Its not often that something positive can be said about pollution, but the vile mists of the Thames in the 19th century inspired both Whistler and Monet to look closely at atmospheric effects. Both also spent plenty of time studying Turner, who had painted the Thames earlier but at a time when smog was already a serious problem. Turners work was both praised and derided -- as theirs would be -- for his dissolution of a subject into a vaporous haze.
Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, examines how these three ambitious men inspired each other. It also traces Impressionisms debt to the notorious fogs of London. And it seems to be a large one, based on the 100 or so paintings, watercolors, pastels and prints in this provocative and gorgeous blockbuster.
In Turners Thames-side view at dusk, Mortlake Terrace: The Seat of William Moffat, Esq. Summers Evening (exhibited in 1827), a thick splatter of sunshine illuminates as it disintegrates a section of low wall on the grounds of the estate. Turner makes his buttery sun a lovely, ghostly presence.
By this time, the real fumes and mists along the Thames were considerably less lovely. Day-long affairs, they were considered extremely unhealthy and were so thick that numerous carriage accidents were blamed on them. Because the fog created such unusual atmospheric effects, it may have encouraged Turner to totally dissolve his landscape themes in explosions of color, as in his magnificent Sun Setting over a Lake (ca. 1840-45). The show builds an excellent case for this.
As Whistler edged away from Realism toward Aestheticism while living in London, he may have remembered a chromolithograph, based on a Turners light-washed Rockets and Blue Lights, that he copied while he was 21 and still in the United States in 1855. Both the chromo and his painting are in the exhibition. (This is one show where every work counts, and each contributes to meticulously charting the borrowings and reinterpretations of atmospheric effects by these three artists.)
Whistler also would have been aware of Turners earlier series of misty blue-green Swiss watercolors, which offer more evidence of a cooler luminosity. Living right beside the Thames, Whistler started painting his Nocturnes in 1871, employing thin washes of color not unlike those of Turners watercolors. He not only had studied Turners works, but his boatmen were the sons of the boatman, Mr. Greaves, who had rowed Turner up and down the Thames!
Possibly taking a cue from Turners Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834, Whistler crafted his own exuberant fireworks in Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875). This key work was the painting that embroiled Whistler in his libel trial with critic John Ruskin, who accused him of flinging a pot of paint in the publics face. His moral victory rallied artists around works often condemned for their lack of finish.
Monet saw Turners works in London in 1870-71, while he was escaping the Paris Commune. He probably -- although it hasnt been proved as yet -- met Whistler and became his friend in London as early as the 1860s or perhaps 1870. What is known is that he shared Whistlers interest in the atmospheric effects that characterized some of Turners most controversial pieces. He was impressed by London and always noted its fogs with affection -- an idea not shared by most of his countrymen.
Monets smashing Sunset on the Seine, Winter Effect from 1880, one of the shows many highlights, looks back to his iconic first Impressionist pieces, while focusing on the grayed mists of sunset, an approach he employed during his first stay in London.
While Whistler and Monet reveled in Londons almost constant though shifting pea-soupers, many of the other inhabitants were rebelling against the foul air they were forced to inhale. They had a point. During one of his winter trips to London between 1899 and 1901, specifically to paint the fogs of the Thames, Monet ended up suffering pleurisy. He made a few pastels during these visits. In his Waterloo Bridge from 1900, waters are awhirl with the whiplash lines of Art Nouveau. They are balanced by equally vigorous plumes of smoke being pumped from chimneys in the background.
All three artists painted Venice, Monet only arriving in 1908. A final gallery allows the eye to ricochet from painting to print to drawing of these three masters. Its a wonderful way to appreciate how much the two later painters borrowed from Turner and yet how distinctive their visions were.
Just when it seemed that nothing new could be said about Impressionism, the Manet and the Sea exhibition and now Turner, Whistler, Monet have each put a new spin on things. Whats next? Maybe a big show starring Whistler. He proves to be a key link between England and France in this one.
In the meantime, Turner, Whistler, Monet is a must-see.
Its one of the best-selected exhibitions Ive ever seen, so kudos to Katharine Lochnan, senior curator and the R. Fraser Elliott curator of prints and drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who came up with the idea for the show and headed a scientific committee of scholars from the Réunion des musées nationaux and Musée dOrsay in France, Tate Britain, and elsewhere, who developed it. She also edited the catalogue ($54.95 in soft cover), which as informative and engaging as the exhibition.
Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions is on view at the Art Gallery of Toronto, June 12-Sept. 12, 2004. It subsequently appears at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, Oct. 12, 2004-Jan. 17, 2005, and Tate Britain in London, Feb. 10-May 15, 2005.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.