Claude Monet - A French Impressionist Paints the River Thames

by KathleenDuffy

Monet's paintings of the River Thames tried to capture the fleeting effects of fog and mist on London's commercial and industrial watery highway.

In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire turned the Thames into the commercial artery of England.

In parts it was a bustling, noisy river teeming with life, dedicated to vibrant commerce. Swishing ropes, clanging chains, smoking ships funnels, hooters and bells, the cries of the dockers as they unloaded the ships - such were the myriad sounds that formed this beating heart of London.

But for Monet, the most interesting result of all this industrial, smokey chaos was something rarely seen over the Thames today - fog.

The effects of the resulting smoke-generated fog, known as 'smog', challenged artists like James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet to paint the river through a veil of light and mist.

Impressionist Claude Monet’s First Visit to London 1870-71


Monet first visited London in 1870 when he was avoiding conscription during the Franco-Prussian war. He was keen to examine the London cityscape and record all aspects of its explicit modernity.

The Thames didn't disappoint, and Monet painted two aspects of its contrasting nature:

Old London

The painting below, The Thames at London, 1871, shows the Pool of London with its variety of river traffic. In the main, this work represents the old London.

London Bridge is in the distance with the Customs House and the spire of St Magnus the Martyr to the right. Beyond these is Cannon Street Station.

Modern London

The second work, The Thames Below Westminster,1871, shows a relatively modern London.  In this one work he has given us a 'snapshot' of Victorian urban engineering confidence.  The newly constructed Embankment leads towards the recently erected Houses of Parliament. The new Westminster Bridge spans the river and in the distant left is St Thomas’s Hospital, still incomplete.


Yet despite their differing aspects, both these paintings are linked by the way in which Monet uses colour to represent the misty and atmospheric conditions prevailing in both scenes.

The Thames Below Westminster
The Thames Below Westminster

Claude Monet’s Later Visits to London 1899-1901


On his return visits to London from 1899-1901 Monet began his major project, a series of works concentrating on the River Thames. His main concern now was to capture the fleeting effects of weather.

At this point Monet was no longer interested solely in representing the architectural symbols of London’s modernity. Sunlight, smog, the atmosphere that veiled the city's famous attributes – these were the impressions Monet wanted to capture.

But he had to work fast.

To capture the effects of light, smog and mist Monet worked on many canvases simultaneously, leaving one and returning to another as circumstances varied. The atmosphere changed constantly, both enthralling and frustrating Monet.

Yet Monet was anxious to represent his own subjectivity of the unique images before him and this involved working laboriously on each canvas. Back in France, at his studio in Giverny, Monet continued working on his Thames paintings from memory.

Monet’s Three Groups of Thames Paintings


According to John House (1), there are three groups of paintings in Monet’s Thames series.


In the morning, from his suite at the Savoy, Room 618  (now known as the Monet Suite), Monet  would work on the view eastwards over Waterloo Bridge.  At one point he had to work in pastels because during one of his visits his luggage was lost en route.

Waterloo Bridge, Grey Day
Waterloo Bridge, Grey Day

Midday would find him looking southward over Charing Cross Bridge.

In the early evening he would move across the river to St Thomas’s Hospital from where he could paint the sun setting over the Houses of Parliament.

House (ibid.) notes that whilst working on these groups, Monet faced into the sun. The way in which it filtered through the London smog made the city look transient and unreal.  It is these effects which unite the different works.


Social Aspects of Monet’s Thames Series


Despite concern that his paintings should reflect only the instantaneous effects of mist, smog and sunlight, Monet admitted that there was something uniquely beautiful about London and he was anxious to retain the effects of a ‘London-like’ atmosphere.

Therefore, despite his efforts to avoid social pointers in his Thames series, Monet’s depiction of industrial smog and the veiling of the river and its surroundings might arguably be the very epitome of alienating modernity.  What was that famous phrase by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto

"All that is solid melts into air..."

Monet probably didn't have thoughts like these as he dashed along the Thames Embankment  chasing the elusive sun.   But a twenty-first century viewer may be struck by the conditions that inspired Monet’s paintings of the Thames, a situation unimaginable before the Industrial Revolution and made impossible now by the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956.

It would seem that despite his purely aesthetic aims, Monet's work may have social significance, even in retrospect.

Monet’s Thames series met with the approval of art-lovers who flocked to Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris to view the tantalising, impressionistic results of the great artist’s London sojourn.

These paintings continue to enchant. But more than that - they provide a record of how sunlight filtered through Victorian London smog, created effects we may never experience again.



  1. "Visions of the Thames" by John House in Monet's  London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames 1859-1914 (Museum of Fine      Arts, St Petersburg, Florida, 2005)
  2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and  Frederick Engels (Penguin Classics, 2004)


c. K. Duffy

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Updated: 02/15/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 01/04/2014

Ha Ha! Actually, I am old enough to remember the London fog.... it's much cleaner now but less exciting and mysterious!

cmoneyspinner on 01/04/2014

Fascinating. The London fog, I mean. Just kidding! I love Monet!

KathleenDuffy on 04/19/2013

What you have said was the way I was struck when I went to see a Jackson Pollock exhibition in London some years ago. The impact of seeing them in 'reality' was really astonishing. Monet's large waterlily canvases remind me of Pollock's work, albeit executed differently. But the overwhelming impression of being surrounded by the work is similar I think. The line between viewer and artwork seems to dissolve. This is hard to experience looking at the same image in a book. Thanks for your post.

KathleenDuffy on 04/01/2013

Hi Elias - Yes, those Impressionists were way ahead of the crowd!

EliasZanetti on 04/01/2013

Interesting, very interesting. I've read how big the scandal the impressionistic style of painting caused back in the day.. Well, history surely proved Monet right!

KathleenDuffy on 03/31/2013

Hi Jo - I know what you mean about it appearing wishy-washy on first inspection! Paintings can seem really difficult to 'read' because so much seems to be left unsaid and it's hard to unravel it all. I am so thrilled that you found this article useful! That's really encouraging! Thanks Jo. (written with slight hangover...)

JoHarrington on 03/31/2013

I'm not a very visual person, being more at home with literature, but you're making me really appreciate art. The little I've seen of Monet before, I thought him quite wishy-washy. This has changed this. I love the mental image of him chasing the sun. I read all that, then went and stared some more at your examples of his art. He's not at all wishy-washy, is he?

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