Creating a National Collection #5 Claude Monet

13 May 2021

Hi, my name is Jemma, Curatorial Trainee with the National Gallery and Southampton City Art Gallery. Today I wanted to talk more about the pairing of two paintings by Claude Monet which will appear together for the first time in the upcoming exhibition Creating a National Collection.

Claude Monet was a leading French Impressionist landscape painter during the late nineteenth-century. From the 1860s, Monet and other Paris-based artists came to be known for painting outdoors. This was partly made possible by the development of collapsible metal paint tubes which meant paint could be used more readily outside as well as in artists’ studios. In fact, French artist Eugène Boudin introduced Monet to painting from nature in about 1856. 

As a central figure of the Impressionist movement, signalled by radically departing from existing European art traditions, Monet was amongst a group of artists who turned their attention to people, places, and scenes around them. At the time, it was a dramatic shift to represent subjects of contemporary life in their works – and thus, a rejection of depicting elevated subjects like historical, religious, or mythological scenes or figures. The term ‘impressionists’ was coined by a critic after an 1874 exhibition in Paris, somewhat disapprovingly, perhaps for the modernity and change these artists’ work represented.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Monet returned to France in 1871 and settled in Argenteuil, a suburb on the banks of the River Seine. The town was a popular Sunday-outing destination famous for recreational boating, which Monet particularly enjoyed. Argenteuil became an important source of inspiration; with scenes of both rural and modern life including river views, bridges, and streets depicted in a great number of works by Impressionist artists from the 1870s and 1880s. 

Claude Monet, The Petit Bras of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1872, oil on canvas, bequeathed by Sir Robert Hart Bt, 1971 © The National Gallery London

In the National Gallery’s The Petit Bras of the Seine at Argenteuil from 1872, Monet has instead chosen to focus on a quiet aspect of life by the river, quite different from the bustle of the town itself. Like other suburban towns on the outskirts of Paris, Argenteuil had been partially industrialised, with its railway lines, railroad bridges, and factories, which are evidenced in several other paintings by Monet. Painted in 1872, this work from the National Gallery depicts a small branch of the Seine known as the Petit Bras. A diagonal line of trees draws the eye across a few scattered buildings to the centre of the painting, where the silhouettes of two figures can be seen on the left-hand side. A peaceful atmosphere is reflected in the empty foreground and muted tones, and a variety of brushstrokes were used by Monet, such as the light feathery touches used to depict the trees in contrast to more bold horizontal strokes in the foreground and water. 

The reflective qualities of water were a fascination for Monet and a constant theme throughout his paintings. The water’s effects are likewise captured in Southampton’s picture The Church at Vétheuil, 1880.

Claude Monet, The Church at Vétheuil, 1880, oil on canvas © Southapton Cultural Services

While Monet’s six years in Argenteuil are among the most productive of his career, the years following his move to Vétheuil in 1878 proved to be a very important period of artistic development. He began painting different subjects under changing light and atmospheric conditions including both natural subjects such as waterlilies and architecture including cathedrals and churches. This church at Vétheuil became the subject of such a series, and Monet painted this version during summertime from a boat on the Seine. To capture the changing effects of the light on the water, Monet would have had to work quickly. This can be seen in the rapid dabs of the brush which are particularly noticeable in the shimmering water reflections, and this rapid technique came to be a staple of Impressionist artists.

While the first work discussed here by Monet was bequeathed by Sir Robert Hart to the National Gallery in 1971, Southampton’s Monet was an ambitious purchase for a regional gallery (in 1975). However, its high price depleted the Chipperfield Bequest Fund, which was used to primarily buy old masters, and this moment signalled a change in Southampton’s purchasing strategy. Southampton City Art Gallery hasn’t purchased a pre-1900 painting since buying the Monet. 

Next week, I am looking forward to sharing a little bit about what has been going on behind the scenes to get this particular painting ready for display.  

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