The Savoy was too sumptuous, complained Claude Monet, returning to the hotel in 1904. His rooms — one for sleeping, one for easels, canvases, palettes, with a balcony over the Thames — were too distractingly plush. He had been happier painting with his knees up to his chin in his ‘bateau atelier’ (a rowboat studio) on the Seine at Argenteuil. Or hidden behind a screen in the ladies’ changing room on the first floor of Monsieur Levy’s dress shop opposite Rouen Cathedral.
Or in the little room for storing bottles in a nightclub with a view of Leicester Square. The place was a sale boîte — ‘dirty dive’ —according to Monet. But what a wonderful, smudgy, night-on-the-tiles, street-lamps-and-sudden-downpour picture he produced. Mornings in Savoy comfort were followed by afternoons painting in the sparser surroundings of St Thomas’ Hospital. From his vantage point south of the river, Monet painted 21 views of the Houses of Parliament.
Monet the observer of buildings is the subject of the National Gallery’s spring exhibition Monet & Architecture. He used architecture for his own ends. He wasn’t interested in the pomp of palaces and bridges, as Canaletto was; or picturesque ruins, as Panini and Hubert Robert were, or buildings as expressions of taste, character, nostalgia, as in the art of Edward Bawden and Osbert Lancaster. Monet re-imagines buildings, not brick-by-brick, but light-by-shade. ‘Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat,’ he said. ‘I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat — the beauty of the light in which they exist.’
In London that light was sulphurous. Smoggy, mustard-gas light. Murky dawns, mudlark sunsets. On a fine, clear weekend, with no smoke, no barges, no industry, Monet would throw down his paintbrushes and sulk on his balcony. Urgh. What was the point? ‘What a dreary day this damned English Sunday is, nature feels the effects, everything is dead, no trains, no smoke, no boats, nothing to inspire.’ Sunshine was sabotage.
He couldn’t have cared two hoots about the English countryside. There are no Sussex haystacks or Kent poplars. He could do those sorts of things in Normandy. ‘I adore London,’ he wrote, ‘above all what I love is the fog.’ He sent daily bulletins to his wife Alice at home in Giverny. The fog was now brown, now olive green. ‘Always dark and impenetrable.’ That ‘mysterious mantle’ he called it, wrapping the shoulders of Parliament, Charing Cross, Waterloo Bridge, Cleopatra’s Needle. In Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather’ (1899-1903), you expect Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam to scull through the arches in their ‘dirty and disreputable’ boat, as in the opening scene of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.
When Monet exhibited 37 of his London paintings in 1904, the critics responded in an ecstasy of purple prose. ‘As unreal as the realm of Queen Mab,’ wrote Gustave Khan in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Monet’s setting suns were ‘Gomorrahean’. The Thames might have been the Styx. ‘This Empyrean atmosphere, such splendid fairylands of light,’ wrote Octave Mirbeau. Monet put it plainly. To his friend and champion Gustave Geffroy, he wrote: ‘One day I’m happy with them, only to find they stink the next day.’
When the light was right he painted in a ‘frenzy’. Blinding sun, smoke from a thousand chimneys. ‘God it was beautiful.’