Through a thick blanket of smog (London’s special mixture of fog, soot and smoke), it is hard to make out the bridge reaching across the Thames and the sun shining weakly above it.
Equally unclear is where the artist, Claude Monet, stood to create the painting, one of the “London series” knocked out by the great impressionist during his time in the British capital between 1899 and 1901.
Now scientists claim to have solved the puzzle of Monet’s vantage point, using computerized records of the sun’s movement, ordnance survey maps of London and historical weather records. Together they reveal the exact spot where Monet stood on a balcony of the Savoy Hotel.
Monet was drawn to London at the turn of the century to paint the extraordinary effects of smog on sunlight. The combination of soot and fog caused the lighting conditions to change dramatically throughout the day, a phenomenon that was captured by Whistler in earlier etchings.
Diaries and other documents place Monet at the Savoy for his paintings, but historians have disagreed on which rooms he may have stayed in.
Researchers led by John Thornes, an applied meteorologist at Birmingham University, England, measured the position of the sun in the sky in Monet’s paintings and cross-checked it with solar records. They then took further measurements of features in the paintings, such as the obelisk, Cleopatra’s needle.
Putting all of the details together, Thornes’ team traced Monet’s position for his paintings of Charing Cross Bridge (now called Hungerford Bridge) to the balconies of rooms 610 and 611 on the sixth floor in 1900 and rooms 510 and 511 in 1901. All of his paintings of Waterloo Bridge were from a balcony on the fifth floor of the hotel.
“Smogs fascinated Monet in the way they changed the light. He spent nearly six months in the end living at the Savoy, gazing out across the Thames, but sometimes the visibility was so bad he couldn’t even see the river and the bridges,” Thornes said.
“Most art historians have got it wrong. They think Monet was in the corner suite of the Savoy, where Whistler stayed a few years beforehand, but he was more to the middle of the building,” he said.
The paper is due to be published in the Royal Geographical Society journal, Area.