Smog, glorious smog: how Monet saw through London’s poisonous wealth

Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Effet de Brume is going for a song. I’d say £24m, the minimum price Christie’s expect for this almost minimalist masterpiece, is cheap, at least by the standards of the nutty art market. If an Andy Warhol is worth more than £158m, and a Picasso nearly £103m, what makes a great Monet less valuable? It seems you need modernist edge to smash the market these days. Yet this work has it in spades, right down to Monet’s nod towards the climate crisis.

Monet loved the dirty town that was Victorian and Edwardian London. One reason is in the title of his painting: “Effet de Brume” means “fog effect”. Or given the atmospheric problems of London at the time: smog effect. Coal fires, industrial chimneys and belching steamers on the Thames created that misty, weird light that kept Monet coming back to the Savoy Hotel, where he painted this view in 1904.

But Monet didn’t stop at showing the smog – he also shows where it comes from. Beyond the blue arches of Waterloo Bridge, with its ghostly forms of people and carriages, are two violet columns rising in the pale radiant atmosphere. They are industrial chimneys. The very same stacks – one high and thin, the other more like a brick pyramid – can be seen belching black smoke in John Constable’s 1817 painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. So they had been polluting the sky right through the 1800s to help create the lovely luminescence Monet paints here.

There were other reasons beside the carbonised atmosphere for Monet to like London. It was considered a liberal haven for political exiles in the 19th century. Marx and Lenin lived in the Smoke to escape authoritarian regimes and Monet first stayed in the city from 1870-71 to avoid being drafted into the Franco-Prussian war. The freaky light struck him. The Thames Below Westminster, painted on his first visit, shows Parliament as a spectral gothic smear in a yellowish misty light. He returned when he was old, rich and could afford the Savoy, perhaps because he remembered those fogs.

You could say London was the perfect impressionist city. It was truly modern, the economic capital of the 19th century, centre of a vast empire – and all that wealth poisoned its air. Monet went back to France and sought similarly ambiguous scenes: the misty morning he painted in the port of Le Havre to create Impression: Sunrise in 1872, as well as the steam and smoke of locomotives in his views of Gare St-Lazare.

And yet this vision of a barely-real bridge in a molten veil of light is not a simple realist view. Monet by the 1900s was looking beyond appearances. He was aiming for effects that were more like music – the ambiguous, slowly building tones of a Wagnerian prelude. The mystery that enfolds his Waterloo Bridge can also be seen in his half-real paintings of Rouen Cathedral, his incandescent visions of Venice, and above all in his huge water lily paintings. Monet became a modernist, living well into the 20th century, absorbing philosophical ideas about the nature of consciousness.

The longer Monet lived and looked – and he didn’t die until 1926 – the more he saw reality as an ephemeral, unstable thing: a reflection in a lily pond or, as here, a phantom in a pea-souper. The people in the London fog are going about their lives, yet for Monet in his riverside hotel they just seem like flitting pulses of light, fading away. He was “only an eye”, said his contemporary Cézanne, yet that eye is one of the most truthful in art. This should be in a British gallery. Can’t some generous bidder buy it for our collections?

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