Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 23, 2006
John House, Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, and Jennifer Hardin Monet’s London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859–1914 Exh. cat. St. Petersburg and Gent, Belgium: Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in association with Snoeck, 2005. 206 pp. $35.00 (9053495452)
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Fla., January 16–April 24, 2005; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 27–September 4, 2005; Baltimore Museum of Fine Arts, Baltimore, Md., October 2–December 31, 2005
Claude Monet. Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight. 1903. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Grace Underwood Barton.

At first glance this exhibition seemed misnamed, since, far from focusing exclusively on Monet, it presented a diverse group of dozens of artists and image-makers including European and American painters, printmakers, and photographers, all of whom were fascinated by the River Thames. A catalogue entry by the exhibition organizer, Jennifer Hardin, chief curator at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, explains that the original motivation for the exhibition was the museum’s own Monet, Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog (1903). Unlike this work, the majority of those shown in the exhibition were not Impressionist, and anyone expecting roomfuls of colorful light and air would have been disappointed. However, after a readjustment of these expectations, this very focused historical account of artists’ views of the Thames and London from 1859–1914 had much to offer.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, and in each room an efficient block of wall text helped to contextualize the works. In the first room, two paragraphs introduced the historical context, explaining that in the nineteenth century the Thames witnessed a surge of commercial and industrial activity, as it became the center of dramatic advancements in urban construction and engineering. London, we are told, was a center of international trade and commerce of huge proportions. The Thames functioned as both its internal circulatory system as well as a conduit to the entire British Empire and the world beyond. Huge sailing ships and, as the century wore on, steamer ships stopped at the deep-water area at the edge of the city known as the Pool of London. Here cargo was unloaded into warehouses and factories, or onto the hundreds of barges that could navigate the shallower waters of central London. Many of the works in the exhibition, including one of its stars, James Tissot’s The Thames (1876), focus on depicting either the Pool or the barges that ferried goods into the center, often in order to emphasize the circulation of commodities that the river enabled.

A testament to British commerce and the center of an Empire, the Thames also became a symbol of everything that was wrong with industrial development and urbanism by mid century. Both the wall texts and John House’s thoughtful catalogue essay vividly describe the squalid conditions of the river: the lack of sewage systems for the teeming city and the contamination of the Thames were largely blamed for the cholera outbreak of 1853–54, as well as for the smells that polluted the London air each summer, most famously in the summer of 1858, now known as “The Great Stink.” (It is a shame that none of the images in the exhibition show this less romantic side of life on the Thames, though surely caricature drawings or other such images exist.) Many images in the exhibition documented official efforts to ease the flow of waste, goods, and persons along the Thames in the years immediately following the cholera epidemic through a series of building projects, including the construction of the Victoria and Albert Embankments and the construction of several new bridges, including a new Westminster Bridge and the Charing Cross Bridge, both represented in paintings, chromolithographs, and photographs from the 1860s on. Along with images of the Thames as an economic artery, the exhibition attested to the contemporary fascination that these engineering projects held for the artistic community.

These two themes are made immediately apparent: facing the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum’s installation of the exhibition was a large, untitled painting of the Pool by the academically trained American artist Frank Myers Boggs. Steamships with colonies of barges clustered around their hulls like barnacles dominate the middle ground of this work, which captures the sense of the river as a busy, smoky highway. To the right of the entrance, James McNeil Whistler’s The Last of Old Westminster (1862) represents the final remnants of the old Westminster Bridge in its lower right corner, but mainly focuses on the construction of the new bridge, with detailed depictions of the scaffoldings, workmen, and construction techniques used. The painting is also noteworthy evidence of Whistler’s early, realist style. It is disappointing that the exhibition made no attempt to contrast this early work with Whistler’s later, iconic representations of the Thames, although several of these, including his famous Nocturne (1870), were present in a later room.

Other works in this first room documented one of the largest construction projects of the century, the Victoria and Albert Embankments. Begun in 1864, they were designed to house viaducts to divert sewage downstream of the city and to support roadways along the river. A watercolor by E. A. Goodall, Construction of the Victoria Embankment (1865), captures the huge scale of the project in its realist renderings of masses of stone and timber. Another recently completed construction project was also represented in the first room, namely the Houses of Parliament. In David Roberts’s oil painting Houses of Parliament from Milbank (1861), the new Neo-Gothic buildings loom above the river, where barges piled high with hay linger near a shore peopled by men watering their horses and women washing clothes along the muddy banks. The completion of the modern embankments, with their roadways illuminated by electric light, were less than two decades away, and yet Roberts’s scene manages to depict the life of the Thames as picturesque. While the label for this work explained how crucial hay (the “gasoline” of its day) would have been to the city, there was no discussion of the strange temporal dislocation the painting acts out: a new building, reviving the Gothic style, stands over a river peopled with sailboats and barges (but no steamships) and with figures who look as if they could easily inhabit a seventeenth-century canvas. Why is Roberts’s scene of a modern Thames decidedly archaic? This lack of critical depth was regrettable in an otherwise well-conceived and rich show.

