Rouen Cathedral

Claude Monet
Keywords: RouenCathedral

Work Overview

Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunlight
Artist Claude Monet
Year 1894
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 107 cm × 73.5 cm (42 in × 28.9 in)
Location Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

The Rouen Cathedral series was painted in the 1890s by French impressionist Claude Monet. The paintings in the series each capture the façade of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day and year, and reflect changes in its appearance under different lighting conditions.

The Rouen Cathedral paintings, more than thirty in all, were made in 1892 and 1893, then reworked in Monet’s studio in 1894. Monet rented spaces across the street from the cathedral, where he set up temporary studios for the purpose. In 1895, he selected what he considered to be the twenty best paintings from the series for display at his Paris dealer’s gallery, and of these he sold eight before the exhibition was over. Pissarro and Cézanne visited the exhibition and praised the series highly.

Historically, the series was well-timed. In the early 1890s, France was seeing a revival of interest in Catholicism and the subject was well received.[1] Apart from its religious significance, Rouen Cathedral–built in the Gothic style–represented all that was best in French history and culture, being a style of architecture that was admired and adopted by many European countries during the Middle Ages.

When Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral series, he had long since been impressed with the way light imparts to a subject a distinctly different character at different times of the day and the year, and as atmospheric conditions change. For Monet, the effects of light on a subject became as important as the subject itself. His Series Paintings, in which he painted many views of the same subject under different lighting conditions, are an attempt to illustrate the importance of light in our perception of a subject at a given time and place.

Robert Pelfrey, in Art and Mass Media (Kendall/Hunt, 1996), says:

By focusing on the same subject through a whole series of paintings, Monet was able to concentrate on recording visual sensations themselves. The subjects did not change, but the visual sensations – due to changing conditions of light – changed constantly. (166)
The cathedral series was not Monet's first series of paintings of a single subject, but it was his most exhaustive. The subject matter was a change, however, for prior to this series, Monet had painted mostly landscapes. The cathedral allowed him to highlight the paradox between a seemingly permanent, solid structure and the ever-changing light which constantly plays with our perception of it. There were calls for the state to buy the entire series and exhibit them as a whole, but these calls were not heeded and the series was divided.

Painting the cathedral was a challenging task, even for Monet. Michael Howard, in his Encyclopedia of Impressionism (Carlton, 1997), writes:

As always, the pictures gave him intense difficulties, which threw him into despair. He had vivid nightmares of the cathedral in various colors – pink, blue and yellow – falling upon him… [Monet wrote:] ‘Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before… In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.’ (224).
Monet found that the thing he had set out to paint–light–was, because of its ever-changing nature and its extreme subtlety, an almost impossible thing to capture. He was assisted, however, by his ability to capture the essence of a scene quickly, then finish it later using a sketch combined with his memory of the scene. For these paintings, he used thick layers of richly textured paint, expressive of the intricate nature of the subject. Paul Hayes Tucker, in Claude Monet: Life and Art (Yale University Press, 1995), writes:

Monet’s sensitivity to the natural effects he observed are just one factor that make these pictures so remarkable; the way he manipulates his medium contributes to their majesty as well. For the surfaces of these canvases are literally encrusted with paint that Monet built up layer upon layer like the masonry of the façade itself. (155)
The subtle interweaving of colors, the keen perception of the artist and the use of texture all serve to create a series of shimmering images in light and color–masterpieces worthy of the grandeur of their subject matter.

"Everything changes, even stone." Claude Monet wrote these words in a letter and vividly demonstrated them in paint, conveying a wondrous combination of permanence and mutability as the sun daily transformed the facade of Rouen Cathedral. Extending the building's encrusted stone surface to the richly varied impasto surface of his painting, he portrayed the cathedral perpetually re-emerging in the suffused light of early morning. 

Monet created several groups of paintings exploring the color, light, and form of a single subject at various times of day, but his Rouen Cathedral series was his most intense effort on a single site. He painted there in late winter in both 1892 and 1893, then reworked his thirty canvases from memory in the studio through 1894. He began this example in 1893, working in an improvised studio in the front room of a dressmaker's shop across from the cathedral. 

