WORCESTER — Claude Monet, to most, will always be water lilies, adrift across the shimmering surface of his ponds at Giverny. There’s an irony there: An artist so absorbed in capturing less scenes than moments, winding down his days capturing, as much as anything, his own dwindling sight. As cataracts robbed him of his vision in his final years, his paintings grew larger, less distinct, more dreamlike. One of the largest, now at the Museum of Modern Art, spans more than 40 feet, an absorbing haze of color and light.
Monet wrote in 1922 that “my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey.” Convey something, though, he did — a world growing more inchoate by the moment and before his eyes, and the ravishing, tragic beauty of a mastery whose virtuosity of color was slipping from his grasp. In those last years of his failing sight, he had written for himself a visual epitaph more beautiful, perhaps, than anything he had done before.
Why begin a story about Monet’s near-obsessive painting of London’s Waterloo Bridge with instead his final chapter, more than two decades later and 200 miles away? Because one informs the other, and shows something lost can be something found. At the Worcester Art Museum’s exhibit “Monet’s Waterloo Bridge: Vision and Process,” nine of the 41 paintings Monet made of the bridge now hang side-by-side. Follow them counterclockwise around the room, and you’ll see them as Monet intended: From dawn through early morning and on through the day, arriving at last at dusk. The first, “Waterloo Bridge” (1899-1903), might have been his last: Its swipes of dark lavender streak the sky around a boiling pink sun, while the bridge below floats in an aquarmarine fog of rough brushtrokes. It’s widely seen as unfinished, radiant in its shambling, partial coherence, nearly abstract. To me, it’s the most ravishing thing in the room.
His Waterloo Bridge project was surely a poetic notion, but in practice it was anything but. Monet would have 15 partly-finished canvases splayed around his hotel room on the fifth floor of the Savoy Hotel, rushing between them as the light changed and the smog billowed and cleared. Though the scene vexed him, it also supercharged his endlessly hungry eyes: For Monet, painting was not the pursuit of a static thing, a moment to be captured and held. It was a fluid endeavor, changeable as the world is changeable, subject to forces beyond our control. Like weather. Like sunlight. Like the slow degradation of the eye.
Monet didn’t know what was coming for him in 1903, when the last of the paintings here was finished back home in Giverny (he began most them in a fevered seven-month spurt of painting from his Savoy balcony in 1901, completing them from memory in his studio over the next two years). Looking at them together, there’s still something urgent, unsatisfied, almost panicked. Monet may have felt that a painting is never done, a thoroughly modern idea that weighed on generations of artists who would revere his insatiable painterly appetite.
Hindsight has a tendency to color time and place to suit a convenient story, but by 1905 Monet’s vision had changed: reds had dulled to a pinky-ochre, he reported to his doctor, and yellow tainted almost all he saw. This could not have been the flip of a switch; might his sight already have been clouding, all those days spent at the Savoy? Were his bridge paintings a desperate struggle to hold on to something he knew had begun to slip away?
Maybe. Either way, Monet had committed himself to the impossible. Industrial London was the hub of a British Empire at its apex, a teeming jumble of people from all over, navigating carriages, animals, street markets, barges. His compulsive fascination with both modernity and working serially — he painted Paris’s Gare St. Lazare, with its billows of steam crowding the frame above ink-black locomotives, a dozen times simultaneously — looms over his work with the Waterloo Bridge, an emblem of the old world rushing headlong into the modern.
Behind the bridge, the smokestack of an incinerator looms, trickling dark smoke; Monet said that “London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth,” though fog seems surely a romantic projection for the smog-choked metropolis he encountered. This was no pastoral idyll, where only the light and seasons change, with only a breeze to ruffle the leaves.
Flecks of orange dot the span in “Waterloo Bridge” (1903), owned by the Worcester Art Museum, a procession of merchants crowding their way across. “Waterloo Bridge, Veiled Sun” (1903), the brightest of the paintings here, shows the roadbed heavy with a jumble of forms in a morning glare. Several paintings gleam with his uncanny command of light: “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect 1900,” from 1903, is incandescent, the sun’s reflection in the bottom right corner almost painfully bright; in “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect with Smoke” (1903), the reflection is dimmed by a thick haze, burning dully at the painting’s core.
Monet’s project feels almost like a painterly self-dare, an endurance test with no end: The same thing, endlessly different. Would he have wanted it any other way? Not likely. At the dawn of the 20th century, Monet was already the world’s greatest living artist. He had returned to London, where his family had sought refuge during the Franco-Prussian War some 30 years before, as a conquering hero. Impossible, surely, felt possible, or at the very least a worthy challenge (“I’ve never seen such changeable conditions,” he wrote to a friend from the Savoy, which reads more as enthusiasm than complaint).
By the time he was ready to leave, he had 80 canvases packed and sent to Giverny, finally completing about half of them. He wouldn’t allow any of them to be sent to his dealer until he was done; he needed each one to build on the other, tracking light and fog hour to hour, day to day. When finally done with the bridge in 1903, his vision maybe already weakening, it hardly seems a coincidence that he turned his attention to the world just outside the studio doors and began the epic pursuit of what’s now seen as his life’s most important work: The water lilies that all but define him, that make Monet Monet. That’s almost right. Change is what made Monet Monet, whether a world transforming, the sun across the sky, or the cruel dwindling of his own sight.
MONET’S WATERLOO BRIDGE: VISION AND PROCESS
At the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through April, 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org.