The second room contained Tissot’s The Thames. The painting represents the risqué subject of two unchaperoned young women and a man on a small boat in the Pool of London. In his catalogue essay, House convincingly traces how the theme of the “fallen women” intersects with the imagery of the Thames; but this particular work is of interest in this context for the way in which Tissot captures the drama of the Pool itself—beyond the threesome, the sea is densely packed with steamships, sailing ships, barges taking on cargo, and thick, black smoke. Here the magnitude of the commerce taking place at the Pool becomes imaginable, and we are able to picture the awe of nineteenth-century visitors who would ferry upstream to see the sight of the world arriving in London. Details such as the North American bison skin on which the trio in the boat lies further remind us of the global scale of commerce that intersects at the Pool.

The exhibition’s integration of different media in every room allowed the multitude of work—paintings, chromolithographs, photographs, drawings, and etchings—to interrelate and play off one another in a manner that exceeded the limitations of media-specific curatorial strategies. Particularly well represented was the history of photography, from Roger Fenton’s 1854 albumen print Waterloo Bridge in the second room to a stunning selection near the end of the exhibition of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1909 photogravures of the river from the collection of the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. Also included are Photochrom images of the river produced by a Detroit publishing company, panoramic gelatin silver prints, and stereographs (viewers and instructions were provided for looking at a few loose cards). The photographs were interspersed throughout the exhibition; and though they seemed to be arranged chronologically (with Fenton’s photograph in an early room and most of Coburn’s near the end) many were also placed coincident with a particular painting, for example, if they show the same location or subject.

The history of printmaking was also well represented. Of special interest was Whistler’s Thames Set, a series of etchings of dockside and river life that the artist made in 1859. These famous etchings are striking in their treatment of space, often representing the foreground and deep space in sharp detail, and leaving the middle ground barely sketched in. The Thames Set was presented along with other etchings representing the Thames, and a short wall text describing the Etching Revival helpfully contextualized these works. The work of Joseph Pennell was also strongly represented in this and the following room. Particularly noteworthy was Pennell’s 1906 etching The Works at Waterloo, which captures the crowded chaos and life of the river, and his debt to Whistler was evident in this context. Unfortunately, Whistler’s aforementioned Nocturne seemed a bit lost in a back corner, huddled between two gorgeous Lithotints by the artist, Early Morning and Nocturne: The River at Battersea, both from 1878.

Monet’s vision of London was represented in the middle section of the exhibit, in selections from his Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament series, as well as in several sketches and paintings made earlier, during visits in 1889, 1900, and 1901. Of these works, the four paintings representing views of the river toward Charing Cross Bridge are perhaps the most interesting, offering a range of finish, and including one unfinished sketch, Cleopatra’s Needle and Charing Cross Bridge (c. 1890). In this work, thought to be from early in Monet’s exploration of this view, the artist did not omit the obelisk, which is missing from his finished renditions of this view. House summarizes the theories scholars have put forth to explain Monet’s editing of the view, from compositional concerns to a desire to omit this marker of British imperialism, but there is no historical account for why Monet chose to leave the needle out of his finished works of the Charing Cross Bridge and river. These works, which were all painted in situ between 1899 and 1904, seem ambivalent about the river as a site of modernity, and again, it is unfortunate that neither the wall labels nor the catalogue essays acknowledged this aspect of Monet’s work.

Around the corner from Monet’s paintings of Charing Cross Bridge, viewers encountered the same view as painted in 1890 by Camille Pissarro. The differences between the two artists’ representations are striking in both style and in their diverging interests: Pissarro’s boats are peopled with hoards of passengers, while Monet’s boats are mere vehicles for the delivery of smoke. Pissarro’s London air is powdery and light, and his focus is on Charing Cross Bridge as a solid piece of workmanship, constructed of solid metal parts logically arranged; Monet’s air is thick and soupy with dense fog, and his bridge something that casts reflections into the water, a surface for the play of light and shadow.

If Pissarro’s view of London seems like a breath of fresh air after all the fog, atmosphere, and moody grey water in the previous galleries (explored not only by Monet, but also in Coburn’s pictorialist photographs and in Whistler’s Nocturne), then André Derain’s raucous views of the Thames in the final gallery felt like sunshine. In this context, the shock and scandal of Derain’s 1906 London Bridge, with its bright orange sky, its grass-green water, and its cobalt blue edifices, was quite palpable. The other canvas by Derain on display was his View of the Thames (1906), and here the water is a buttery yellow, the smoke pink or creamy white, and London Bridge a barely solid dash of green. Derain seems to be working against Monet’s model by painting fog and smoke in a solid, opaque color uninflected by the complexities of London’s changing light. Although the catalog for the exhibition includes four works from Derain’s 1906 visit to London, sadly only these two are on view. This last room also featured the works of a number of minor post-Impressionist artists, but nothing that compared to the two works by Derain, which arguably stole the show from Monet.

Meredith Davis
Assistant Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey