American artists dominate a new exhibit at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art despite the title "Monet's London." Their works are among 100 paintings, etchings, prints and photographs by 50 artists, including Claude Monet. All of these works offer artists' interpretations of London during the late 19th century when the city was at the height of its political powers and in the throes of the industrial revolution.
Monet's London may be the title of the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, after all Monet's name is guaranteed to draw a crowd, but it is the transplanted American artist James Whistler who gets the most wall space. His painting, "The Last of the Old Westminster" is the first work you see upon entering.
Though Whistler is best known for his beautiful portraits and his abstract nocturnes, this canvas highlights the painter's knowledge of engineering details. Elizabeth Easton, the head of the Brooklyn Museum's department of European painting and sculpture, explains:
"This is a scene of scaffolding essentially on a river with lots of bustling activity,” she noted. “What people may not know is Whistler's father was an engineer and a builder of bridges in Connecticut and also in Russia. And so Whistler's painting of the scaffolding on this bridge is something that he was very familiar with."
A few years before Whistler finished this work in 1862, London had experienced what was called "The Great Stink," when the Thames River, overflowing with raw sewage, produced such a stench that Parliament shut down. It triggered a frenzy of sewer building and sweeping alterations of the riverfront. The Thames' transformation became the subject of a set of Whistler's etchings.
"The inspiration for the whole exhibition is not Monet's painting, but this series of etchings by Whistler of scenes of modern life in 19th century London,” she added. “You do not see Buckingham Palace, you do not see the fancy areas of London. What you see is life on the docks. And it was Whistler's etchings that came to France in the 1870s that might have inspired Monet to think of London as a subject for his art."
Each of the show's 12 Monet paintings make the industrial city, swamped in fog, appear beautiful at a time when it was probably anything but. Monet's famously gorgeous canvases inspired many other artists to use London as a theme. Next to Monet's "Houses of Parliament," are two little known works by the leading American painters Childe Hassam and Winslow Homer.
"The Homer is particularly evocative given that he's mostly known for his New England coastal scenes,” she explained. “Even though he spent two years in England, it is the only known depiction of London by him and in it he creates a very still, tranquil sunset with the glow reflecting on the water in a way that is very close to Monet and Whistler."
Despite the big-name painters, this show also introduces visitors to artists they previously may not have heard of, including Bertha Jacques, an American woman who made a series of etchings that depict rain falling on the Thames.
"Bertha Jacques is an artist I did not know either before working on this exhibition but Whistler was so inspirational to etchers that there was something called the etching revival inspired by him, in which hundreds of artists began etching. She is a very good example of somebody who established her career based on Whistler's inspiration and had her career both in America and in Europe," she added.
Whether museum-goers seek exposure to little known artists or to revisit the masters, Monet's London allows them to explore a city at the height of its powers through the eyes of many artists and during one of the most formative moments in the history of art.