After creating a coherent ensemble, Monet selected twenty paintings that he considered "complete" and "perfect," including this one, for an exhibition at his Paris dealer's gallery in May 1895. Pissarro and Cézanne visited and praised the series, and patrons quickly purchased eight paintings from the group.

"The climax of Impressionism". That is how the series of views of Rouen Cathedral painted by Claude Monet between 1892 and 1894 has been best described. The series -consisting of 31 canvases showing the facade of the Gothic Rouen Cathedral under different conditions of light and weather- caused an immediate admiration among the critics of his time, and it was praised by many later masters, from Wassily Kandinsky to Roy Lichtenstein.

The representation of a same pictorial object at different moments with the aim of observing the changes caused by the natural light was not new for Monet, who between 1890 and 1891 had already created a series of 15 canvases representing a group of haystacks in the outskirts of Giverny. These haystacks had been painted under the summer sun, in the sunrise and in the sunset; at the end of the summer, in the heart of the winter, or in the early spring. The paintings are the result of Monet's interest for the dynamic nature than for any pictorial or scientist theory (Monet himself declared that "I have always hated those awful theories"). The series was praised by the critics, being also a great commercial success. Wassily Kandinsky had the opportunity of seeing one of these haystacks in an exhibition in Moscow in 1895, and he was impressed to the point of suggesting them as the first abstract painting in the history of Art: "And suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture. I read in the catalogue that it was a haystack, but I could not recognize it (…) I realized that there the object of the picture was missed (…) What I had perfectly present was the unsuspected -and until then hidden- power of the palette…"

But with the Cathedral series Monet went even beyond: here the aim is not to represent a tangible model -as it happened in the haystacks paintings- under different luminances and climatic conditions. In the Rouen Cathedral series, the authentic protagonist is not the architectonic model, in a certain sense "despised" by Monet, who used an extremely nearby point of view, in such way that the architecture, due to the almost complete absence of perspective, loses its grandeur and it is even sectioned in the towers and pinnacles. So the building is here not more than a background, an "excuse", to show the authentic protagonist of the composition: the power of the painting to represent the dynamic quality of the light and the atmosphere, capable of giving life to something as stony and inanimate as the imposing facade of the Gothic Cathedral. That what Kandinsky was able to decipher in the haystacks is here more than evident.

Of course, Monet was obviously unable to represent in a complete canvas the fleetingness of a single moment, so he usually worked simultaneously in several canvases, focusing on a particular one whenever the conditions of light and atmosphere were the appropriates. Let's imagine the situation: Claude Monet installed next to the window of a second floor in front of the Cathedral, working frenetically with tens of canvases, at the mercy of that a fleeting cloud, an unexpected sun ray or an early morning fog forced him to look for a picture in which the new atmospheric conditions could be reflected. Of course, such task had to be exasperating, and the painter was on the verge of giving up the series. But Monet was not a man who easily surrender: " More than ever I detest the things in which I have success at the first attempt ", he had wrote while working on the haystacks series. Monet was even forced to finish several canvases of the Cathedral in his own workshop, entrusting the success of the series to his wonderful visual memory. But two years later, the mission was fulfilled, and Monet had already finished thirty views of the Cathedral. Thus, and for the first time in the history of painting, an artist had managed to represent the fourth dimension, the time, a profit vindicated by numerous pictorial vanguards several decades later.

Evidently, among the 31 canvases of the Cathedral series there are more differences than those caused by the different conditions of light and atmosphere. Monet chose five different points of view - two from the square and three from different rooms in the building in front of the Cathedral- representing the Cathedral's portal (frontally or with the point of view slightly displaced to the right), or the portal and the d'Albane tower (to the left of the portal), but always conserving that unusually nearby point of view. 25 of these views are dated 1894, another one is dated 1893, and five are signed but not dated. However, as Monet finished most of the paintings in his workshop, it is more important the date in which each canvas was started (mostly 1892 and 1893). The election of the palette reflects the different shades in which the daily light was dyeing the Cathedral facade: from the smooth blues of the morning (fig 2 and 3) to the vivid ochre and golden shades in the soleil pictures (fig 4, 5, 6 and 7), and browns and greys in the cloudy days (fig 8 and 9).

