Atmospheric notations: previewing Monet’s Thames at the Courtauld
In September, London’s Courtauld Gallery opens a major exhibition bringing together 21 of Monet’s celebrated paintings of the Thames. We take a preview of some of the works in the show, and hear from the Courtauld’s Dr. Karen Serres about Monet’s thoughts on London, its architecture & foggy, misty, smoggy atmosphere.

This September, an exhibition of Claude Monet’s celebrated paintings of the River Thames is set to open at London’s Courtauld Gallery, neighbouring the river in Somerset House. Monet painted the river hundreds of times, seeking to capture the light qualities and atmospheric essence of the river, taking huge interest in how the historic and industrial architecture was masked by mists, fogs, and smogs with the changing sunlight of the day.

Between 1899 and 1901, Monet visited London three times to work on this series and study the river, each time residing in the upper floors of the Thomas Collcutt-designed extension of the Savoy Hotel, his balcony offering vista views up and down the river. From here, he started countless canvases looking towards Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges trying to capture specific observed qualities of light and atmosphere with what he termed “notations” before quickly moving onto a new canvas if he perceived a shift in qualities.

On a later visit, he added a third location, the western-most building of St. Thomas’ Hospital, from where he could take an ablique view across the river looking towards Parliament. Over hundreds and hundreds of canvases, Monet create a deep study of these three vantages of the river, focusing less on the bridges and buildings, and more on the volume of air, light, and atmospherics between him and the subjects. These canvases were then all shipped to his Paris studio where he worked into selected paintings.

In 1904 he presented 37 of the Thames series at Paul Durand-Ruel Paris gallery and had plans to recreate the show in the art dealer’s London space the following year. However, with most of the paintings sold it could not be a simple re-hang, and Money set about creating a new, in his mind even better, Thames series. However, he was never happy with the development of works and after postponing the exhibition a few times, it was simply postponed for good.

Now, nearly 120 years later, the Courtauld are finally presenting the works together – or at least as complete a set of the 37 as is possible. Dr. Karen Serres, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Courtauld Gallery introduced the forthcoming exhibition from the very building Monet visited to initiate the works and observe the Thames, the Savoy Hotel. Here, using introductory words from Dr. Serres, we preview some of the themes of the Courtauld’s Monet and London: Views of the Thames.


Dr. Serres spoke of the importance of the Thames to Monet, and specifically three locations which the artist felt captured the breadth, atmosphere, and qualities of the river.

“Some of the most remarkable works that he ever made were not made in France, but here in London, which was a huge inspiration for him. It’s maybe a bit ironic that it was down to a Frenchman to create some of the most evocative views that we know of London … there are three motifs: Waterloo Bridge; The Houses of Parliament; and Charing Cross Bridge. But for Monet, the Thames was the through-line.”

“He started the Thames series in 1899 and came to London three times, always in the winter – that’s when the fog was most dramatic, at its thickest. He wanted to capture the atmospheric effects that the city was very well known for, from crisp sunshine to dark and moody overcast days, to one of Monet's favourite motifs, the sun just piercing through the fog and the smoke to create a moment of magic.”

“For Monet, London constituted a specific challenge. He had seen different types of light in in France, but he wanted something more dramatic and more difficult to get to terms with – and London offered that in spades. He really loved the different atmosphere, or the ‘changes of effects’ as he called it.”

Claude Monet was interviewed in 1901, where he told the journalist about the qualities of these effects:
“London is the more interesting that it is harder to paint … The fog assumes all sorts of colours; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs.”


In 1870, before his success and while struggling with poverty, Monet had visited London before. It was at this time he noticed the qualities of the Thames, and also met other refugee French artists as well as Paul Durand-Ruel, who would become his long-term art dealer.

“30 years later, Manet returns to London, and from the fact that he stayed at the Savoy, you can imagine that the circumstances were quite different. The Savoy was the most expensive hotel in London at the at the time, but perhaps more than the luxury the Savoy offered, it's the location on the Thames which was so attractive. From his room at the at the Savoy, he had a panoramic view of both upstream and downstream, and from his balcony he painted the views of Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge.”


