Waterloo Bridge is a remarkable example of Monet’s series of views of London and the Thames, executed during one of his visits to the city at the turn of the century. The artist first travelled to London in the winter of 1870-71 and, having executed a small number of paintings, expressed the wish to return there and devote more time to painting views of the river. His most productive visits to London were in autumn of 1899, spring 1900 and from January to April 1901. During all three stays, Monet took a suite at the Savoy Hotel on the north bank of the Thames, where he would set up his easel on the balcony of his room. This vantage point afforded him a view of the Waterloo Bridge to his left and the Charing Cross Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the distance to his right.
The artist was delighted by the wide spectrum of atmospheric conditions the Thames offered him, ranging from the bright sunshine and its gold reflection in the river, to the dense atmosphere created by the combination of fog and industrial pollution caused by the smoke stacks on the far bank. The constant changes in the weather conditions sometimes disconcerted Monet, but at the same time resulted in a large number of rapidly executed works and a wonderful variety of scenes he painted during this time. As the artist commented in a letter to his wife Alice: ‘The weather is 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’ (quoted in Turner, Whistler, Monet (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 2004, p. 181).
More than any other artist, it was Whistler with his atmospheric paintings of the Thames, that had a profound influence on Monet’s London series. The earliest of Whistler’s London Nocturnes, executed in 1871 (fig. 1), depicts a view across the Thames from Battersea towards Chelsea, described by a contemporary critic as ‘a dreamland of cloud, vapour, smoke; and so little subject’ (Anon., ‘Winter Exhibitions’, in Saturday Review, 28th October 1871, p. 559; quoted in ibid., p. 148). It was precisely this shift of focus away from the traditional treatment of landscape with its topographical detail, and towards the depiction of the ephemeral impression of the atmosphere at a particular time of the day, that had such an intense effect on Monet.
Unlike the rectilinear lines of Charing Cross Bridge that provided a more strictly geometrical framework for his compositions (fig. 2), the arches of Waterloo Bridge, which was often busy with pedestrians and traffic, offered a more dynamic structure for Monet’s paintings. Among the numerous views of Waterloo Bridge, the present work is among the most radical in its viewpoint. Whilst in the majority of other pictures from this series the bridge occupies the centre of the canvas (fig. 3), in this version which is closest to Waterloo Bridge at the Lowe Art Museum in Florida (fig. 4), the bridge is moved towards the top of the composition, eliminating glimpses of buildings and smoke stacks usually visible in the background. This allowed the artist to focus his attention on the river and the play of morning light on the rippling water.
On the occasion of Monet’s exhibition Vues de la Tamise à Londres held at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1904, Octave Mirbeau wrote about Monet’s depictions of Waterloo Bridge: ‘This is Waterloo Bridge, with its dense vehicular and pedestrian traffic, illuminated by a ray of sunshine. It brings to mind a carnival procession, a floral garland in the middle of this dreary and indeterminate space, this foggy river where little tugs work relentlessly and small boats graze, like smoke, along the surface of the undulating water which moves the golden reflections and the blood-red, fractured, radiance of the invisible sun backward and forward’ (O. Mirbeau, quoted in ibid., p. 192).
Fig. 1, James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, 1871, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London
Fig. 2, Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, temps couvert, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Fig. 3, Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, effect de soleil, 1903, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago
Fig. 4, Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, 1899-1901, oil on canvas, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
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