Think of Monet and you may find that your mind naturally gravitates towards water lilies. Unsurprisingly so – the French artist painted over 250 studies of the plants before his death in 1926. ‘Monet & Architecture’, now showing at The National Gallery, rejects this commonplace affinity of Claude Monet with water lilies by presenting the artist’s relationship with buildings.
Light, haystacks, colour, the Impressionist movement: all of the above come to mind sooner than construction, when one considers Monet. And The National Gallery’s attempt at disrupting the popular understanding of Monet is key here: for that ambition is probably the greatest success of the exhibition.
The show, which started this month and runs until the end of July, is a grand display, featuring 75 paintings from his earlier career in the mid-1860s through to the public display of his Venice paintings in 1912.
There are also some real gems, including a completely charming 1878 painting entitled ‘The Steps’ which depicts a romantic French courtyard (interestingly, one of the only paintings in which enclosed space is represented in the exhibition – more below) and ‘Snow Effect’ at Giverny (1893) which demonstrates the artist’s unparalleled talent for creating atmosphere in his works.
However, the exhibition’s conviction that Monet was absorbed by ‘scientific constructs’ of architecture is largely unsupported. Throughout the display, Monet appears more absorbed by nature and, as a secondary consideration, architecture alongside it. But it is difficult to be convinced by the notion that he was any more interested in architecture than he was in, say, animals or marketplaces. To the contrary, an overwhelmingly large proportion of the paintings feature water: beaches, canals, ponds and rivers, but his intrigue in reflections is overlooked.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some corkers on display, or that the exhibition is futile. ‘Monet & Architecture’ closes with a comparative display of Monet’s study of The Houses of Parliament (Sunset, Stormy Sky and Fog Effect) and here his talent is, ironically, eye-watering and induces a great patriotism of London and its magnificent Palace of Westminster. Similarly, his studies of Venice (San Giorgio Maggiore and The Doge’s Palace) are formidable. Through these studies, we arguably see Monet at his best (in this exhibition at any rate).
Sign up for the Week in Review Email
Every Sunday: Read the week’s most read articles, watch Iain Martin’s Authors in Conversation series, listen to The Reaction podcast & receive new offers and invites.
However, it is safe to say that associations of Monet and water lilies have been popularised for a reason: the artist’s real fascination was with nature, and not man’s intervention in the form of architecture.
Monet & Architecture runs until the 29th July at the National Gallery