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Monet Talks

. . . But The Lesser-Known Works Are The Real Highlights Of The Bma’s Free-Flowing New Show

LOVE THAT DIRTY WATER: James Tissot's "The Thames" is one of several lesser-known works that almost outshine the marquee Monets. James Tissot. "The Thames," 1876. Oil on canvas. Wakefield Museums and Galleries, West Yorkshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/5/2005

Monet’s London: Artists’ Reflections on the Thames 1859-1914

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Dec. 31

James McNeil Whistler’s “Battersea Reach” (c. 1863) is an odd painting to run across halfway through an exhibition that name-checks the serenely agreeable Claude Monet in its title. Whistler’s canvas is so many things Monet is not. It’s a fairly mundane river scene featuring three ships docked in the foreground right, sails up; another ship cuts toward the left of the canvas’ middle ground. A few figures mill about in the foreground; buildings squat indifferently on the far bank of the Thames.

“Battersea Reach” is not, however, just another naturalistic water scene. Its brushstrokes are far too anxious, its palette an almost abstracted snort of muddy burnt sienna and graying whites, its realization a shift from observational representation toward something else. Whistler’s Thames here is a dirty bathtub of jittery horizontal streaks; his sky billowy cotton smeared into old metal. Even the foreground figures are more suspicions than forms, faint pigment whorls that turn brush-filament fingerprints into inchoate silhouettes. And it—along with Whistler’s other paintings and prints, and many a skosh of other paintings, prints, and photographs from some British, French, and American artists—make this exhibition a curious ethnographic and aesthetic survey of a time and place.

Make no mistake about it: Monet’s London: Artists’ Reflections on the Thames 1859-1914 knows the French Impressionist puts derriéres in les proverbial chaises. The show acknowledges such at its entrance, where Monet’s 1903 “Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Sun With Smoke” greets visitors to yet another intelligently mapped journey through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries. The show winds through a series of thematically arranged pockets—“Geography of London,” “The Thames at London,” “Whistler’s ‘Thames Set,’” etc.—before arriving at the big payoff: a side-by-side hanging 12 of Monet’s “Views of the Thames” series, painted during three travels from 1899 to 1901. It’s a tall, long drink of these popular, pastel-hued scenes of the Charing Cross and Waterloo bridges and the Houses of Parliament, a moment to admire much of Monet’s technique—how he achieves such a smoothly worked surface to paintings that can look like collages of flower petals is quite impressive—even while blanching at his sometimes unimpassioned eye. The broad congeniality that makes Monet images so perfect for posters and postcards is precisely what makes them somewhat underwhelming in person, an undercurrent in the work of a populist desire to please and nothing more.

Fortunately, the show is not just a Monet hit parade—a fact also hinted at the exhibition’s entrance. To the wall right of the Monet hangs Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “The Thames, London” (1882), a realistic dock scene captured at dusk or dawn, smoke climbing skyward from smokestacks and ships moored together. Right here the show outlines its arc—Monet’s London maps the path of aesthetic decisions that go from the Bastien-Lepage to Monet. These evolutions just so happen to document changes in London’s river during the later half of the 19th century, which transformed the Thames from a snaking urban sewer—“The Big Stink” of 1858 closed the Houses of Parliament—into the major waterway of an industrialized nation. (This opening painting pairing also subtly nods at the unspoken presence lurking in the background of the entire show: J.M.W. Turner.)

And the paintings, prints, and photographs that meander through this story offer plenty of refreshing discoveries. Being able to see a large parcel of Whistler’s prints and “Nocturnes” together is an especially welcome treat, as is greeting striking water-scene canvases from Frank Myers Boggs, George Chambers, Hayley Lever, the Fauvist Thames treatments of André Derain, and Camille Pissarro’s gorgeous, almost post-pointillist “Charing Cross Bridge, London” (1890). Better still is James Tissot’s “The Thames” (1876), a wry portrait of three boaters lounging at the stern of a small vessel, one dog sleeping at their feet and another nestled on one of the women’s laps, three bottles of Champagne still uncorked, leaving behind a smoky mess of a busy port in the background—a scene that bristles with a cheeky vibrancy.

The lesser-known stunner of the entire show, though, is John Atkinson Grimshaw’s “The Thames by Moonlight With Southwark Bridge.” It’s a familiar refrain, but reproductions of this painting actually do constitute an injustice. The moon’s glowing orb peeks out from behind a cloud bank, one of the few light “sources” in the painting save the small, twinkling streetlights that dot the bridge like small golden candles. The rest of the creepily tranquil scene is bathed is a foreboding, purplish blue, fine hints of light lining window sills, ripples along the water, masts and clouds like the faint hairs on a baby’s neck. The entire canvas glows as if lit from the inside, much in the way those hot, wet, scintillant colors on some poisonous frogs almost look electric. Monet may get people in the door, but this Atkinson is the work that clings to the retina days after passing through the show.

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