2022 – Smog, glorious smog: How Monet saw London’s toxic fortune | Claude Monet

cWaterloo Bridge, Loud Monet, Yvette de Brum wants to sing a song. I would say that £24 million, and the reserve price Christie’s is asking for this semi-simple masterpiece, is cheap, at least by the standards of the crazy art market. When Andy Warhol is worth over £158m and Picasso around £103m, what makes the great Monet worth less? It seems like it takes a modernist edge to crush the market these days. But this work contains everything, right down to Monet’s allusion to the climate crisis.

Monet loved the filthy city that was Victorian and Edwardian London. One reason lies in the title of his painting: “Effet de Brume” means “effect of fog.” Or looking at London’s air problems at the time: the effect of smog. Coal fires, industrial chimneys, and burping bowls on the Thames created that strange, hazy light that kept Monet back in the Savoy Hotel, where he painted this landscape in 1904.

But Monet doesn’t just show smog – he also shows where it came from. Beyond the blue arches of Waterloo Bridge, with its ghostly figures of people and carriages, two purple columns rise in the dull and bright atmosphere. They are industrial chimneys. The mounds themselves—one tall and slender, the other more like a brick pyramid—can be seen emitting black smoke in John Constable’s 1817 painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. So by the 19th century, they had polluted the sky to help create the beautiful bright Monet colors here.

Besides the charred atmosphere, Monet had other reasons to admire London. It was considered a liberal haven for political exiles in the nineteenth century. Marx and Lenin lived in smoke to escape totalitarian regimes, and Monet initially remained in the city from 1870 to 1871 to avoid being drafted into the Franco-Prussian War. A frightful light struck him. The Thames below Westminster, painted on its first visit, shows Parliament as a ghostly gothic smudge in a yellowish misty light. He came back when he was old and rich and could afford Savoy, probably because he remembered those mists.

You could say that London was the quintessential impressionist city. It was truly modern, the economic capital of the nineteenth century, and the center of a vast empire – and all this wealth poisoned its atmosphere. Monet returned to France and sought similar ambiguous scenes: the misty morning, which he painted in the port of Le Havre to make an impression: the sunrise in 1872, and the steam and smoke of locomotives in his views of the Gare Saint-Lazare.

However, this vision of a barely real bridge in a veil of melting light is not a simple realistic view. Monet looked beyond appearances in the twentieth century. He aimed for influences that were more like music – the vague, slowly building tones of a Wagnerian prelude. The mystery surrounding Waterloo Bridge is also evident in his near-real paintings of Rouen Cathedral, his glowing visions of Venice, and most notably in his giant water-lily paintings. Monet became a modernist, lived well in the twentieth century, assimilated philosophical ideas about the nature of consciousness.

The longer Monet lived and watched it—and died only in 1926—the more he saw reality as something ephemeral and unsettled: a reflection in a water-lily puddle or, as here, a ghost in pea soup. In the mists of London people go about their lives, but to Monet in his riverside hotel they appear only as flickering pulses of light that fade away. His contemporary Cézanne said it was “just an eye”, but this eye is one of the most honest in art. This should be in the UK fair. Can’t a generous bidder buy it for our collections?