched atop vertiginous cliffs, the rock of which is brought to life with streaks of colour. The shadows in these paintings are very good and they fine examples of the use of colour tone in painting.
May favourite in this room though, and the one that burst into my vision as I walked through the door was The customs officer’s cottage. You have this promontory of rock sticking out over a fairly rough sea and then this cottage, thrust at your eyes with patterns of red. Kept coming back to this one. None of these paintings are usually housed in UK institutions and it is quite something to see them all together.
Room 3 and we start having the travelling Monet.
There are two pictures of a place called Bordighera which I think is in north Africa and sounds like a member of the Thundercats. There is View of Bordighera and the more interesting Villas at Bordighera. What is interesting to me at leastis he use of dark purple as shadows on the building that act as backdrop to this lush, multi-coloured vegetation. The whole thing is framed by the tower on the left.
There are two views of Anitbes from across the bay, both looking at different lighting effects Antibes from La Salis, you have the mottled water and the distant slightly foggy town all framed by a tree. The light and shade effects on the tree are particularly good. I have to say that when Monet does a series, like this one, I always prefer the ones with stronger tonal contrast, more shade in them, rather than the lighter pastelly ones.
Monet was obviously drawn to slightly beaten up shack like buildings. I can understand the attraction. I myself find rusting brick industrial buildings particularly evocative. Gardener’s House at Antibes is one such shack, a slanting decrepit looking building, mottled with colour, against the sea and with these two trees twirling in front of it.
Just as the way your taste pallet gets more tolerant (sophisticated if you prefer) so I think you’re your visual tastes. I used to find snow scenes dull. I don’t any more. Snow Effect at Giverny has a nice calm meditative quality that many good snow scenes provide. The snows is given texture
You couldn’t have a Monet show without some water lilies and they are duly provided with The Water-Lily Pond. Does a bridge count as architectural? It is a very good painting, allowing you to play the, how many shades of green, game. Its presence, while welcome did smack a bit of fan service. Incidentally you can see a very large Water-Lily in the Tate Modern.
Room 4 and now we get onto the urban section of the show.
The Boulevard de Capucines (or Monkey street as I like to think of it- and before you write in I know it is named after the monks and not the primate) shows what you can do with light and shade. Half the painting is burning with light, the buildings practically yellow, as are the spindly autumn trees. Then the other half in muted purpley darkness, the crow like throngs of pedestrians in black coats used to emphasises the change.
In the same room the other piece I liked was the view of Rouen which seems practically sombre compared to many of Monet’s other works. I particularly like the boats squatting in the water.
Snow Scene at Agenteuil (above) has the qualities of the other snow scenes I have talked about already but is also as these tracks carved through the snow. Get closer and you see the tracks are marked in red, as though someone has wandered that way after suffering some life changing event. From a distance though it just looks like a track.
The Ball-shaped Tree Argenteuil is another masterpieces in the art of reflection, it is all about the way the eponymous tree and the evening sky are rendered reflected in the water. This is also an excellent composition with the picture framed by the tree on the left and the bank of trees on the right.
The Coal-Heaver, is quite good but mainly I just like the title. Heave!
Better are the two paintings of the Gare Sant-Lazare, sitting next to each other with their dark engines and their clouds of steam. I like the use of red to highlight the edges of some of the buildings, and also the ghostly way Monet does people.
Room 6 we get onto the series of paintings that are the centre piece of the show, that of Rouen Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament.
I don’t particularly like the Rouen cathedral series. They are exquisitely painted but I think the composition is fairly poor. You just get this flat front of a cathedral with no depth to it, nothing to invite you in. My favourite of the bunch though was number 57 from the catalogue. There is no other way of identifying it as they are all Called Rouen Cathedral 1894.
The exception to this is The Cour d’Albane, showing the side of the cathedral, it standing monumental on the left side of the canvas and a dark archway leading you under a motely collection of buildings.
The houses of Parliament collection are much better in my view. Done from a distance the Thames provides the perspective that draws you in. Of the three I really like the House of Parliament Sunset, with the sun and its reflection represented in burnished gold, and the Houses of Parliament Stormy Sky, with the sunlight now an angry red.
Calmer in temperament is Charing Cross Bridge Reflections on the Thames. This time the Houses of Parliament are just a foggy shadow in the background and the bridge itself a dark line across the mottled water. It is of course all about the water.
Nearly there folks, we are in the final room now, that of Venice.
The Grand Canal is presented twice and the softer, more pastel shaded version is the poster picture for the exhibition (and appears at the top). What makes these works other than the rendering of the water and the building is the off kilter angling wooden posts (mooring posts for gondolas) in the left of the picture. Of the two pictures I prefer the one with darker contrasts.
Similarly with the Doge’s Palace, there are two and I prefer the darker one, with these dark blues and turquoises playing on the surface of the water and masking the reflection beneath. I particularly like the way he does the shadows on the buildings. There are stripes of muted colour in the darkness.
Finally The Palazzo Contarini, possibly my favourite piece in the whole show. You have this solid looking, celestially feeling structure, facing you across the water front, pompous in its power and wealth, a thing of beauty and awe.
As you may be able to tell I liked this show. You may do too. It is on until 29th July. Book in advance.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.