L ondon’s bridges – those solid structures loping over the slow turmoil of the Thames – have long fascinated artists. During the 19th century, Whistler and Turner delighted in their forms. And, at the turn of the 20th century, they proved a malleable muse for Claude Monet.
Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, an ethereal pastel to be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale this February, treats its subject like a dream. It is specific and otherworldly, a London painting that is universal. The work was completed in 1899, at the crossroads of epochs, an almost modern subject that has not quite departed from its elemental aspect.
A bridge, of course, can be many things: a link, bond or escape; a reprieve from either side; architectural and engineering feats; status symbols and follies. In Monet’s work they also had several manifestations. There were oils with long gestations – created compositionally in London and finished at home in northern France. And then there were his pastels, created en-plein-air on the riverbank – or rather the window of the Savoy Hotel – spontaneous in execution and fleeting in subject matter. This pastel of Waterloo Bridge is perhaps the pinnacle of this natural form; it delights in its ephemeral almost imperceptible beauty. It’s a feeling as much as a picture.
‘The weather was magnificent but unsettled… I can’t begin to describe a day as wonderful as this. One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad. No country could be more extraordinary for a painter’
Writing from London to his wife Alice, Monet remarked: “The weather was magnificent but unsettled… I can’t begin to describe a day as wonderful as this. One marvel after another, each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad. No country could be more extraordinary for a painter.”
We often think of Monet as a pastoral artist, but he rejoiced in his three painting trips to London at the turn of the century. “He was definitely a country guy at the end of his life. But before that he loved London and returned on numerous occasions, it inspired him, the city fired his imagination,” notes Holly Braine, Sotheby’s director of Impressionist & Modern Art. The artist’s fascination for the capital features in Monet: Places at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, an illuminating new exhibition (22 February - 1 June) dedicated to Monet’s cyclical return to certain cherished locations, settings which he believed possessed an eternal “genius loci” – a distinct and magical aura.
Waterloo Bridge is a calm picture of opposites: stone and water, the jutting cityscape and the fluid shapes of the river and sky, and a quiet palette – yellow, turquoise, lilac, white – that is far removed from what might have been, in another artist’s hands, the soot and grime of an urban palette. It is a poem to the state of equilibrium, even freedom.
And the Thames has a history of celebrating such conditions. When the river froze over in the 17th and 18th century, “frost fairs” were set up to take advantage of the unrestricted space. Gin, hot chocolate and gingerbread was sold, there was dancing and ten-pin bowling. An elephant was even paraded across the ice at the last fair in 1814.
Monet’s pastel is suffused with the sense of the enigmatic hinterland. “We sometimes forget about the innovative element of the urban scenes created by the Impressionists,” Braine observes. “They integrated contemporary elements like industry and bridges and flavours of the metropolis that were counter to the 19th century art but they were still working in a landscape tradition.”
And as a feature of the landscape, bridges have long offered artists a certain licence to philosophise. In 19th-century Edo (now Tokyo), Utagawa Hiroshige – an inspiration to Monet – created woodblock prints of samurai and pensioners pausing on humpback bridges. More recently, the epic schemes of Christo and Jeanne-Claude have turned bridges into set stages.
But with this work, Monet is doing something both old and new. Waterloo Bridge is both landscape and abstraction. As Braine notes: “It is a work bookended by his classic Impressionist style, embodied in the haystacks, and the virtually colour-field work he made in his garden at Giverney.” It stands – remarkably, elusively – somewhere in between.