Monet and Architecture

John Westbrooke at a dazzling show that isn’t really about architecture

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Claude Monet isn’t usually thought of as an architectural painter: compare his shimmering views of Venice with the detailed representations in a Canaletto townscape and you can see the difference.

And yet, as the new exhibition at the National Gallery makes clear, he didn’t devote his whole career to poplar trees and water lilies. He struggled to work out new ways of seeing and depicting his subjects: the subjects themselves hardly mattered, but the structures of buildings were as good a way as any of providing structure to a painting.

Indeed, a few of the early paintings on display, chosen to show him following an older tradition, look downright drab: the 18th-century Lieutenant’s House at Honfleur, and the windmills near Zaandam, show an appreciation of architectural form, but little pictorial excitement.

However, when he moved to Vétheuil, down the Seine from Paris, in 1878 his work started to take on the character he’s still known for: painting the same places over and over, trying to capture not just the buildings but they way they look in fleeting light, in fleeting seasons.

“Church at Vétheuil” shows the village in full summer, across the river, glowing cream and gold in the sun, the church and holidaymakers in boats reflected in dappled strokes on the water’s surface. But the same scene in winter is in blues and whites, with a hint of pale sunlight catching surfaces but failing to warm them. Another version, painted in 1901 long after his wife had died there, is calmer and greener, the reflections less disturbed. Same architecture, different feeling.

Similarly, when he visited Varengeville, on the Normandy coast, he repeated motifs: a customs officer’s cottage, dating from Napoleonic days, standing solidly against a foaming white sea, or silhouetted on top of a gorge in “Path through the Cliff at Varengeville”, or almost lost in the curve of the cliff seen from above. In each, the man-made shape is contrasted with raw scenery, but which comes across more strongly depends on where you’re standing.

It wasn’t all villages and cliffs, though. Impressionist painters were men of the modern world, happy portraying towns and cities, particularly burgeoning Paris. Monet’s paintings of the resort town of Trouville show broad steps leading from the hotels down to a bright beach, but in Paris he paints the Gare St-Lazare with dark trains belching white steam up towards a glazed roof. Yes, there’s rural peace at the other end of the tracks, but you have to picture it for yourself.

“The Coal Heavers”, though, has something unusual: people. Neatly framed under the arch of a bridge, they carry sacks of coal from a barge to shore. They’re silhouetted too, but they’re larger and more active than the diminutive, shadowy figures who appear against most of the architecture Monet shows, and the action looks back-breaking. It’s a rare hint that all may not be well in the modern metropolis: this is the coal that powers industry, and that fuels the trains bringing suburbanites (like Monet) into town.

More typical, though, are the glorious views of the facade of Rouen Cathedral, painted from a changing room above a fashion shop across the way, and gathered together from a variety of countries to form the high point of this exhibition. This is what Monet and architecture is really about: not so much the buildings but the way they dissolve in light and shade and colour. The rising or setting sun picks out details in one picture that vanish in the next, making the whole thing look insubstantial, in a way that a Canaletto never would. That they are artefacts hardly matters: he painted series of poplars and haystacks with the same intensity of observation.

He painted London too, having first visited the capital in 1870 with his wife, refugees from the Franco-Prussian war. He stayed at the Savoy, working from a balcony (every room overlooking the river had one then; all gone) and painting Charing Cross bridge or, looking the other way, Waterloo bridge. A friend also got him into St Thomas’s Hospital on the South Bank, from where he was able to paint the Houses of Parliament.

London was a challenge: he depicted the outline of Parliament repeatedly, but usually it’s just a silhouette against the setting sun. His main concern wasn’t recording its neo-gothic design, but finding a way to render the famously smoggy London atmosphere that enveloped it – a reminder of just how hazy and grubby the city could be in the heyday of empire, not London as we know it.

The effects of light and water are also at the heart of his work in Venice, painted on a visit in 1908. Mist and reflections sometimes swallow up his subjects here too, though mostly you can make out the buildings comparatively easily.

It was his swansong in the wider world, though. He went home to Giverny in northern France and, twice widowed, troubled by cataracts in his eyes and disturbed by the Great War (he could hear the guns from his house), devoted the rest of his life to producing his final great series, the flowers and the water-lily pond in his garden. The last architecture you see in his work is the Japanese bridge he built over the pond, inspired by Hokusai prints. Sometimes he paints the wooden structure; other times it’s so covered in a swathe of greenery it’s hardly a bridge at all.

So no, he didn’t really paint architecture, he painted anything; it was an excuse to depict visions in snow, sun, fog, water, air, and that’s what makes this exhibition so dazzling.

Monet and Architecture is at the National Gallery until 29 July 2018. Tickets £20, cheaper online (there have been some grumbles about the price, but it’s 25p a painting). A welcome innovation is a free booklet containing the captions that you normally have to crowd around the wall to read.