The Savoy Hotel overlooked the Thames, with Monet spending days on the balcony of his suite producing notations upon canvas after canvas. The building no longer has the balconies as they were integrated into the façade in 1910, but it is possible to capture the same views Monet gazed upon from upper level suits.

“The Savoy had opened ten years earlier. It was really the height of luxury and, crucially, there were now lifts – or ascending rooms as they were called – which meant the best rooms were no longer in what we used to call it the noble levels or the fine rooms, but were at the top of the building. Being high up was just absolutely crucial for Monet, because he really sought to paint the atmosphere, the envelope of things, and as he said he wanted to paint not the motif, but what is between him and the motif. Of course, you see Charing Cross Bridge in the distance, and the clock tower and Victoria Tower of Parliament, but what really matters is this wonderfully coloured atmosphere and weather conditions.”


Over a century on, the London of today is noticably different. Even though the architecture of the city is occluded and fogged out in Monet’s renderings, the physicality and impact of industry is present. Dr. Serres discussed these qualities, and especially how the size and power of the city was so compelling to visitors.

“At the Savoy you would have had this view of all of the factories, chimneys, smokestacks, and wharfs that constituted the industrial Southbank for a very, very long time – until not that long ago. Monet absolutely loved that, and you can see this many ways in this in his wonderful works. He's giving you the source of these atmospherics – the steam from the boats, the smoke from the factories, mixing with water vapour and mist coming from the river. In 1900, London was the largest city in the world and central London was more industrial than any other capital. So, for someone coming from Paris, London was just absolutely mind boggling.”

Claude Monet wrote about his fascination with the light qualities of London in a letter to Alice, his wife, on 3 February 1901:
“I can't tell you what a fantastic day it was. What wonderful things, but none lasing more than five minutes, it is enough to drive one mad. No, there is no country more extraordinary for a painter.”


Only two of the three vistas that make up the Thames series were views from the Savoy Hotel. The third, started later, was from a room in St. Thomas’ Hospital in the Henry Currey-designed repeating blocks which preceeded the current-day monolith designed by Yorke Rosenberg Mardall after World War II bombing.

“Monet painted the two bridges from The Savoy, but the third motif he only started in 1900 – because it took a little bit of string-pulling to secure permission to paint from St. Thomas's Hospital. He only worked at St. Thomas’ at dusk because he had a very specific idea in his mind of what he wanted. He absolutely loved the effect of the sun setting behind this massive structure, silhouetted in the dark shadows. And so he only went to St Thomas’ at around 4 or 5pm in the evening, and only had an hour or two to work – every painting was really hard won.”


“He was trying to capture these very fugitive motifs that lasted five minutes. So, he grabbed a canvas and without drawing a sketch, started painting directly and making as he called ‘notations’ – placing the bridge, giving an idea of where the sun was, and some of the effects. Once the effect was gone, maybe a gust of wind or a cloud of steam came by when the sun opened, he put that canvas aside, grabbed another, and started painting the new effect.”

In another letter to his wife, on 2 March 1901, Monet wrote about this process of notations and intense efforts to capture a fleeting moment:
“To keep going with a canvas is almost impossible. I make changes to the canvases and often those that were acceptable become worse. No one will ever know how hard I work to achieve so little.”


The London exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s London gallery never happened. As Dr. Serres says, despite being advertised and intended, it kept slipping back. That is, until finally, in late 2024, 120 years late, Monet will get his exhibition...

“The opening of Monet’s London exhibition was going to be the 30th of March 1905. People were invited, it was all described in the press, and then at the last minute, Monet said, ‘I'm not ready.’ But he didn't cancel it in his mind, it was only postponed. So he was like, Okay, I'm going to do it in the summer.’ Then ‘I can do it in the Autumn.’ And then finally, by December 1905, he realised that that it was never going to happen.”

