Monet the Astronomer?

Monet the Houses of Parliament

Is Monet’s painting of the Houses of Parliament above an accurate painting of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed commenting on it because I wanted to sit down with the original paper.

Woman with a guitarI tend to be sceptical of claims that art can be read scientifically. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a guitar? The Monet paper had the added problem of stating that the time of painting could be dated. Astronomy is usually a terrible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dating, which is why the paper ‘Solar position within Monet’s Houses of Parliament‘ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good interdisciplinary thinking.

The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use historical material to eliminate a lot of speculation. Monet’s life is well studied and many of his letters survive, so they are able to place the period during which Monet was in London. To examine the painting more closely they also needed to calculate where Monet’s vantage point was. This was made easier as they knew the building he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using architectural drawings and Monet’s description of the room they had a set of likely candidates. They then tried to match this to the view from the painting.

The view of Parliament from across the river today.

Unsurprisingly they found the scale wasn’t entirely linear, which means that parts were compressed or stretched, but not fantastically so. Allowing for problems with shadow and backlighting they found that Monet’s paintings were a reasonable match. This gave them the tools they needed to put a time to the paintings. The building profile placed Monet on a second floor covered terrace of the former Governor’s Hall at the hospital and this is corroborated with the historical evidence which says he wanted to be outdoors to paint.

The part I struggled with most was fixing a specific time to the painting and that’s because I’m a terrible painter and know next to nothing about art. Baker and Thornes have read round this too, and have found that it took Monet about forty-five minutes to paint some of his smaller paintings. This means larger ones like the one above which are about two and a half times bigger should take two and a half times longer. They acknowledge this, but they are also able to make some observations about the painting process.

One is that Monet probably didn’t start painting with a blank canvas. Instead he’ll have had a sketch of the Houses of Parliament already on the canvas and he’d fill in the colours as the time to paint came. The other is that the actual sun bit would only require a few minutes to paint. Indeed with it moving a considerable distance he couldn’t dawdle while painting it. The third point which clinches it for me is that they also show through the historical evidence that he came back to London later to try and finish some of the paintings. He was aware the effects of the light would only be similar for a few days in the year and that’s what he was after and so why he had returned. That pretty much makes it certain that timing was important to the paintings. he made and would suggest they were done in London rather than filled out from imagination at home.

The paper certainly makes a strong argument that Monet completed his work from observation in London. Baker and Thornes now argue that if the positioning is accurate, how should we interpret the colouring? It seems odd to suggest he went to all that trouble to make the painting accurate and then decided to make the sun a bloodier red. Similarly there’s a depth to the shadows which may indicate effects of atmospheric pollution. i thought the swirliness was a Monet thing, but if you compare it so some of his other work like Das Seinebecken bei Argenteuil or Der Bach von Robec (see below) there’s a lot of unnecessary grimness in the Parliament painting, unless the view the short distance across the river was indeed grim.

More Monet

I’d have to talk to a chemist to see if there really was much hope of identifying substances from spectral analysis like the paper authors claim. I’m open to the idea it might be possible as the authors have shown careful consideration the the number of different disciplines they’ve used. Regardless, it does seem Monet has very accurately illustrated the reality of living in an industrial city at the end of the nineteenth century.


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