Contrary to many other audacious impressionist projects, Monet's Cathedrals series enjoyed an immediate acceptance among critics and collectors. "Monet causes that even the stones come to life ", declared the writer Georges Clemenceau. In May 1895, Monet selected 20 of these canvases to be exhibited in the gallery of his friend and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. In spite of the elevated price of each one of the views - between 12.000 and 15.000 francs- the sale was a huge success. And more than a century later, the success has not left Monet: in May 2000, Sotheby's auctioned one of these Cathedral canvases ("Le portail, soleil") for more than $24 million.

The best reflections about this series can be found in a letter that Monet himself sent to his friend Clemenceau, revealing that "I have always observed what the world showed to me, only to give testimony of it in my paintings". For his part, Clemenceau, in an essay about the vision entitled Pan and dated 1896, expressed, talking about Monet's Cathedrals: "In front of the twenty views of the building by Monet, one notices that the Art, in its persistence of expressing the nature with increasing exactitude, teaches us to watch, to perceive, to feel. The stone itself is transformed into an organic substance, and one can feel how it changes in the same way that a little moment of the life is followed by another one. The twenty chapters of samples of light in evolution have been wisely selected to create an ordered guideline of this evolution. The great temple is in itself a testament of the unifying sunlight, and sends its mass against the brightness of the sky"

Although it is in the Poplars series in which Monet shows his greater level of lyricism, and in the Nympheas group he reached accomplishments that went far beyond the pure impressionism, outlining the abstraction; the series of views of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral is -as it have already been written- the algid point of the impressionism. More than a century later, and dispersed among several museums and private collections of the world, mostly in France and the United States; the views of the Cathedral by Claude Monet are not only artworks coveted by any Museum or serious Art collector, but also the best pictorial testimony of the incomparable courage of the Impressionism.

Monet's persistence in painting in series, beginning with the Gare Saint-Lazare and continuing in the Poplars and Haystacks, attains an impressive climax in the series he devoted to Rouen Cathedral. He began work at Rouen early in 1892, the year after he had finished the Haystacks and the last of the Poplars, and took a room above a shop in the rue Grand-Pont from which to observe the west front of the great church. He broke off to return to Giverny but resumed work at Rouen in the spring of 1893. The rest of that year and most of 1894 was spent in completing the paintings from memory. Twenty of them, ranging in effect from dawn to sunset, were exhibited at Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1895 with great success. Monet's friend Clemenceau justly praised their `symphonic splendour'. Pissarro reproved adverse criticism in the letter to his son in which he remarked on the series as `the work, well thought out, of a man with a will of his own, pursuing every nuance of elusive effects, such as no other artist that I can see has captured'.

Monet, it is clear, was as little concerned with the subject, masterpiece of Gothic architecture though it was, as when painting his Haystacks. Where the building invited and challenged his ability was in the fretting of the surface as it caught the light and the profound effects of shadow in the deep recesses. The heavy grain of his thick paint gave its own animation to the façade. Working largely from memory he exchanged the more fluent technique of the plein-air picture finished at a sitting for this entirely opposite quality of carefully worked-up impasto. In addition, without direct reference to the building in reality, a poetic element in his nature seems to have come uppermost. There remains the sensation of Gothic without its detail curiously similar to that of Gaudi's Church of the Holy Family at Barcelona (mainly built about the same time as Monet was painting his Cathedrals)--another instance perhaps of the subtle and far-reaching influence of art nouveau. Otherwise, rather than conveying the atmospheric reality of sunlight, a painting such as the example given here can be appreciated as a gorgeous dream.

ROUEN, France, Aug. 10— By the time Claude Monet set up his easel beside an open window opposite Rouen Cathedral one chilly morning in February 1892, he had long demonstrated his fascination with painting the same subject over and over again, each time under different light or weather conditions.

At 52, he had already made series of studies of haystacks, the Seine, the Thames at Westminster, poplars and the Gare St.-Lazare in Paris. And in the two decades before his death in 1926, he dedicated himself almost entirely to the water lilies in his beloved garden at Giverny.

