Having a single work by a master on display in your museum can be a major attraction in its own right. Have nine of them — especially from a single series — and you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and event.
That’s the case with “Monet’s Waterloo Bridge: Vision and Process,” which features nine paintings created from 1899 through 1901 by French Impressionist Claude Monet at the Savoy Hotel in London and completed back at his studio in Giverny that are on display through April 28 at the Worcester Art Museum.
Local residents who have long had the honor of having a 1903 work from the series on permanent display at WAM have been basking in the limelight of having themselves surrounded by a strong representation of the series, much in the way Monet saw them when he created them in two rooms at the Savoy. The unique coupling is possible through loans from the Milwaukee Art Museum, Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Art Institute of Chicago, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Denver Art Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“This was something that my predecessor, John Seydl (now the director of the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) thought would be interesting to have here at WAM, since our Waterloo Bridge is very familiar to our patrons,” said Claire Whitner, Director of Curatorial Affairs and the James A. Welu Curator of European Art. “It’s been in the collection since 1910, which means we bought it as contemporary art, which is pretty cool, but also because, when Monet started working on this series in the 1890s, the way he wanted the paintings to be understood was all together — that you would see multiple paintings from the series at once.”
While many have seen Monet’s Waterloo Bridge paintings as capturing a romantic period of London’s past, Monet himself was aiming to recreate the feeling the city’s legendary fog left on its residents and visitors.
“What he’s trying to do in his paintings is not to paint a landscape that creates a replication of space but rather to capture that space at a particular moment when the light is a certain way, and when the atmosphere is a certain way, and to be able to convey that, the idea was that you would need to see all of the series, or many paintings from the series,” Whitner said.
Monet would start his work day by painting the Waterloo Bridge, then Charing Cross Bridge and later in the day, the Houses of Parliament. “All three of those subjects are 19th century building projects,” Whitner said. “It wasn’t this romanticized version of an older London but rather the London that was coming to be in the Industrial Age. Something Monet loved about London, which he first lived in, for a longer time, in the 1870s, during the Franco-Prussian War, was that he loved its fog.
“He said the fog is what made London this euphoric city — there was something stable about your view of London, it was always changing because of this dense fog that would completely obscure the landscape, or it would partially veil the landscape, a coy quality he contrived about the fog. He only ever lets you see parts of it.
“To paint fog is incredibly difficult. You have to capture that translucence, that sense of materiality of the sky that is in some way totally transparent and some ways translucent. He was really looking for how do you capture the essence of the fog and what that’s doing to the light at any given moment but then finding harmony in the series, so that the series itself felt it was of a piece.”
Hearing that explanation immediately made me ask if the way artists have tried to capture the light of Provincetown over the past century or so originates in and has a direct correlation to Monet’s work in London.
There’s some question on the exact year each painting in the series was made because of the way Monet would move between canvases. “He was working multiple canvases at the same time — 12, 13 at the same time,” Whitner said. “He had them all out in the room he was staying at in the hotel and was kind of chasing the fog. So (In recorded interviews with Monet), you hear a lot of frustration in his voice when he talks about this series and you can understand why. Every moment that he feels like he’s getting closer to the fog, the fog shifts.”
American art critics of the time period who had championed Impressionism became confused when word of the series reached these shores. “The critics were having a hard time explaining this new approach to painting that Monet was dabbling in — this plein air plus studio time — because Impressionism had become synonymous with working outside of the studio and so to have this suddenly become something between work that was being created on the spot and work that was being created in the mind’s eye, was something new,” Whitner said. “And Monet, at this point, is a man in his 60s and he was clearly the representative of Impressionism as a movement. So, for Monet to spend time in the studio working on paintings that he started several years prior was revolutionary.”
Because of this ongoing process, dating each of Monet’s Waterloo Bridge paintings “is a little tricky,” Whitner said. “There are some paintings that resemble each other and a bit more than others. Unlike the Monet we are used to as being ‘the plein air painter, the artist who would paint entirely outdoors and that was the finished product,’ with the Waterloo Series — with the London Series, in general — he shipped a lot of these paintings to Giverny, his studio in France and hung onto them for several years before releasing them for sale.
“Some of them start in 1900, but you’ll see the dates on the paintings have a real range because he would actually, in his studio, he would sometimes bring paintings that looked alike together and would make some choices about how to change them based on how they looked next to each other, he’d base some of the changes on his own memory. There’s an interesting blend of Monet attempting to gauge what he saw in the moment and then reconciling that with an image in his mind’s eye.
“You can say he’s capturing the essence of a time of day that he was first working the canvas, but then he goes back to his own memories of this place and the fog. He wanted to make sure it was representative of the time.
He was really looking for how do you capture the essence of the fog and what’s that doing to the light at any given moment but then finding harmony in the series, so that the series itself felt it was of a piece.”
Along with the nine paintings on display, there is an accompanying three-touchscreen multi-media aspect initially created for the exhibition’s first stop at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester to add to viewer’s understanding of the London of the period Monet was painting and the evolution and process of his work.
The first uses sliders to allow viewers to see the various stages of Monet’s work utilizing the results of a week-long study that used infrared radiation technology developed by the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Art Conservation Department of Buffalo State College.
“They used these scientific, analytic tools and equipment to get inside the painting a little bit and understand not only the layers beneath the surface but also understand the surface a little better,” explained Lauren Szumita, Curatorial Assistant for Prints, Drawings and Photographs at WAM.
“You have these sliders where you can see what the conservators saw. You can see that underneath the finished painting there are these lines, these vertical lines that would have been extra smokestacks that Monet initially painted but then decided later on that he actually wanted to eliminate in the final product. That’s something that you can’t see with the naked eye.”
Another slider allows the viewer below the surface layer, past varnish that was probably applied by someone other than the artist. “Monet actually really disliked varnish because the varnishes that were available at that time yellowed and discolored and he was all about color,” Szumita said. “This (feature) illuminates the presence of varnish that implies that it was applied later by a conservator.”
Another tool allows viewers to explore Monet’s use of colors. “It can pick out certain pigments — say yellow — a little bit more clearly from the other colors in there. It allows you to look at the surface more closely and reveals the contrast of the texture of paint a little more so you can get a better sense of the type of brushstrokes that he worked with that were really quick and choppy. There was a special brush that he used that allowed him to apply those patches of paint really quickly.”
A second work station allows visitors to experiment with their own color selections with Monet’s work to get a better understanding of how different color combinations would have affected the end work.
The closest anyone would have come to seeing the majority of the 40 or so Waterloo Bridge collection together would have been in 1904 at Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris. “But once they started to sell off, they each went to their individual studios and private collections,” Witner said. “We were the first public museum to buy one of these Waterloo Bridges directly from Durand-Ruel, which is very exciting.”
Having spent over 50 years of my life romanticizing about one of these works, hanging at WAM only five minutes from my house, I can heartily confirm and convey you’ll not want to miss this opportunity.
(“Monet’s Waterloo Bridge: Vision and Process” remains on view through April 28 at the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Massachusetts. For more information, call (508) 799-4406.)