Monet was born a city-boy, in Paris, but grew up to be the great philosopher-artist of the rural (haystacks) and the bucolic (his lily-pond). Aside from his mirage-like studies of the front of Rouen cathedral, you don’t think of him in relation to architecture, or as having been inspired by the hustle and bustle of city life. Correcting that impression (forgive the pun) is just one of the reasons to visit this deeply satisfying, gently surprising show.
A while ago, it seemed any London gallery finding itself short of cash would schedule a ‘can’t fail’ Impressionism show – until some of them did. The public, it turns out, does know when a pot of paint is being flung at them. But the National Gallery’s show – carefully considered, strongly themed, beautifully paced, and including a number of works rarely if ever seen in London – demonstrates how it should be done. It also rather daringly does it without wall-text. So if it’s important to you to know the title or date of what you’re looking at, you’ll need the audio guide. The show, however, makes perfect sense without.
“I want to paint the air”, Monet declared in 1895, and in works such as Fog Effect of 1875, a painting which I simply fell in love with, there and then, did just that.
His words might put you in mind of Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes, painting the atmosphere weighing down on the land; the painting certainly will. Suddenly Monet stands in a new relation not only to Hockney but to Millet, and Millet’s scenes of stubbly French fields. Other bits of artistic connective tissue, made visible here, link him to Dutch landscape painting, to Turner, and to Whistler’s London riverscapes above all – indeed, you start to imagine that the two of them must almost have been painting away on the banks of the Thames, easels almost side-by-side, even if a good couple of decades separate their river-scapes.
The show also makes you reconsider quite how deliberate and structured Monet’s works were, for all their evanescent, catch-the-moment qualities. He worked out what he wanted to do and how to do it in canvas after canvas, in a series of precise experiments – portraits of backyards, of train stations, of churches and boulevards in different lights, palettes, and weather. What the city and its architecture gave him was life and energy and movement on the surface; the work all goes on underneath. It also gave him steam, rain, snow, fog and pollution – water in every scintillating, evanescent, structure-dissolving form. When he retired to Giverny (the show ends of course with the National Gallery’s own Water-Lily Pond of 1899), you wonder if this was because with failing eyesight, the softer forms of nature were easier to interpret than those of hard architecture. But even there, water was still the key.
Until 29 July 2018