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Exhibitions: Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery

Arts | By Huon Mallalieu

Glory be! Here we have an exhibition with ‘Monet’ in the title offering more than the usual two or three paintings by the master, a lot of padding and a room of contemporary for ‘relevance’. 

This one does exactly what it says on the placards: there are 78 paintings by the man himself, and nothing else. Only the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris can beat this for numbers.

The show is a joy. Go and see it, and, since it will surely pull in the crowds, take advantage of any National Gallery member’s privileges, any early openings or late closings that you can. More than a quarter of the exhibits come from private collections around the world; and so this is not just an assemblage of well-known favourites, although there are some. It demonstrates that, for all his persistent preoccupations with the elements, earth, air, fire and water, and, above all, light and time, Monet was a far more varied painter than might be assumed.

The curator, Richard Thomson, professor of fine art at Edinburgh, has made a superb selection, even if the show’s title is not quite right. Monet was not interested in architecture, as in the construction of buildings; rather in the patterns buildings make and the structure they gave his compositions. One comes to realise how structures such as the towers of the Houses of Parliament are etiolated and stretched to suit his purpose, and how little actual architecture is shown in his Doge’s Palace or even Rouen Cathedral.

In order to give it up-to-the-minute credentials, we are intended to be ‘challenged’ in a belief that Monet was merely a painter of haystacks and water lilies; although, for many, he is quite as likely to be the Impressionist poet of London fog, the painter of palazzi and the recorder of Rouen. However, the show is given a very interesting, and perhaps genuinely new, intellectual underpinning. It links Monet’s approach to the English construction of the picturesque a century earlier – the link being the romanticism of the Anglo-French School, which had become the semi-official art of the Restauration governments.

There is one painting here that does look like a strong link, whether Monet knew it or not. This is the 1872 Argenteuil, the Hospice, a lovely, old, mellow, brick building which is scarcely visible behind a screen of joyously flowering elder trees. It could easily have been painted by Constable, but in Hampstead and fifty years earlier.

The show is organised chronologically, taking us on journeys to the Channel coast, Holland, along the Seine to Paris, the South and, of course, to Rouen, London and Venice, provoking a whimsical vision of him as an Impressionist Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque

A great bonus is to see several sequences. Monet worked on several canvases together, moving from one to the next as the light moved across or around a building – or indeed a haystack. Here Professor Thomson convincingly argues that two of the Rouen Cathedral canvases are just such a pair. Similarly, we are taken to and through Argenteuil Bridge as it was being built, to emerge on a stretch of river where the principal architecture is a boat’s sails. 

All this theory is by the way. Think, and enjoy the show, with your eyes. 

Monet & Architecture is on at the National Gallery until 29th July 2018. Book your tickets here,

This story was from May 2018 issue. Subscribe Now