The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture
In Monet’s pictures of Paris, the buildings he chooses to represent often express time, that is, they are telling you that you are absolutely in the now.
In 1867 the French state organised a universal exhibition in Paris which drew millions of people to the city. And that seems to have sparked in Monet an interest in painting the modern city, no doubt hoping to sell them.
When Monet arrived in Paris the city was in transformation. The Baron Haussmann was tearing down the old city and cutting vast new boulevards right through its heart. They all look remarkably alike, these great, long straight avenues lined with stone apartment buildings, but they were the symbol – if you will – of modern Paris; the most modern city in the world.
When we look at Monet’s paintings of the modern urban environment, it’s very useful to look at them in pictorial terms. When Monet painted the Quai du Louvre in 1867, he painted both the view into the distance, but also the traffic and pedestrians on the Quai, going across the picture space. In 1873 painting the Boulevard des Capucines, again from a high vantage point, he looked down on the busy Boulevard at an angle, so one gets a sense of the movement and the thrust of the busyness on the street. In 1878, painting the Rue Montorgueil with the flags fluttering on the facades each side of the street, he painted from a viewpoint several stories up looking down into the crowded street and there’s a strong perspective up the Rue Montorgueil, filled with the people and the flags, but that pictorial structure and that perspectival drive gives a sense of the momentum of the modern city.
The Gare Saint-Lazare was particularly interesting to Monet because it was the train station he used. He lived out to the west of Paris at Argenteuil. When he came in to the city, and when he left, he passed through the Gare Saint-Lazare. It was a particularly modern structure with its great steel roof, and just beyond it the huge steel Pont de l’Europe, one of the great bridges of Paris. And so everything there bespoke modernity, absolute contemporaneity, and what Paris was becoming.
Monet’s interest in the modern city and Paris as a dynamic contemporary environment really lasted little more than a decade from the late 1860s to the late 1870s. Thereafter he painted in London around 1900/1901, but those pictures are very much concerned with atmosphere, fogs and pollution, and never again was he to go back and work in Paris.