The Water-Lily Pond (1899) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery is the first show dedicated purely to Claude Monet to be staged in London for 20 years and provides an opportunity to see the artist’s work afresh.
As one of the founders of Impressionism – the term derives from the title of one of Monet’s own paintings, Impression, soleil levant – the artist epitomized the movement with his free brushstrokes, bold, complementary colors and tendency to paint "en plein air" (i.e. outdoors). Monet is typically known for his landscapes, his scenes of nature and of course the water lilies at his home in Giverny, France.
Yet there’s another side to Monet’s work, where he turned his canvas towards the architecture of villages, towns and cities. The National Gallery’s exhibition celebrates this body of work by showcasing over 75 of his paintings.
Three years in the making, Monet & Architecture exhibits work from the mid-1860s to the early 1900s, and takes us on a tour of Europe, from Normandy to Venice. Monet skillfully interprets humble dwellings and grand structures alike, using their form and colors in his compositions.
To understand more about the exhibition, we spoke to Rosalind McKever, Harry M. Weinrebe Curatorial Fellow at the National Gallery. Here she tells us about what we can expect from the exhibition and offers a taste of what we can learn about the artist.
The Gare St-Lazare (1877) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London
What is "The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture" about?
It’s an exhibition entirely of paintings by Monet and we're providing a fresh approach to a very familiar artist, who we would normally associate with nature, landscapes and water lilies. Instead we’re looking at how he used buildings and bridges and other aspects of the built environment within his paintings.
Why did the National Gallery want to do this exhibition now?
We're always looking for new art historical approaches and Professor Richard Thomson from the University of Edinburgh approached us with this research-led idea, which we thought was a great opportunity to rethink this artist. There also hasn't been an exhibition dedicated to Monet's work in London for about 20 years now.
What is the process of taking an idea and creating it into an exhibition?
It starts with the art and the idea but then there's a lot of logistical thinking. Then we look at the works we'd like to include, contact the owners and try to bring together the selection of work we want to show. Then we think about the themes, and how best to display the paintings and tell our visitors about them.
What can visitors expect from the show? Where will they be taken to?
In terms of where the works have been painted it's really a journey around Europe. A lot of the early works are from Normandy in France where Monet was raised, and of course Paris. The artist also travelled, so there are paintings from Zaandam and Amsterdam in Holland, which he visited in the 1870s and there are also views of Antibes in the south of France and the Italian Riviera from the 1880s. He went there to capture that Mediterranean light and there's a completely different feel to architecture down there. Also in the show we have the three great city series that Monet painted later in his career, of Rouen, London and Venice.
What was the selection process for the paintings in the show?
We chose works that really help us think about what Monet was doing when including architecture in his paintings across his career. We did this through finding groups in which he’s painting the same building. For example in his later works, where he's making paintings in series, we chose works that show a real variety in the light and weather he's captured.
The Thames below Westminster (about 1871) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London
What do these paintings tell us about Monet that other shows might not have previously revealed?
The first thing I was surprised by when looking hard at these pictures up close is Monet's skill as a draughtsman. We're so used to thinking about the artist in terms of color, his water lilies and his nature scenes. But in these works he's painting very complicated structures like bridges with precise angles and lots of straight lines with incredible clarity and it feels as though he's done all that incredibly quickly.
What's gone into the design of the show? How has it been curated?
We kept the design very simple as we wanted to give Monet the limelight. The show is broadly chronological and divided thematically into three sections. The first focuses on 'The Village and The Picturesque', which includes views of Normandy villages and cliffs and of Antibes. Then it's 'The City and The Modern', which is images of Parisian streets and railway stations and the port at Le Havre and gives a real sense of modernity. The final section is called 'The Monument and The Mysterious', and that's paintings of Rouen, London and Venice, to see how he's capturing the light between him and these different buildings.
What have the challenges been working on this exhibition?
The main challenge is borrowing the works, because these paintings are very beautiful and people don't wish to be apart from them for that long. It's a big ask but we've been lucky with museums and private collectors being very generous in allowing us to bring these works together. It means our visitors will be able to see a great overview of Monet’s career, through the lens of just one surprising theme.
Why do you think his more architectural paintings have been overlooked in exhibitions before?
I'm not sure they've been necessarily overlooked – the Rouen Cathedral and Houses of Parliament pictures are well-known – but no-one has previously brought them together in this way before. Of course Monet is most famous for his landscapes and his water lilies, but often what's surprising is when looking at familiar paintings with this focus you notice the architecture more and the role the buildings are playing in the piece. For instance you notice the buildings’ structure and color within the composition, but also the feelings in these pictures, the way the buildings evoke memory and stand in for human presence.It's a wonderful opportunity to focus on that.
Snow Scene at Argenteuil (1875) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London
Monet was an Impressionist painter, how does he convey that style through these paintings?
As an Impressionist painter, he's often painting outdoors so these buildings crop up in many of the landscapes. He's also using the colors of the buildings. Impressionists were interested in capturing color in a very direct way. Often the inclusion of a particular building would give Monet a complementary color. For instance, in a landscape that's very green, if you have a red roof of a building, that's really going to light up the composition in an interesting way.
In what way does the show highlight the relationship between art and architecture?
It's interesting the variety of architecture Monet painted. From very humble cabins on the edge of a cliff to the really grand structures of Rouen Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament in London. What's fascinating to me is that he uses them for a variety of purposes – he doesn’t seem too fussed about them as pieces of architecture, it's more that he's using them to produce his own art.
The Museum at Le Havre (1873) by Claude MonetThe National Gallery, London
Do you have a favourite painting in the show?
There's one painting that when we hung it, I was really overwhelmed by how wonderful it was. It's called The Wooden Bridge, Argenteuil and it shows a bridge that is then reflected beneath in the water. In the top half of the composition all of the lines are beautifully straight and it's very complicated. Immediately beneath you have the reflection in the water where the equivalent lines are done in a way that turns the straight lines into squiggles and it's remarkable.
What do you hope visitors to the show will take away?
I hope they will think differently about Monet and see that he's a varied artist and not just about water lilies. Also, I hope it encourages people to look at paintings in our collection and other galleries in a fresh way, where the focus is turned on the role of buildings within a composition.