Monet's Rouen painting series

The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery, London

Monet in Rouen
Claude Monet (1840–1926) painted Normandy’s famous Rouen Cathedral over thirty times. Now scattered in private and public collections across the world from Tokyo to Los Angeles, each canvas captures the exterior of the cathedral at a different time of day and in different weather, tracking the shifting light across the stones of the medieval structure.

Monet went to Rouen twice to paint the cathedral, in early spring 1892 and again in spring 1893. He painted two canvases outdoors, en plein air, of an aspect of the cathedral showing the haphazard dwellings built on the side of the Tour d’Albane.

The Rouen series
The majority of the series he painted from rooms near the cathedral’s west façade. Here you can see three of the paintings in the series, demonstrating the wide variety of colour and tone.

He painted from vantage points where he could see the whole width of the façade, the portal, the Tour de Beurre, and the Tour d’Albane. For a time he worked from a ladies’ clothes shop, sharing the second floor with a changing room, separated by a screen.

From these locations he would paint throughout the day, working for long hours in cramped surroundings on multiple canvases as the day progressed. He did not complete all the cathedral paintings in Rouen but continued to work in his spacious studio at Giverny after he had left Rouen, and into 1894.

Monet had set himself a challenge, and found painting the cathedral difficult. He wrote to his wife, ‘I work like a mad man, I cannot stop thinking of anything else but the cathedral’.

Monet intended the paintings of the cathedral to be seen as a group and he selected 20 to exhibit in his dealer Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in 1895. Durand-Ruel was concerned that Monet’s price of 15,000 francs was too high, but some were bought.

The exhibition received a mixed response from critics, in part due to the religious nature of the building depicted. Some found a dreamlike quality in the way light played upon the cathedral’s façade. This quality was perhaps increased by seeing 20 of the canvases together.

Monet's series paintings
Throughout his career Monet tended to repeatedly paint the same subjects. From the 1890s he started to actively paint in series, both in cities and the countryside: haystacks in the field near his house at Giverny; a line of poplars along the nearby Epte River; the Houses of Parliament in London; the churches and palaces of Venice; the Japanese bridge in his garden; and the multiple waterlily paintings. Each one is an exercise in capturing the atmosphere between Monet and his subject, the effect of different weather conditions and light, humidity, brightness, shadow, and haze. 
‘Everything changes, even stone’.
The cathedral’s intricate façade is hewn from monochrome stone but we can see many colours throughout the range of canvases from mauves and greens to pinks and oranges. Monet experimented with pigments in an attempt to capture the atmosphere and light surrounding the cathedral, much in the same way he uses many colours to paint the surface of the chalk cliffs at Étretat. Monet wrote of painting the cathedral: ‘Everything changes, even stone’.

Detail from Claude Monet, 'The Cliff of Aval', Etrétat, 1885

Detail from Claude Monet, 'Rouen Cathedral', West Façade, 1894

The Rouen Cathedral paintings represent a new departure for Monet. He is no longer only capturing effects of light and weather. He wrote of painting Rouen, ‘I am more and more mad about the need to render what I feel or experience’.

In this series he imbues his paintings of the cathedral’s resolute façade with a psychological aspect which would continue into later architectural series, especially his scenes of Venice.

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