Twelve oils, one pastel and some pencil sketches by Monet form the core of "Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914," now at the Brooklyn Museum. A visitor could be excused for simply enjoying Monet's radiant paintings of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. But ignoring the rest of this ambitious and engaging show would be foolish.
A huge presence in the exhibition is James McNeill Whistler. Many works by Whistler in "Monet's London" are etchings from his influential "Thames Suite." These prints differed from others of the time by focusing on details of a scene, odd angles and/or unusual views the kind of things that did not appear in topographical prints, the kind of things that the Impressionists would make their own. Whistler showed how an artist could project his feelings for a place by avoiding the usual sweeping vistas, instead carefully organizing idiosyncratic compositions.
Exactly when or even if Monet met Whistler has not been documented, but he certainly seems to have absorbed the young American's approach early on. We do know Monet was in London in 1870-71, fleeing conscription in the Franco-Prussian War, and perhaps he met Whistler then.
Whistler was a pivotal figure in the late 19th century, encouraging and introducing artists from England, France and the United States to one another, and working in a variety of media. There are far more works by him than anyone else in the show, and rightly so. I would have liked more of his later paintings, but his early "Nocturne" from 1870 is fine. Now all we need is an exhibition devoted to the artistic implications of all his networking.
What could have been brought out a little better is the immense debt that both artists Monet and Whistler -- owed to Turner, even though Turner worked before the dates covered by the show. This debt was admirably demonstrated in the recent, broader "Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions." In terms of sheer gorgeousness, that exhibition was far superior to "Monet's London." The more narrow focus of the Brooklyn Museum show, however, allows for a more expansive probing of the theme. One can make a case for including lesser works such as Henri Le Sidaner's St. Paul's from the River, rendered using an anemic pointillism, in that it offers an additional approach to London even if it is not a very interesting one.
One of the things that both these exhibitions stress is how the Thames was transformed from an open sewer "The Big Stink" of 1858 actually closed the Houses of Parliament to a modern waterway. As London's economic might and population swelled in the 19th century, the pollution of the water and air around the Thames was far fouler than anything we can dream of or sniff -- today. Yet artists transformed London's constant fogs into shimmering works of art.
Outstanding in "Monet's London" is the excellent selection of prints, enough to amount to a mini-exhibition on the etching revival. A color lithograph of an illuminated evening river scene by the Englishman Thomas Way is richly atmospheric.
No medium is left out. Photography selections range from popular shots for hand-held stereographs (viewers are provided with several to try out) and photochroms for advertising, to the dreamy Pictorialism of another American expat, Alvin Langdon Coburn.
Two beautiful works by British photographers are Roger Fenton's Waterloo Bridge (it will lead anyone who hasn't already seen it to run to the Metropolitan for Fenton's first-rate retrospective) and Southwark Bridge by Francis Frith -- a much more exciting take on St. Paul's than Le Sidaner's.
Four watercolors by American Joseph Pennell (an artist who is better known as a printmaker), the Englishman Henry Edward Tidmarsh's The River Thames from Blackfriars to Waterloo Bridge (1900), with its wonderful sun-spattered clouds, and Winslow Homer's only Thames watercolor from 1881, with bent-backed oarsmen before the flat, looming faade of the Parliament, all add spice to the mix.
Top this off with two superlative Fauve oils by André Derain, a subtly suggestive Tissot boating party and a Camille Pissarro oil of boats on the Thames, executed in a pointillist style, and "Monet's London" is one history lesson that everyone will want to attend.
"Monet's London: Artists' Reflection on the Thames, 1859-1914" remains at the Brooklyn Museum through September 4, 2005. The show premiered earlier at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, the curator of which, Dr. Jennifer Hardin, organized the show. The exhibition will travel to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Oct.2, 2005 Dec.31, 2005.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.