Dr. Karen Serres is Senior Curator of Paintings at the Courtauld Gallery, responsible for the care and display of paintings in the collection up to 1900. She received her training in art history and museum studies at the Ecole du Louvre (1997) and the Sorbonne (1998) in Paris. She completed her MA (1999) and PhD (2004) at The Courtauld, where her research focused on French and Italian Baroque painting. She was then appointed Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, working on French and Italian painting and sculpture. She later became the Robert H. Smith Research Curator in the Sculpture Department of that institution. In 2009, she was named the Nina and Lee Griggs Associate Curator of European Art at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. She returned to The Courtauld as Schroder Foundation Curator of Paintings in September 2012.

The Courtauld Gallery cares for one of the greatest art collections in the UK, presenting these works to the public at The Courtauld Gallery in central London, as well as through loans and partnerships. The Gallery is most famous for its iconic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces – such as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It showcases these alongside an internationally renowned collection of works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through to the present day.

Academically, The Courtauld faculty is the largest community of art historians and conservators in the UK, teaching and carrying out research on subjects from creativity in late Antiquity to contemporary digital artforms - with an increasingly global focus. An independent college of the University of London, The Courtauld offers a range of degree programmes from BA to PhD in the History of Art, curating and the conservation of easel and wall paintings. Its alumni are leaders and innovators in the arts, culture and business worlds, helping to shape the global agenda for the arts and creative industries.

The Savoy is the UK’s original luxury hotel. Right on the River Thames, it is perfectly placed at the cultural heart of one of the world’s most exciting cities. 267 rooms and suites are accompanied by some of the most well-known restaurants and bars in London, alongside magnificent and varied meeting and events spaces. The Savoy’s legendary service creates wonderful memories to last a lifetime.


Monet and London: Views of the Thames opens at The Courtald Gallery on 27 September 2024. Further details available at:


fig.i Claude Monet (1840-1926), Waterloo Bridge, Overcast , 1903, oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard, Denmark. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
fig.ii Claude Monet (1840-1926), Waterloo Bridge, soleile voilé signed and dated 'Claude Monet 1903' (lower left) , 1899-1903, oil on canvas, Private collection. Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images
fig.iii Unknown photographer,The Savoy Hotel, around 1900, Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, copyright The Courtauld
figs.iv,vi,viii Photographs of the Thames taken from the Savoy Hotel © Will Jennings
fig.v Claude Monet (1840-1926), Charing Cross Bridge, The Thames , 1903, oil on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, Image © Lyon MBA – Photo Alain Basset
fig.vii Claude Monet (1840-1926), Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903, oil on canvas, Milwaukee Art Museum. Image Courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo: John R. Glembin
fig.ix Houses of Parliament and St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, n.d., postcard issued by The Aircraft Manufacturing Co., private collection, copyright The Courtauld
fig.x Claude Monet (1840-1926), Houses of Parliament: Effect of Fog, London, 1904, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida
fig.xi Claude Monet (1840-1926), London, Parliament. Sunlight in the fog, 1904, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Photo © Grand Palais RMN (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
fig.xii Claude Monet (1840-1926), Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1900-1903, oil on canvas, 81.2 x 92cm. Hasso Plattner Collection
fig.xiii Claude Monet (1840-1926), Houses of Parliament , 1904, Kunstmuseen Krefeld – Volker Döhne – ARTOTHEK
fig.xiv Claude Monet (1840-1926), Waterloo Bridge, Gray Weather , 1900, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence

publication date
24 June 2024

Atmosphere, Clouds, The Courtauld Gallery, Paul Durand-Ruel, Factories, Fog, Industry, Impressionism, Light, London, Mist, Claude Monet, Painting, ParisThe Savoy Hotel, Karen Serres, Smog, Sky, Somerset House, St Thomas' Hospital, Sun, The Thames, Water