- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

BALTIMORE — Don’t expect to see a lot of hazy, light-filled pictures by Claude Monet at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s newest exhibition. It is titled “Monet’s London,” but the French impressionist is responsible for only a dozen of the 125 works that go on view tomorrow.

A more accurate title for this exhibit, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla., would be “Whistler’s London,” given the large number of works by the Anglo-American and his circle. The real star of the show, however, is the Thames River — the bustling commercial waterway winding through the center of the British capital.

It attracted many artists to its banks, beginning with Canaletto and Turner, who were drawn to its foggy environment and gritty waterfront life.

Emotive, atmospheric paintings by Monet and Whistler are only touchstones in this exhibit, which is largely a history and geography lesson about the river and its changing infrastructure during the late 19th century. Prints, paintings and photographs, including hand-held stereographs, document the building of new bridges, embankments and civic structures, including the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, beginning in the 1850s.

Many of these images show London at its grayest and grimmest. Smoke-belching steamers, coal-filled barges, half-built railroad bridges, murky waters and ramshackle docks capture the city’s working waterfront in full view of its somber monuments.

Skillfully recording the activity are larger paintings by F.A. Winkfield and James Tissot, whose superb boating party puts the viewer right in the ship-clogged river.

By the time J.A.M. Whistler arrived in London in 1859 and started his influential “Thames Set” etchings, the river was notorious for its raw sewage and industrial waste. Its pollution had already caused the “great stink” during the hot summer of the previous year and the evacuation of the Houses of Parliament.

London had long been called the “big smoke” because of the sooty, smelly air. Its legendary fog was really smog, the result of coal smoke and moisture. The misty atmosphere smudged the outlines of the city and channeled sunlight into artistic rays, creating the perfect effects for impressionistic art.

“What I like most of all in London is the fog,” wrote Monet, who first visited the city in 1870-71 to avoid military service in the Franco-Prussian War. He followed that trip with three more from 1899 to 1901, painting almost 100 scenes of the Thames.

The small selection in the show serves as a refreshing break from the more sober, documentary works. Monet used the rounded arches of Waterloo Bridge, the horizontal span of Charing Cross Bridge and the vertical spires of the Houses of Parliament as purely compositional devices for his investigations of light and color.

His serial variations of the scenes allow for a comparison of atmospheric effects without having to concentrate on the specifics of location as required of so many other artworks in the exhibit.

They transport us from dreary, polluted London to a pastel-colored dream world. No wonder the organizers chose to name the show after Monet.

Many of these canvases were painted from the balcony of the swanky Savoy Hotel and then touched up by the artist after he returned to his Giverny studio. In reworking them, Monet said he wanted to make his sun-dappled, river views more “London-like,” revealing how much effort it took to capture a fleeting moment.

Whistler, who also painted the Thames from the Savoy, had both a sharp eye for dockland life and a knack for foggy reverie. Following his small, scratchy etchings and earthy paintings of dismantled bridges and dilapidated wharves is the remarkable “Nocturne,” painted around 1870 during the time of Monet’s first London visit.

In this almost illegible night scene, only tiny white dots and a smidgen of red punctuate the dark blue field. The painting is far more abstract than Monet’s silhouetted bridges and buildings, finished three decades later. It’s too bad more of the Nocturnes weren’t included in the show to play off the impressionist’s work.

Through his prints and paintings, Whistler inspired a younger generation of British and American artists to produce moody, Thames-centered scenes in the early 1900s. His influence is instantly recognizable in the Japanese-influenced prints by Bertha Jacques; blackened etchings and cloud-filled watercolors by Joseph Pennell; and haunting, cropped snapshots of London’s bridges by photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The success of Monet’s London series, exhibited in 1904 at a Paris gallery, was also influential. At the urging of his dealer, Fauvist Andre Derain crossed the English Channel in 1906 and 1907 to paint the boats, bridges and buildings of the Thames in loose, bold strokes of color.

Camille Pissarro, Henri Le Sidaner and Belgian Georges Lemmen also made trips to London to render river views in pointillist dots and dashes, although their works don’t deliver the vibrant punch of Derain’s. Maybe that’s because most French artists never really warmed up to industrial London, considering it up-to-date but ugly.

To their credit, Monet and Whistler, and some of their followers, overcame that preconception. These artists found great beauty in the city’s polluted air and water, and, through many examples in this narrowly focused exhibit, they make us see it, too.

WHAT: “Monet’s London: Artists’ Reflections on the Thames”

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

WHEN: Tomorrow through Dec. 31; Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; first Thursday of every month, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 college students; free for children under 18

PHONE: 410/396-7100

WEB SITE: www.artbma.org

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