But between February and April in 1892, and again during the same months of 1893, Monet focused his energies on Rouen Cathedral, producing 30 oils -- 28 of them of the cathedral's main facade -- that still serve as a model of what a series should be: paintings that are so similar yet so different. A 100th Anniversary

Now, to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of this feat (the works are actually dated 1894 because Monet finished them in Giverny), 16 of the series are on display in Rouen's Musee des Beaux-Arts, bringing more of them together than at any time since 20 were put up for sale in a Paris gallery in 1895.

The exhibition, "Rouen, Monet's Cathedrals," has caused a stir among admirers of the bearded Impressionist. "The series offers the most dazzling and convincing demonstration of Monet's determination to capture instantaneousness," said Sylvie Patin, the chief curator at the Musee d'Orsay, which has lent its five "Cathedrals" to Rouen.

But the exhibition has also drawn attention to the recent renovation of this fine provincial museum, which includes one "Cathedral" in its permanent collection. The Monet show, which has received more than 50,000 visitors since it opened on June 23, is to run until Nov. 14.

In a room leading to the covered courtyard where the 16 "Cathedrals" hang, the organizers have placed two paintings that seem to symbolize Monet's arrival in the city: a rose-tinted "general view" of Rouen from a distant hilltop and a street scene with the cathedral's three spires looming in the background. Many Colors, Many Moods

The exhibition also includes the only two oils from the series that are not of the cathedral's western facade, each showing the medieval houses that were attached to the St.-Romain Tower (and were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II), one painted on a cloudy day, the other on a sunny afternoon.

But it is the sight of the 14 other "Cathedrals," with their extraordinary variety of colors and moods, that best illustrates how Monet, working from dawn to dusk, became obsessed by the subject he called his "cliff." "I am a prisoner and I must go on until the end," he wrote during his 1893 visit.

In two of the paintings, the cathedral stands dark and menacing, solidly rooted to the ground as only appropriate for a vast Gothic edifice dating from the 14th century. But in others, Monet variously saw yellow, orange, pink, green, blue and white playing off the cathedral's facade as the sun moved across the sky or was suddenly lost behind clouds. In one, with mist swirling at street level, the building seems to be floating away.

The ever-changing light and capricious weather of Normandy, which drew so many 19th-century painters to the region's Atlantic shores, served Monet well. He would work on several oils -- "14 today," he noted in a letter -- at the same time, making adjustments as each captured "instant" briefly returned.

"At times, he thought he was going mad painting the cathedral in such colors," said Gilles Grandjean, the Rouen museum's principal curator. "He stopped in April 1892 because he was depressed. But I think he was much more daring in 1892. When he came back the following year, he became more conservative." From an Angle

In 1892, he painted only two somber, head-on studies before he was forced to move to new quarters, where he viewed the cathedral from a slight angle. After settling in by a window two floors above Fernand Levy's boutique, he then discovered that his new "studio" was also the fitting room for female customers. After that, he had to work behind a screen.

For whatever the reason, he was inspired. In the weeks that followed, he painted nine more "Cathedrals," three of which are on display here, including one dramatic image of the cathedral at sunset in which the top half of the facade is a fiery reddish-pink against a pale blue sky and the lower half is cast in shadows.

The next year, Monet was given space above Edouard Mauquit's shop, and the artist's view of the cathedral again changed slightly. Here he painted 17 of his "Cathedrals," 11 "close-ups" of the facade and 6 in which the St.-Romain Tower reaches up, providing a visual freedom not apparent in the other studies.

Of these six, the Rouen museum is showing four, including one on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And hanging together, they record the gradual rising of the sun as more yellow light reflects off the tower and the facade itself slowly takes on a clearer form. "In 1892, he focused on the evening light," Mr. Grandjean said. "In 1893, he went after the morning." 'Special,' Said the Artist

Monet himself considered the series to be important, describing it as "special," no doubt to justify asking 15,000 francs, an extraordinary sum a century ago, for each painting. But he was not alone. His friend and Impressionist colleague Camille Pissarro noted, "The cathedrals are widely discussed and also much praised by Degas, myself, Renoir and others."

