Light, time and the Thames

Monet and his contemporaries were fascinated by London's river, but as a new BMA exhibit reveals, it is his masterpieces that still create the greatest ripples.

October 02, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

No matter how many times one sees the paintings of Claude Monet in reproduction -- in books and on everything from postcards and coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets and computer screen savers -- one is still never quite prepared for how luscious his works really are in person, so to speak.

So, coming upon the dozen Monets that form the core of Monet's London: Artists' Reflections of the Thames, 1859-1914, the delightful Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition that opens today, is akin to experiencing a revelation. With their glowing colors and marvelous, puddling brushwork, these fabulous works conjure up an uncanny world out of time that leaves one breathless.

Take the magical, dream-like images of London's Waterloo Bridge that Monet painted between 1899 and 1903, which depict that grave and dignified structure over the city's perpetually fog-bound River Thames as it rises out of the water like some ghostly apparition. Or stand before the spires of London's Parliament buildings, which creep upward through the damp, misty air even as their glimmering reflections burrow into the river's cloudy depths.

Monet's paintings of boats, bridges and government buildings along the Thames at the end of the 1890s culminated a decade of radical experimentation in which he created meticulously observed serial portraits of haystacks, poplars and the Gothic cathedral at Rouen, among other subjects.

Yet Monet might never have taken up the Thames as a subject, had the river not already attracted the attentions of so many of his illustrious contemporaries, including James McNeill Whistler, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Camille Pissarro and others whose works form the bulk of the BMA show.

Like Monet, they all sought to capture the river's variable moods and aspects, as well as the bustling traffic on its waters and over its bridges. Their works provide an important historical context in which to view Monet's masterpieces, but they also clarify how truly avant-garde Monet's approach was, even in comparison to his most gifted contemporaries.

"Often, we're so focused on the individual major figures of 19th-century art, we don't see them as part of a larger whole," says Jennifer Hardin, chief curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the show originated.

"Putting Monet's work into strong historical relief by presenting him in a context where he's surrounded by his contemporaries actually emphasizes the originality of his achievement," Hardin adds.

Subtle shifts in time

In the BMA show, the Monets occupy a separate gallery, and the impression they make on modern viewers surely is no less marvelous than the impact they had when they were first exhibited as a group in 1904.

That historic show, at the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris, turned out to be his greatest commercial success, and no wonder: The paintings have a palpable physical presence that makes them object lessons in the visceral effects of pure color and light.

In contrast to contemporaries like Tissot -- represented here by his 1876 painting The Thames, a sparkling boating scene that lends the then-heavily polluted waterway the romantic charm of a Venetian canal -- Monet was less interested in creating "realistic" likenesses than in undertaking a rigorous visual analysis of his subject. For him, recording precisely calibrated intervals of time was nearly as important as the depiction of space.

In London, Monet often worked on half a dozen canvases simultaneously, positioning them on his hotel balcony from whence he could paint the same scene at different times of day or night and under different atmospheric conditions.

Monet was probably influenced by contemporary scientific developments in photography, such as the Lumiere brothers' invention of the motion picture camera in 1895, which captured a multitude of nearly identical images spaced closely together in time.

He may also have been aware of Eadweard Muybridge's stop-motion photography, which for the first time allowed images to be made of previously unobservable sequences of movements such as the galloping gait of horses. Neither Muybridge nor the Lumieres are included in the show, though both were among Monet's notable artistic contemporaries.

Complex reflections

Monet's "scientific" approach to visual phenomena differed from the social documentary approach of most of his contemporaries. They focused on the colorful characters associated with waterfront commerce -- sailors, dock workers, bargemen -- or on picturesque renderings of the river's bridges, buildings and embankments, many of which were considered the height of modernity in the 1890s.

Whistler also documented scenes of urban life, particularly in his brilliant series of etchings and lithographs of the poor, working-class neighborhoods around the London docks where his studio was located. The BMA show includes more than 20 of these masterful images, which constitute a mini-exhibition in themselves.

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