Q&A with Monet Scholar Richard Thomson
Articles & stories

Q&A with Monet Scholar Richard Thomson

What motivated The National Gallery to put together 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture'? Hear what Richard Thomson has to say and discover different ways of reading Monet's paintings.

Credit Suisse: Why did The National Gallery choose to put on 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture'?

Richard Thomson: The idea of an exhibition on the theme of Monet and Architecture is a new one. The National Gallery was interested in exploring an artist who is very well known for his landscape and seascape paintings, but whose work is more fully illuminated by taking an unexpected angle on it.

Which work of art would you highlight and why?

I am particularly pleased to have two paintings of the beach at Trouville painted in 1870 alongside the picture of the Thames with the Houses of Parliament painted in 1871. Both paintings from Trouville were produced only a few months apart. Monet used the same sort of composition with a strong perspective to give a sense of the momentum of the modern world. The paintings make the viewer feel as if another step towards the picture would make him part of it. Monet was quite rebellious painting these two canvases at a time where a scene of promenaders was regarded as too trivial. Also, the style which he used to depict the human shape was not accepted by contemporary art critics, because they felt it was rather approximate. If I were to pick out a series it would be the half dozen paintings of Rouen Cathedral painted in the mid-1890s. 

There are different ways of looking at Monet's work in different groupings and clusters in the exhibition, and what he painted in Trouville and London around 1870 is very different from what he was painting some twenty-five years later with the Rouen series.

Why will this exhibition grab the imagination and attention of the public?

As there are different lenses through which one can look at Monet, there are different ways of reading the pictures within this exhibition, which makes them intriguing for the viewer. Monet used buildings in his pictures for all sorts of purposes. They give a sense of regularity and irregularity of nature. They might give a splash of color, a red roof against green foliage. They were screens on which light played. So Monet used buildings for very pictorial purposes, but also for psychological ones. In the painting 'The Cliff at Varengeville' painted in 1882, he put a small building into a landscape with no figures. But we as humans respond to the building as a shelter or as a destination; in this painting the man-made structure stands in for the absence of people. At other times he used buildings as a mark of modernity by painting a railway station or a new bridge going across a river, because he was conscious of living in a world experiencing constant technological change. 

What does this exhibition tell us about Monet?

What the exhibition does is to try and get the visitors into Monet's mind, into his visual imagination, and to think why he chose a motif. Why did he choose this point of view? It might be because there was a building at the edge of a French river or a Venetian canal and he painted it with its reflection in the water, so that you're thinking 'I can see why he made the decision to paint that'. Sometimes there are pictures where the building is very small, tucked away among the cliffs on the Normandy coast. When you first look at the painting you ask yourself: 'What's this got to do with architecture, where is there a building?' But then the eye gradually finds it as one might find a half-hidden building while walking through a landscape. The way Monet painted often reminds one of the actuality of experience. So we are trying to get the viewer to think and see in a way very close to the way Monet did.