Claude Monet produced over thirty paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. In most of them, the Gothic church is shown from the same angle; it is the colors that were the main subject of variation. By using unpredictable, sometimes improbable palette combinations — or “harmonies” — as Monet called them, the artist strove to capture the structure in different light and weather conditions. Some of the results seem just as unpredictable.
Impressionism is known for its core objective of making the air present and visible by capturing light. And indeed, atmosphere is given an active role in the series: it can be hazy, foggy, cold or warm; subsequently, the cathedral can come across as mystical, enigmatic, deterring or welcoming. Every color can find a matching response in the viewers’ emotional palette, as the stone convincingly wakes to life.
Being impressionism’s most consistent adherent, Monet also proved its most meticulous: he was known to get up early in the morning in order to witness how the sun changes the appearance of the subject by spraying it with rays, and creating countless shadow effects. Here those become almost literal, as the facade in the golden noon version nearly melts in the heat, while cool, winter harmonies make the architecture resemble icicles, and consequently seem fragile. The role of color becomes more and more dominant — and in a way, Monet finds a pure, unadulterated channel of communication through hue.
These paintings are not easy to approach, as the cathedral is cramped into incomparably smaller dimensions, resulting in a barely bearable intensity that impends over the viewer. The sheer mass of material jolts and arrests at once. Moreover, there is an underlying warning that challenges the observer, as if the paintings wish to dominate and impose, just as the building itself does to visitors. It’s impossible to encompass the entire structure with a single gaze, yet by using oil paints and a piece of canvas, Monet makes us do exactly that.
It’s fascinating how religious symbols retain their influence even after being transferred from one art form to another. Indeed, perhaps they accumulate more power after such transposition, becoming active missionary vehicles of faith, vehicles that can be moved from one museum to another, and seen by as many people as possible.
*this article has been edited at a later date