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  • Time Passes
  • Rebecca Stern (bio)

In London, Claude Monet carved up his days according to the light. Between 1899 and 1901, the artist returned to the city three times, working on what would become his famous series paintings of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament. In the mornings, he would work on his balcony at the Savoy Hotel, which offered him panoramic, if changeable, views of the two iconic bridges. In the afternoons, he moved across the river to the balcony at St. Thomas’s Hospital, from which he painted the sun setting behind the Houses of Parliament. He completed none of the paintings during his stays in London; instead, he continued to work on each image for years, revising, refinishing, and reimagining the impressions of his mornings and afternoons on the canvases in his studio, some of which remained there until his death.

Nearly all of Monet’s renderings of the Houses of Parliament and the Charing Cross Bridge include the shadowy outline of the Westminster clock tower. Erected after the Houses of Parliament were seriously damaged by fire in 1834, the structure was finally completed in 1859 and has come to be known by the name of the enormous bell in its belfry. By 1899 Big Ben had become one of the most famous clocks in the world, but Monet deliberately refuses to record its most operational features. [End Page 235] His paintings depict neither hands nor numbers nor the iconic glowing face—one sees only the muted shape of the tower, if that. And therefore, despite Big Ben’s persistent presence through the painter’s representations of his long days in London, he obscures all record of standardized time in his series.

Yet, Monet hardly leaves time out of the picture. These paintings tell the time of atmosphere and mood, of general scope rather than numerical account. Although there is no record of “railroad time” (the precise synchronized value of hour and minute), several of the Charing Cross Bridge paintings include a soft purple trail of smoke in the wake of an engine making its crossing. Various others of the series include the soft outlines of boats in the river below. The configurations of passing waves and trailing steam are explicitly ephemeral, anchored to a moment—a few moments, perhaps—destined to pass away. (One might also argue that the tremulous atmosphere of the paintings record Big Ben’s sound, a resonant rolling echo rather than a precise figure of time.)

London’s variations of mist, smoke, and urban residue kept Monet active, though at times frustrated, his work suspended in a state of perpetual incompletion. One letter to his wife Alice records Monet’s paradigmatic method of painting: “I’ve never seen such changeable conditions and I had over 15 canvases under way, going from one to the other and back again, and it was never quite right” (19 March 1900, noon; Monet 191). The previous evening, he had written her:

each morning I get carried away like this until the weather makes things too difficult for me. . . . The only shortage I have is of canvases, since it’s the only way to achieve something, get a picture going for every kind of weather, every colour harmony, it’s the only way; in the beginning you always think you’ll find an effect again and finish it: hence those unfortunate transformations which get me nowhere.

I’m not lacking for enthusiasm as you can see, given that I have something like 65 canvases covered with paint and I’ll be needing more since the place is quite out of the ordinary; so I’m going to order some more canvases.

(18 March 1900, 5 p.m.; 189)1

I realize that my fascination with Monet’s painterly methodology may seem out of place here, not so much perhaps in a special issue on Temporalities as in a journal explicitly entitled Narrative. Consider, however, that in honing in (or out) on the subtle qualities of light and color, and allowing haze, smoke, and mist to override the hands and even the face of the most famous clock in the world, Monet was striving...


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pp. 235-241
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