There is just one Monet moment in "Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It comes late in the exhibit when you step around the corner and, firing in sequence, 12 big flaring paintings by the great impressionist set the very air alight.
Trembly, violet, yellow and gold, these feel opulent -- and French in every flicker. People love Claude Monet (1840-1926). They love his haystacks and his lily pads, his poplars and cathedrals. In many shows, not this one though, his motifs matter less than the way he dresses them in color-flooded light.
These are fine Monets, and it's no wonder Monet's name is in the exhibition's title. But it probably shouldn't be there. The Baltimore exhibit -- more than 100 objects, more than two dozen artists -- isn't really a Monet show. That's what's best about it. "Monet's London" isn't his.
It's a show about a river, a river that was shared. It's partially James McNeill Whistler's -- nine little etchings from the famous "Thames Set" are on display nearby. It also belongs to the painters Childe Hassam and Camille Pissarro, printmaker Joseph Pennell, photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn and many others.
Between 1859 (when Whistler made those etchings) and the start of World War I, every sort of artist -- radical, conservative, pointillist and fauvist, hack as well as master, printmaker, photographer, contriver of Dickensian illustrations for London's Illustrated News -- made pictures of the Thames.
American, Australian, Belgian, British, French -- London's mighty river pulled them like a magnet, eroding, as it did so, the many different boundaries between their many styles of 19th-century art.
With its twinklings and its mists, its bridges, masts and towers, the Thames was irresistible. Its red sails in the sunset, ever-changing skies, smoke plumes and drifting fogs were deeply picturesque. So, too, were the boats. Tugboats, barges, clipper ships, paddle steamers, pleasure yachts, dinghies, lighters, men-of-war.
The Thames also carried ominous suggestions -- of footpads in the shadows, Sherlock Holmes in pea-soup fog, of fallen women sobbing in half-lit dockland dives. London's teeming millions, her muscled Irish laborers and tattooed foreign sailors, pale white-shoed toffs and pious Queen Victoria, too, all are actors in this show.
In the last half of the century, while Britannia ruled the waves, her most important river became an emblem of progress. It wasn't always thus. The river was made respectable in response to the Big Stink of 1858.
It must have been unbearable. London's new flush toilets were partially responsible: Their effluent had nowhere to go except into the storm drains and straight into the Thames.
In the unseasonably hot summer of that year the river smelled so bad that its gag-inducing filth could no longer be ignored. Tons of chalk and carbolic acid were tipped into the water. People hung sacks soaked in chloride of lime in open windows, and those who could afford it sprayed perfume on their curtains. All to no avail. It got so bad at Westminster that Benjamin Disraeli, the queen's fastidious prime minister, was seen rushing from the floor handkerchief to nose, and Parliament itself was peremptorily adjourned. Something needed to be done.
And was: Beginning in the 1860s, millions of tons of earth were dug out of the cityscape and 1,300 miles of sewers were installed. The Great Stink did not recur. And the government constructed -- from Westminster to Blackfriars -- the gracious Thames Embankment with its overlooks and grand hotels.
Wrote Charles Dickens Jr. (the novelist's son) in 1883: "[F]ew London improvements have been more conducive to health and comfort. The substitution of the beautiful curve of the Embankment, majestic in its simplicity, with its massive granite walls, flourishing trees, and trim gardens, is an unspeakable improvement on the squalid foreshore."
The river, once a national embarrassment, now shone as a symbol of modernity, of confidence and wealth and imperial British pride. One feels that in this art.
Monet painted the embankment first in December 1870. The painter had fled France to escape the clashing armies of the Franco-Prussian war. London charmed him. ("I adore London," he wrote. "What I like most of all is the fog.")
Twenty-nine years later, as an art star, Monet came again, this time for six weeks, to paint the river from his suite on the seventh floor of the Savoy Hotel. Waterloo Bridge to his left, Charing Cross Bridge to his right. The next year he returned again, and to the same first-class hotel, this time for two months.
Sometimes he would cross the Thames to a large reception room in St. Thomas's Hospital to paint the Houses of Parliament -- and, of course, the fog. "The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors," he wrote. "There are black, brown, yellow, green and purple fogs." They shimmer in this show.
Other artists sought out other sights and additional points of view. James Tissot told stories: The gentleman of leisure playing footsie in "The Thames" has two women to dally with, and three bottles of champagne. Whistler, in his "Nocturnes," insisted he was telling no stories at all. The printmakers mostly went for details -- the fishmongers at Billingsgate, the construction of the Tower Bridge, the mansard roofs of the Savoy. Most of the photographers shot landmarks or stretching panoramas. The colorists went for color-chords, the ship painters for ships.
The smart curator responsible -- Jennifer Hardin of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- has given us the opposite of a monographic show. In medium and in motive, in quality and size, the objects she has chosen could scarcely be more varied. And yet the longer you look at them the more they feel alike.
Most are empty of nostalgia and filled with pride. They're reaching for the future. What flows through this exhibit from the first room to the last is a distinctive urban optimism. It isn't just the Thames.
Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, on Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, is on view through Dec. 31. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for college students; those 18 and younger will be admitted free. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For information call 410-396-7100 or visit www.artbma.org.