Issue Number: 94
The Unknown Monet
Monet famously cast himself as a conjurer of colour and light, never mentioning his graphic work. But as ‘The Unknown Monet’ shows, drawing played a crucial role in the way he composed his paintings. Here, Debra Mancoff describes how working in pastel helped him paint the London fog.
Claude Monet, Twilight, c.1865–70.
On 27 January, 1901, Claude Monet wrote to his wife, Alice, saying that he had arrived safely in London and was eager to resume his work on a series of paintings that he had begun the previous winter. But his crate of materials, including the unfinished canvases, was delayed at customs. Monet was visiting London to paint the fog over the Thames, a challenge that had intrigued him for decades. This was his third visit to the city in less than fifteen months and, in his passion to capture the fleeting effects of the low light filtered through the damp mists that built over the chilly waters, he began to sketch in pastel, the only medium he had to hand.
At first, he dismissed the sketches, complaining to Alice, ‘I would rather be gainfully employed’. Observation was key to Monet’s method, and he felt compelled to keep his hand and eye engaged with his chosen motif. Despite his reservations, and his admission to Alice that he was ‘unaccustomed’ to working in pastel, he took up sketching with his characteristic intensity: ‘It keeps me busy and may even help me.’
There was, in fact, little truth in Monet’s protest that he was ‘unaccustomed’ to using pastel. Throughout his long career, Monet turned to drawing to record ideas, plan projects, and study the atmospheric effects that were central to his artistic expression. While he was just a teenager in Le Havre, he earned his earliest recognition for caricatures in pen and ink of politicians and local celebrities. He always claimed that he did not work in colour until the marine painter, Eugène Boudin, convinced him to buy a box of oil paints and work in the open air, but even as a plein-air painter, Monet made drawings. He used black chalk and pastel to study motifs, such as the wind-filled sails of little boats on the water. He filled sketchbooks with summary impressions in pencil, especially when he was exploring a new locale. The convenience of working in pastel no doubt appealed to Monet; more than oils, pastel gave Monet the speed he desired when he worked in the open air. Throughout the 1860s, Monet made pastel sketches of the sky – at twilight, in the low light of evening, of clouds looming over the Seine in Rouen – that developed his sensitivity to the most subtle change in effects.
In the autumn of 1870, Monet and his young family left Paris to seek refuge from the Franco-Prussian War. Together with Camille Pissarro, who was also in residence for the duration of the conflict, Monet visited the city’s museums and galleries. They favoured the modern masters of English landscape and, while Constable’s plein-air painting of nature was familiar to French audiences, Turner’s work was a revelation. It seemed to the two artists as though Turner had painted the essence of light itself. It was also the first time Monet had encountered London’s fog. During his nine-month stay, Monet completed only six works – three were views of the Thames. He developed a subtle, opalescent palette and, in the ensuing years, he applied the lessons he had learned painting the Thames to the more familiar subject of the Seine.
Over the years, Monet made several visits to London, and although he repeatedly confessed his desire to ‘try to paint fog effects on the Thames’, he did not take up the motif until September 1899, when he and Alice visited their son Michel, who had come to London to study English. Monet had not planned to work, but their room on the sixth floor in the Savoy Hotel overlooked the river, so he sent his family off to see the sights while he studied the view from the window. At the end of October, he and Alice left London with a few of what he called pochades (rough sketches), before he returned alone in February the following year to begin his project in earnest.
Monet had hoped to secure the same room as before, but Princess Louise had requisitioned it to house wounded veterans from the Boer War. So he took up residence in two rooms on the fourth floor, designating one as his studio. Looking to the left from the window, downstream over the Thames, Monet saw Waterloo Bridge (opposite). To the right, he could see Charing Cross Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the distance. His letters to Alice detail his busy schedule, working on several canvases over the course of the day as the sun travelled from east to west. At first, he felt daunted by the thick winter fog that muted the light, but as his observations deepened, he noticed the subtle colours in the illuminated mists and learned to work in rapid response to the fleeting conditions. One sunny morning, he wrote to Alice, complaining that the lack of fog drove him to despair. But as the morning fires were lit along the banks and the smoke mingled with the rising mist, he ended the letter abruptly: ‘Now, my darling, I must leave you, for the effect will not wait.’
Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, c. 1901. Pastel on paper, 30.5 x 48 cm.
As a plein-air painter, Monet’s practice was to tackle his subject on the spot. He left London in April 1900 with 35 views of Charing Cross Bridge and 41 of Waterloo Bridge respectively and, after making minor corrections in the studio, he made a return trip to London the following January, in 1901, to finish them. However, with his canvases held at customs he felt stranded, and working in pastel forced him to forge a different relationship with his motif. Made of powdered pigment bound with gum, pastel delivered colour in its full and immediate brilliance and it did not have to dry to reveal its full effect. Monet took full advantage of this quality, exploring the range of possibility within a single hue, as seen in the tonal gradations that he used in Charing Cross Bridge, 1901.
Unlike oil, pastel could not be corrected, and practice steeled Monet’s confidence as he made bold, sure marks, which are seen in his rendering of the structure of the bridge in the deepest shades of turquoise engulfed in clouds of aqua mist. Above all, pastel allowed Monet to draw in colour. His response to his subject was as intimate as it was immediate. In Waterloo Bridge, 1901 (opposite), he quickly delineated the contours of the broad supporting arches, but worked the shadows and reflections shimmering beneath them in gentle, modulated strokes. In another sketch of Waterloo Bridge (page 45), he used light, feathery lines to indicate the boats on the water and the span of the bridge with its speeding train; these details are softened by the pale blue-violet mists that rise from the water and intermingle with the yellow-tinged smoke dissolving into the atmosphere.
By the time Monet’s canvases finally arrived at the end of his first week in London, he had finished 25 sketches in pastel, and he confessed to Alice: ‘It is thanks to my pastels, made swiftly, that I realise how to proceed.’ Through the directness of drawing in colour, Monet had captured his impressions with unprecedented immediacy and heightened his sensitivity to the evanescent variation of tone within a single hue. As he completed his ‘Londons’, his sharpened skills rose to the challenge that defined his series, an homage to the elusive beauty of the London fog.
The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings
, Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 17 March–10 June. The exhibition has been organised by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts.
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