Martin Oldham in 1843 Magazine:
Claude Monet is known and loved as a painter of light and mist, rivers and sea and water-lily ponds. It is doubtful whether he would have recognised himself as a painter of architecture. “Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat,” Monet said in 1895. “I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist.” He was reasserting the Impressionist creed: it was subjective experience that mattered, not objective description. Inconsequential corners of nature were as worthy of his attention as any of humanity’s grand designs. And yet the National Gallery has launched an exhibition called “Monet & Architecture”, which argues that buildings in his paintings are an “overlooked aspect of Monet’s work.”
The gallery has assembled an impressive array of works, some famous, others rarely seen pieces from private collections. “Architecture” is perhaps too weighty a word; the exhibition considers the man-made environment in its broadest sense – there are humble shacks here alongside cathedrals – and distils what buildings meant to Monet and what purposes they served in his paintings. The argument the curators weave is subtle rather than a radical revision; it teases out some of the contradictions in Monet’s art, but without fully addressing the implications of these insights. We learn, for example, that Monet maintained a lingering allegiance to the Picturesque tradition, a romantic, conventional genre of landscape painting which Impressionism ostensibly rejected as unnatural artifice. We also find that, though the Impressionists famously embraced modernity, Monet’s preoccupation with contemporary urban and suburban subjects proved relatively short-lived. But when he did paint buildings, he did so in order to evoke history and the human presence in the landscape (so much for those inconsequential corners of nature). We might reach the conclusion that here is an artist who, in terms of his subjects, looked to the past as much as to the future.
But if we consider how he painted, rather than what he painted, a more familiar Monet emerges: an artist radically redefining painting, using colour and brushwork to capture an increasingly personal vision. Buildings played a valuable role in his compositions, providing structural frameworks which he played off against the irregularities of nature. In some of his great “series” paintings, such as those of the Houses of Parliament or Rouen Cathedral, the details of the building are dispensed with. They become a silhouette or screen on which he explored the effects of changing light and weather. Seen this way, the theme of architecture proves to be a surprisingly effective lens through which to appreciate Monet’s distinctive technique, and his mastery of light and colour.