Years later, Kasimir Malevich, the Russian artist who founded the Suprematist movement, went further. "Monet's cathedral has a capital importance for the history of art and forces entire generations to change their conceptions," he said. He was proven right. Sisley, Mondrian, Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein all found inspiration in the series.

What proved impossible this year, though, was to unite all 30 "Cathedrals," 20 of which are in museums around the world and 10 in private collections. Mr. Grandjean said he had hoped to show at least 20 of the series, but he fell short. Seven were already in France, and he was able to borrow five from foreign museums and four from private collections.

In 1895, though, France missed the chance of acquiring most of the series. Georges Clemenceau tried and failed to persuade Felix Faure, who was then President, to buy the 20 paintings on sale in Paul Durand-Ruel's gallery. Eleven years later, Clemenceau himself became President, but by then only one "Cathedral" was still on the market. On his orders, the nation promptly bought it.

Photo: Two of Monet's views of the Rouen Cathedral's main facade, painted in the early afternoon from slightly different angles and in different light. (Photographs by Musee des Beaux-Arts de Rouen)

The series of thirty Impressionist paintings featuring Rouen Cathedral, was painted by Claude Monet between 1892 and 1894, and merely added to his status as one of the best landscape artists of his day. Each work captures the facade of the Cathedral at different times of the day and year, thus reflecting the changes in its appearance under different conditions of light and colour. It was the third such series he had painted, the earlier ones being: Poplars (1890), a three-part series of poplar trees; and Haystacks (1890-1), a 25-canvas series of wheatstacks. Later, during the last decades of his life, he would complete the finest sequence of Impressionist landscape painting - his much loved series of Water Lilies (Nymphéas), in his pond at Giverny.

The pictures of Rouen Cathedral were created in 1892 and 1893, then completed in Monet’s studio in 1894. The series found a ready market. The 1890s revival of interest in Catholicism, as well as the representation of one of France's best Gothic Cathedrals - the groundbreaking 'Gothic style' was and is a highpoint of French culture - ensured that the project was well received.

For a long time Monet had been intrigued with how the character and shape of an object changed, according to the light, at different times of the day and the year. His series of Poplars, Haystacks, Waterlilies and Rouen Cathedral, each of which featured repetitive views of the same subject under different lighting conditions, was his attempt to illustrate the contribution of light to our optical perception of an object at a given time and place. For more background, see: Characteristics of Impressionism (1870-1930).

Light was all that interested Monet. In order to pin down this phenomenon he painted all the variations possible on a single subject. After having, in 1890, observed the haystacks in a field in Giverny in all weathers, then, on the banks of the Epte, painted the poplars at different times of the day, he took for his subject a cathedral under the same conditions. In February 1892 he went to live at Rouen above a shop called Au Caprice, at 81 Rue du Grand-Pont, where the owner, Monsieur Mauquit, rented him a room. He stayed there many months, and from the ever-open window on the first floor he contemplated the main facade of the cathedral. He reproduced its various aspects in several pictures simultaneously, going from one to the other according to the time of day and the weather.

Monet’s series paintings of the 1890s—multiple variations of a single motif conceived, executed, and exhibited as a group—are among his most inventive and remarkable works. In the winter of 1892 the artist spent several months studying and painting the façade of Rouen Cathedral in his native Normandy. From rooms facing the cathedral across a square, Monet concentrated on the analysis of light and its effects on the forms of the façade, changing from one canvas to another as the day progressed. Later he extensively reworked the thirty paintings of the cathedral series in his studio at Giverny. Their encrusted surfaces of dry, thickly layered paint evoke the rough texture of weathered stone, absorbing and reflecting light like the walls of the cathedral itself.

1907, sold by the artist to Durand-Ruel, Paris and New York (stock no. 3327); 1917, sold by Durand-Ruel to Hannah Marcy Edwards (d. 1929), Boston; by inheritance to Grace M. Edwards (d. 1938), Boston; 1939, bequest of Hannah Marcy Edwards to the MFA [see note 1]. (Accession Date: October 11, 1939)