After carefully cleaning the hazy pane of glass with the sleeve of his jacket the man with the ragged beard gazed out at the building across the street. The sight-lines were ideal – better than he had envisioned and he was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of euphoria. This project would be the most challenging he had ever attempted, and choosing the best location was paramount to its success. As the warm morning light flooded through the room’s wall of windows he turned his focus to the shop’s proprietor, eventually committing to rent the space from him for three months.
The man was Claude Monet and the building across the street was the Rouen Cathedral, a classic Gothic structure, completed just three years earlier.
Monet was part of the Impressionists, a group of French artists who, in 1874, turned the art world on its head with an exhibit of paintings that were, if nothing else, controversial. Their work was spontaneous and colourful, but most of all, it was daring.
Working primarily from nature had increased Monet’s sensitivities to the subtleties of colour and light. His two most recent painting series, one of haystacks and the other of poplar trees, had taught him the importance of nuanced light and tone. Of these efforts he said, “…I’m increasingly obsessed by the need to render what I experience, and I’m praying that I’ll have a few more good years left to me because I think I may make some progress in that direction...”
Monet was poised to try something different, so early in February of 1892 he set up his studio in the drapery shop’s second floor storage room overlooking the majestic Rouen Cathedral. For this series of images he would leave the natural world behind and replace it with a new subject matter – architecture. The cathedral’s portals and surrounding façade provided him with an expanse of ornate carvings that were unique to the Gothic style of architecture. The surfaces absorbed and reflected light, emanating an ever-changing array of colours. It was quite unlike anything he had ever seen.
Monet worked feverishly on his new venture. Starting his days at 7 a.m., he often painted straight through to 7 in the evening. In short order he became conversant with the subject matter and directed his attention towards one thing – replicating the existing light on canvas. He developed ten to fourteen images at any given time, quickly abandoning a painting the instant the light changed. The cathedral series recorded what he was experiencing first hand – not his memory of the experience. From the muted hues of a misty morning to the vibrant palette of the sun’s full glare – he captured it all.
The work was slow going, forever testing his patience. He thought he had prepared himself well for this mammoth undertaking, but the gloomy weather and the long days started to take their toll. Writing to his wife Alice he laments, “I am trying to do the impossible.”
The delays forced Monet to return to the Rouen Cathedral the following year to complete the series and, once again, he experienced trying circumstances. Perhaps it was the time of year, but the weather was not providing him with the range of light that he yearned for. After reworking some of the paintings in his studio the project was completed. The year was 1894 and Claude Monet stood before a collection of more than thirty paintings – each a seductive expression of illumination and atmospheric beauty.
The Cathedral series exhibited in 1895 and paintings sold for 15,000 francs each, an unheard of sum at the time. Art critics and collectors alike praised the collection. “Monet causes that even the stones come to life,” said writer Georges Clemenceau. In his 1990 review of a collection of Monet's paintings exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, New York Times writer Michael Brenson said, “In the series paintings, Monet could serve notions of unending transformation and regeneration without serving the idea of progress. He could pull back from the world, yet remain part of it. He could paint vertigo, instability and change and still feel safe.” Ten years later, in 2000, Sotheby’s auctioned one of the Rouen Cathedral canvases - Le Portail (soleil) for $24 million.
Throughout the rest of his life Monet embraced this liberating approach to creating art. The last paintings he produced, the large canvases of the lush gardens at his home in Giverny, had evolved into captivating declarations of abstracted, translucent light.
“Colour”, he said, “is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”