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Show me the Monet

REVIEW: In the three years since leaving London, I know I have been guilty of romanticizing my hometown. But even my most nostalgic memories pale alongside London, as seen through the eyes of Claude Monet.

Monet’s London: Artists’ Reflections on the Thames, 1859 — 1914, showing at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, showcases a dozen important canvases by the French impressionist master and works by 40 other artists including Andre Derain, James McNeill Whistler and James Tissot.

At the center of the exhibition is the river Londoners so often take for granted. In the mid-1800s, with Britain importing all manners of goods from its far-flung empire, London’s “dirty old river” was the greatest commercial highway in the world. But its banks were a hodgepodge of wharfs, jetties, docks and dilapidated warehouses, and the river still a convenient receptacle for sewage.

By the century’s end, Londoners wanted more from their river. Bridge-rebuilding programs were launched, sewers were constructed to take waste out to sea and rundown buildings were cleared to create attractive embankments for riverside strolls.

It was in the midst of this transition when Claude Monet arrived at the turn of the century, not to chart the revamping of the Thames’ riverbanks, but to examine the play of light on the water and to depict the changes in light and color wrought by sunlight, rain and thick fogs, known by locals as “pea soupers.”

Monet, who was in his 60s and at the height of his prowess, painted just three views of the Thames: Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. These he painted again and again, producing as many as 100 canvases with the intent that they be displayed together.

Twelve of these paintings form the main attraction of “Monet’s London.” Boldly, chief curator Jennifer Hardin places all 12 in the first gallery.

From every viewpoint, the canvases are a marvel to behold. Up close, one can see the thick brush strokes Monet used to layer impossibly garished color combinations that surely have no place in grey old London. But step back 10 or 12 yards, and the colors speak with one voice.

In one depiction of the Houses of Parliament, dappled, yellow late-evening light nests in the gentle whirls and eddies of the Thames, fanning out below the familiar silhouette of England’s seat of power. Above the spires of Parliament, lavender and yellow plumes of clouds are backlit by strands of intense white.

In his command of color, Monet is largely considered to have no peer. Each canvas offers a glimpse of the colors, typically overlooked by the untrained eye, that Monet was able to discern in even the darkest sky.

Monet’s focus on color and light is almost to the exclusion of other objects. Thus, a train is reduced to merely its long cloud of white steam; bridges and boats melt into the wonderful hues of Monet’s backgrounds.

It is worth lingering in the Monet gallery, but leave time for the rest of the exhibition. The etchings of James McNeil Whistler, a friend of Monet, give the viewer a flavor of the working-class areas alongside the river.

In Whistler’s depictions of Rotherhithe and Limehouse, one gets an idea of how vital the river was to so many livelihoods. Whistler captures the higgledy-piggledy riverside construction of wharfs, landing stages and warehouses that, sadly, were demolished in the late 20th century to make way for upscale apartments.

Other highlights of the exhibition include a number of photographs and photogravures that record the redevelopment of the Thames and London’s transformation into a modern city. The pictures capture an era when St. Paul’s Cathedral, sadly hemmed later by nondescript commercial buildings, dominated the city’s skyline. Other images show the faces of working men, who toiled to build Blackfriar’s Bridge, cheering its opening, or the enormous construction sites of the Embankment as London grasped for the first time that its river could be more than a commercial thoroughfare and attempted to beautify it.

For those well-acquainted with London, the 100-year-old images are like ghosts of old friends, familiar but different; a postcard from a time tantalizingly out of reach.

Andre Derain’s fauvist “Big Ben, London,” painted in 1906, provides a suitable finale to the show. In contrast to Monet’s subtle use of color, Derain’s vivid blues, greens and yellows scream for attention. High above Parliament, a small yellow sun is the center of a huge ball of blue and red light, the same combination dutifully reflected back by the otherwise incandescent green Thames.

The exhibition is a major coup for the St. Petersburg museum, which begged and cajoled major museums around the world to lend the works. Proof of the museum’s achievement is that the exhibition will move to museums in Brooklyn and Baltimore after closing in April.

Anglophile or not, the opportunity to see a dozen works by an artist of Monet’s caliber warrants a trip to St. Petersburg. The exhibition benefits greatly from having a central theme, while the variety of styles, techniques and art forms ensure that, despite the uniformity of its subject, the show is never dull. Old Father Thames has never looked better this side of the ocean.