“I cannot think of anything else but the cathedral,” Claude Monet (1840–1926) wrote to his wife in 1893, when he was obsessed with capturing in paint the constantly shifting light effects on the western façade of Rouen Cathedral (165).1 Monet produced thirty paintings of the church from 1892 through 1895. Six of these are reproduced in Richard Thomson's Monet and Architecture, the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition of the same title held at London's National Gallery in 2018. The catalogue is a vivid testimony to Monet's chromatic force in picturing the effects of architecture. His series of the Rouen Cathedral is well known, but this book features and analyzes many more of his paintings of buildings. By bringing them together in one publication, Thomson aims to account for different themes that occupied Monet's mind and through which he navigated: naturalism, modernity, tourism, and time.
Thomson treats these themes when describing how Monet dealt with nature in all its moods; with his place as a painter seeking to depict a society in the midst of rapid cultural, economic, and technological change, including in the realm of travel; and with his urge to paint both old and new buildings, the passage of time, and specific moments. These topics are analyzed in the book's three parts: “The Village and the Picturesque,” “The City and the Modern,” and “The Monument and the Mysterious.” Architecture is thus investigated in landscape settings, in city scenes, and as an object in itself. Rather than “architecture,” one should read here “the built environment,” as Monet's paintings of landscapes, cities, and buildings feature cabins, bridges, churches, houses, palazzi, railway stations, and boulevards. Built structures do not necessarily play the main role for Monet; often they are hidden behind trees, covered in steam or foggy hues, placed in the corner of a canvas, or simply blended into the broader landscape or cityscape. In these cases, Monet's paintings seem to be picture puzzles, ordering spectators to scan them to find the buildings.
Monet did not write explicitly about architecture or his reactions to buildings. This book, however, conveys his fascination with the built world as a picturesque element, a representation of modernity, a background, or a contrasting silhouette. This fascination culminates here in the series of monuments he depicted at Rouen, London, and Venice. The paintings span the period 1860–1912, with the monument series created during the years 1892–1912.
Thomson places the artist in the context of his time and explains his singular position, juxtaposing Monet's painterly interpretations with contemporary photographs, posters, or postcards and including quotes from period books and articles. Paintings by other artists showing the same subjects in the same period emphasize Monet's particularity and his compositional choices, his use of colors and vivid brushstrokes.
In the first part of the book, Thomson examines Monet's paintings of architecture in landscape settings in France (Véthieul, Honfleur, Sainte-Adresse, Vernon, Varengeville, Dieppe, Antibes, Vervy, Giverny), the Netherlands (Zaandam, Amsterdam), and Italy (Bordighera). Monet portrayed the morning's effects on a church, on cottages on cliffs, and on a waterfront city. The situation of these built structures is emphasized, and Thomson analyzes these paintings in the context of the picturesque, but without an explicit definition of the concept. In the eighteenth century, the picturesque and the sublime emerged as two aesthetic concepts used to describe and portray architectural experiences in words and images. Both terms have long and diverse histories. Monet, one century later, never explicitly referred to the picturesque, but Thomson uses the concept to explain how the artist integrated the ruined, the vernacular, the ramshackle, the timeless, the combination of architecture and nature, and monuments in particular locales or landscapes. From the point of view of the spectator-painter experiencing architecture in a landscape setting, traveling and moving to find the best composition to frame what he sees, the picturesque is a continuation of the concept's meaning a century before. But Monet was also fascinated by wild places and by buildings in remote or inhospitable landscapes, as Thomson tells us. Given his courage in facing even extreme weather to complete a painting and his urge to depict imposing cliffs or the smallness of human-made structures against the vastness of nature, the sublime would also be an appropriate aesthetic concept to apply to Monet's approach to nature and architecture.
The book's first section further serves to introduce some of Monet's key methods of painting. Thomson refers to Monet's aim to picture effets, the effects of weather, time, or light on natural and human-made sites, and enveloppe, the air that surrounds such sites. As Monet put it, “Je veux peindre l'air dans lequel se trouve le pont, la maison, le bateau” (I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat) (9, 17). In the second part of the catalogue, Thomson continues to trace this painting of effets and enveloppe while examining Monet's depictions of streets, bridges, and city life in Paris, Trouville, Rouen, Le Havre, Argenteuil, and London. Monet created his inner-city pictures from high vantage points, adopting vistas familiar to landscape painters. This means his cityscapes are seen from a distance, while his suburban views are observed from ground level. The latter present the viewer with landscapes through which he or she might imagine walking, whereas the city views keep the spectator at a distance. The well-known series of paintings of the railway station Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris (1877) stand out for their ground-level perspectives, allowing the viewer to imagine him- or herself as a traveler walking through a station filled with steam. Another painting, a view of Paris's Rue de Montorgueil (1878) with flags celebrating the fête nationale, is about city life as seen from a balcony, confining the viewer's movement but optimizing the vista that Monet wished to represent. A view of London's Leicester Square at night, painted in 1901, was made while Monet looked out from a small room in a club; it captures the vibrancy and noise of the metropolis, resonating in the darkness. Thomson sees these canvases as homages to urban modernity.
The third part of the book focuses more attention on individual buildings. Monet tested his serial practice and the different effets of light and enveloppe after 1892 with campaigns in three cities where he stayed for longer periods. In Rouen, London, and Venice he pictured the cities' diverse and characteristic architecture: the French Gothic Rouen Cathedral, the bridges and Houses of Parliament in London, and the Doge's Palace, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century churches, and palazzi on the Grand Canal in Venice. He painted on-site and then finished these series in his studio in Giverny. Thomson describes the viewpoints from which Monet painted: an apartment and shop across from the cathedral at Rouen, a hotel and a hospital in London. He demonstrates how Monet expressed no interest in the function or the historical, social, or cultural contexts of the structures shown, but focused instead on the effects of atmospheric conditions and the passage of time. Monet was frustrated about the time it took to capture a fleeting moment when light fell in a certain way on a building. As he wrote in 1890, “Je suis de plus en plus enragé du besoin de rendre ce que j'éprouveé” (I am more and more tormented about the need to render what I feel or experience) (155).
During the period in which Monet made his first series of the Rouen Cathedral, he observed, “I have wanted to do architecture without doing its features, without the lines” (156). He thus chose to portray his visual sensations rather than to render accurate images of buildings, as other artists did. I would suggest that he treated the built environment the same as a landscape when depicting his experiences, with people almost absent from his pictures. Obsessed as he was with the cathedral, Monet even dreamed that the building was collapsing on top of him. He compared it to an imposing cliff. His nightmare reveals not only his constant struggle and determination to capture what he experienced in an instant but also how these dynamics defined his attempts to depict both natural and human-made structures, which served the same purpose for the spectator-painter. As Thomson notes, Monet delighted in “kaleidoscopic atmospherics and recorded the play of…sunshine, fogs and reflections, using the characteristics of the built environment as his theatre of light” (155). He did the same in his series focused on natural elements.
This book is a welcome contribution to the vast array of Monet studies, thanks to its new approach, and to the history of architecture and the city for its focus on understanding the built environment through the lens of experience and perception. As Monet stated, “Everything changes, even stone.”