The rooms of this exhibition were dark and crowded and hushed, and the paintings on the walls seemed to radiate light, like glowing lanterns. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person drawn to see it by the painting on the poster – Venice painted so beguilingly in hazy, shimmering blue and violet.
Monet is the great painter of air. He paints what we see but also what we sense – what it feels like to be in that place, to have the sun or rain or smoke in your face, to feel the wind and the temperature. He masterfully visualises the insubstantial, transient elements of experiences – so it seems curious that he was so drawn to paint architecture. This exhibition beautifully explored this relationship in his art between the solidity and structure of buildings and the ephemeral airiness of weather and atmosphere.
In many paintings, the distinction between these dichotomies melts away; the buildings are almost part of the air itself. In London and in Venice he painted the landmark buildings with no land to mark; they seem to be hovering between water and sky. Critics compared the effect to that of music. In The Houses of Parliament, Fog Effect, the industrial fog of the polluted capital becomes a fairytale mist, from which the Neo-Gothic features of Parliament emerge like the castle of Camelot. The canvas is overwhelmed by a multiplicity of different blues, subtly and delicately arranged with resolute brushstrokes. In Venice, Monet was as entranced by the “unique light” as he had been by the London fog. The buildings are not so much buildings as decorative forms, sparkling with the clear Venetian light of Titian and Bellini.
The abstraction of architectural forms is at its height in the Rouen cathedral series. Here the effects of the changing light are projected onto the cathedral, which serves as a kind of screen. The building is a necessary tool to display the real subject of the painting – the light. From afar, the form of the cathedral is evident, but as you get closer the forms dissolve into patches of pure colour. The paint is applied thickly, each brushstroke a flicker of light or shadow playing on the stone surface. Staring at the canvases this close up, the images take on a new kind of beauty, abstract and otherworldy. Stepping back, the cathedral once again comes into focus. Perhaps in response to the expansion of photography, Monet uses architecture to create a painted effect that is impossible to reproduce.
Not all the buildings in these paintings are as ethereal. Monet also used architecture to anchor his compositions, adding solidity to counterbalance transience, or to direct the eye across the canvas. In From the top of the Cliffs, Dieppe, the tiny red-roofed buildings atop the cliff add a sense of scale, giving us a striking image of the grandeur of nature, almost in a Romantic sense. At the same time, the way that they protrude so neatly from the grassy clifftop offsets the hazy horizon to their right, accentuating the softness of the water and so also the delicacy of nature.
In a similar way, the building in The Church at Varengeville refuses to dissolve into the air. Spire pointing heavenwards, it pulls our eye up the bulging cliff face to the blue sky above. Take the church away, and the painting becomes horizontal, the sky as a sort of framing border. With the church, the cliff appears almost like a pyramid, rearing above us, and it is all about the vertical. Monet is playing with the effects of shapes and forms in a way that likens him to Cézanne.
Monet’s buildings serve often as a reminder of the human presence within the natural world. The paintings produced from his time in Paris explore a man-made landscape, where the water of the Seine and the trees planted along the streets are framed and organised by the dominating structural forms of the city architecture. These images capture the hustle and bustle of modern city life, and the striking presence of the buildings plays a crucial part in creating this dynamic.
In Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, Monet captured its energised rebuilding after the Franco-Prussian war, but was also drawn to the effects of weather on the architecture. The buildings in Fog Effect fade into an autumnal mist; they remind us that this patch of earth is not desolate but inhabited, which softens the scene’s bleakness. A delicate plume of smoke from the chimney on the right alerts us to the industrial modernity of the setting.
In 1895, Monet said in an interview: “Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat … I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist.”  It is with this that I would summarise this beautiful exhibition: Monet’s architecture is never the focus of the images he created. Whether the buildings dissolve into hazy light or stand like monuments, they are always painted with regard to the air and atmosphere that surrounds them. These paintings were a joy to look at – they demonstrate Monet’s sensitivity, subtlety and genius.
La Grand Canal (featured image): https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Monet_Grand_Canal_Legion_of_Honor
Houses of Parliament, Fog Effect: http://mfastpete.org/obj/houses-of-parliament-effect-of-fog-london/
The Doge’s Palace: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4377
Rouen Cathedral, West Facade, Sunlight: https://www.wikiart.org/en/claude-monet/rouen-cathedral-west-facade-sunlight-1894
From the top of the Cliffs, Dieppe: http://arthistorynewsreport.blogspot.com/
The Church at Varengeville: https://www.wikiart.org/en/claude-monet/the-church-at-varengeville