Monet was captivated by London’s fog during his first stay in the capital from 1870 to 1871. Later in life he told the art dealer Rene Gimpel: ‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.’ This misty composition is anchored by carefully positioned horizontal and vertical structures – the jetty in the foreground, Westminster Bridge marking the horizon, and the Houses of Parliament.
Every architectural element in the picture was new at the time. The Houses of Parliament had only just been finished, as had the Victoria Embankment on the right. St Thomas’ Hospital, the low rectangular shape on the far left, was also nearing completion before opening in the summer of 1871, and Westminster Bridge had been reconstructed in 1862. However, Monet is more interested here in broad effects than architectural detail; indeed he has exaggerated the height of the towers of the Houses of Parliament, making the building seem like a fairy tale palace.
Monet arrived in London in September 1870, fleeing from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, and stayed until May 1871. While in the capital he painted five cityscapes: two views of parks, two of the Pool of London (the stretch of the Thames between London Bridge and Limehouse) and this evocation of the Thames looking south towards the Houses of Parliament. He was captivated by the London fog, later telling the art dealer Rene Gimpel: ‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Its regular, massive blocks become grandiose in this mysterious cloak.’
The fog was, of course, largely the result of industrial pollution, and Monet has successfully conveyed the griminess of the city through the subtle play of greys and browns, with pinkish tones in the sky hinting at sunlight behind the mist. Carefully positioned horizontal and vertical structures – the jetty in the foreground, Westminster Bridge on the horizon and the Houses of Parliament – anchor the misty composition. To convey the luminous haziness of the sky Monet employed a scumbling technique, using long brushstrokes that contrast with the broken brushstrokes that suggest the choppiness of the waves and reflections in the water.
However, this is more than a tonal study – it is also painting about modernity. Tugboats chugging along the Thames underline the fact that this is a working river that plays an essential role in the city’s commercial life. Every architectural element was new at the time. Westminster Bridge had been rebuilt in 1862. The construction of the Houses of Parliament had only just been finished, as had that of the Victoria Embankment on the right – the workers on the jetty are dismantling scaffolding that had been used during the building work. The creation of embankments along the Thames and the accompanying new drainage and sewerage system had transformed the riverside. The Thames was now a grand waterway like the Seine in Paris, instead of an open sewer approached by narrow alleyways. St Thomas’ Hospital, the low rectangular shape on the far left, was also nearing completion before opening in the summer of 1871. However, Monet is more interested here in broad effects than architectural detail; indeed, he has exaggerated the height of the towers of the Houses of Parliament, making the building seem even more of a fairy tale palace than it is in real life.
While he was in London, Monet may have seen the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s first Nocturne paintings, which convey the beauty and tranquillity of the Thames at night. But unlike Whistler, Monet did not paint the Thames by moonlight, nor did he paint largely from memory. Monet’s river scene also feels tangible and substantial; it may be viewed through haze, but there is a sense of solidity to the stone and wooden structures that is very different from the dissolving forms in Whistler’s paintings. In this respect Monet’s picture is more akin to the work of Daubigny, his fellow exile in London. Daubigny’s St Paul’s from the Surrey Side, a view of the river looking in the opposite direction, conveys a similar impression of the Thames in the mist, emphasising the industry along the river, with steam rising from chimneys.
This is the only view Monet painted of the Houses of Parliament during his first London trip, but he returned to the subject almost three decades later, painting a series of views of it bathed in mist at different times of day from the vantage point of St Thomas’ Hospital.
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