Monet: The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog)
The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog) is the work of art discussed in the following, accompanied by some information regarding the artist. This oil on canvas painting, housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was painted in 1903 by Claude Monet and is exemplary of the Impressionist Movement of the era. The work is actually one in a series of Monet paintings using the Thames River in London as subject (Tucker 258). The range of Monet’s art exists today, as it did in his own era, to confirm his status as a foremost master of Impressionism, a style that sought to convey an immediate impression of a scene rather than a more realistic or specifically significant representation of meaning (Connolly 6). Emphasis on lighting, brushstroke techniques, perspective, and use of color are the defining elements of Impressionism and, as will be discussed, Monet’s skill in these renders The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog) an ideal example of the movement.
Oscar-Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840, to Claude Adolph Monet and Louise-Justine Aubry. By the time the boy was five, the family had moved to the ocean town of Ingouville and, by 1851, he began school. In little time Monet gained a local reputation for creating caricatures of the villagers, and his talent for art expanded. Perhaps the most notable influence on Monet as an artist came when, as a young man, he was introduced to the plein air style of painting by Eugene-Louis Boudin. A forerunner of Impressionism, plein air departed from artificial representation and was based on the study of nature as captured directly (Klein 8). Nature would always dominate in Monet’s works, as in his early years he focused on the seaside of Le Havre and, while drawn to Paris, used as his subjects the gardens and natural settings within the city. As a young artist, Monet faced the same problem affecting all artists: finding a public. Nonetheless, and by the 1860s, Monet had established himself as a leader in a progressive movement that disregarded classical themes and historic subjects, and chose instead to explore countryside scenes of ordinary life and natural landscapes (Brodskaia 9). He would spend years seeking his true interests, experimenting with capturing the issues of his day as well as with form and style. What was consistent, however, was Monet’s attraction to sunlight as a dominant element in painting, and how light alone created perception of varying quality.
By the 1880s, Monet was exhibiting his work to increasingly larger and more prestigious audiences. He had a talent for marketing, and his dual exhibit with sculptor Henri Rodin was a great triumph, one also raising the bar on the prices art could command (Jensen 129). There had been difficulties, not unexpectedly, in achieving this status; in 1873, the critics, disliking Monet’s style, borrowed from the title of his Impression: Sunrise to name the new movement of which they disapproved (Brodskaia 3). Nonetheless, the name took hold and validated Monet’s standing as, if not the sole creator of Impressionism, certainly one of its most gifted founders. His career would continue on a trajectory of growing esteem and he continued working well into his 80s, before his death in 1926 marked for the world the loss of an artist and pioneer of immense standing (Connolly 45). Monet’s body of work is impressive for its sheer size, variety, artistry, and for the evolution in technique he explored in establishing Impressionism as a legitimate force in art.
This evolution is a striking element of Monet’s The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog). In plain terms, and well before he began his series based on the Thames, Monet was renowned as the master of, not merely light, but extreme, white sunlight. His technique to this point was, in fact, focused on presenting the power of sunlight, and effect he achieved through careful layering of pale colors, employing the white grains of canvas, and using the wooden end of the brush to mix the two (Berg 203). The Parliament painting is, conversely, a study in shadow. Then, it is important to note that the significance of the work relies in part on the date. In 1903, the degree of abstraction within Impressionism was by no means universally applauded. Moreover, the daring here also lies in Monet’s choice of subject. In the years from 1901 to 1903, Monet would devote himself to studies of the Thames, usually centering on the majestic structures of Parliament. If European audiences were beginning to embrace Impressionist views of natural scenes, it was a very different matter to apply the form to a man-made structure, and one of powerful presence. Nonetheless, the exhibition of the series was a huge success, and the London critics compared Monet’s capturing of the Thames with Turner’s achievements in conveying iconic English scenes (Strauss, Orlove 154). The master of Impressionism had satisfied classical tradition while remaining true to the movement, and this in itself is an extraordinary achievement. Through this series, as well by means of a long and consistent application of his art, Monet managed to gain acceptance for it, and gradually infused Impressionism into the canon of respected art.
The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog) is, in no uncertain terms, a striking work that presents a realistic impression within a dreamy, and somewhat ominous, vision. No sun is present in the sky; instead, a muted field of orange within the blue and gray of the right background corner conveys a sense of sun, an effect enhanced by a slight reflection in the river. Instead of his customary wash of sunlight, the scene of the painting is masked in a shadowy haze, blurring the buildings and making ghosts of the barely discernible boaters. This gives the illusion that the work lacks color, but the reality is that Monet employs a broad range here. A vast range of blues, grays, lavenders, oranges, and pinks is in play, but he layers in a way that emphasizes the darker tones. The earthy shades are dominated by the leaden colors of his sky, and in this approach Monet is able to actually capture the thick, opaque quality of a dense, foggy atmosphere. That he provides hints of a suppressed sun only reinforces the visual weight of this sky and scene.
Perhaps the most extraordinary effect Monet achieves here is the relation between the Thames and the sky. They mirror one another, not only in appearance, but in mass and substance. Monet’s river is essentially nothing more than a sedate version of the air above it, even in terms of reflection of light. There is a feeling that both are identical parts of the environment, yet Monet does not entirely rely on the effect. Light brush strokes on the river’s surface provide a crucial difference, particularly in contrast to the coarse strokes elsewhere. As “heavy” as the landscape is, this technique alone adds a shimmering quality both defining the river as a moving, rippling force and conveying an aliveness to the scene. It may be argued that this aspect of the Thames is what creates the realism within the Impressionism; Monet is presenting a feeling of a scene more than the scene itself, but he nonetheless bows to the basics of nature and earth in the composition. This is also what shifts the tone of the work, and in a remarkable way. There is no escaping the gloom of the view taken, just as the Parliament spires, essentially only in silhouette, reinforce the mythic quality of the painting. Monet’s Thames may be a river to another world, in the shadow of ancient monuments dedicated to the gods. However, the minimal play of light on the water, the boat in the foreground complementing the other to the left in the middle ground, and the slender quality of the boats themselves reduce the heaviness of the impression. It is dark and perhaps ominous, but it is still human and alive, just as the abstract patches of orange affirm light and life beyond the shadow.
It is a tribute to Monet as a founder of Impressionism, and one so devoted to the power of light, that he would in his career evolve to explore the power of shadow. This is the greatness of The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog), in that the master is confident enough in the truth of the artistic expression to move it away from its usual elements. Then, the work accomplishes something more, in fusing realism into Impressionism in a way true to both. In seizing upon the fog, Monet finds a natural force as great as the sun itself, and in The Houses of Parliament (Effects of Fog) his mastery of Impressionism opens up another world of sight.
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Strauss, S., & Orlove, B. S. Weather, Climate, Culture. New York: Berg, 2003. Print.