Claude Monet
Artists & Illustrators|August 2021
Lockdown has made the Impressionist’s series paintings more relevant than ever, says STEVE PILL, who has enlisted leading artists to find out how they were done
STEVE PILL

If it wasn’t for Claude Monet, many of us would never have given the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen a second thought. Part way between Paris and France’s English-facing coast, it has been built and rebuilt a number of times over the 800 years prior to the Impressionist painter’s first visit in 1892, even briefly becoming the world’s tallest building several years prior to that point.

Yet it took Monet’s multiple depictions – more than 30 in total – of the French cathedral’s west façade for the world to really sit up and take notice. In many cases these weren’t studies, but rather full-scale canvases measuring more than a metre tall. He used every inch of the stretched linen to carve out a very vivid impression of this stately building in pastel hues and dazzling golds.

Look closely at any one of these paintings, now sadly almost all separated out across the globe as far afield as the National Museum of Serbia and Japan’s Pola Museum of Art, and one can see the sheer quantity of oil paint piled up on the surface, every meticulous stroke like a chip into weathered stone.

However, it is only when the works are viewed together that their true power reveals itself. Monet first exhibited 20 of them as a collection in 1895 and clearly intended for them to be seen as a whole. It is as if the artist had access to several years’ worth of time-lapse footage of the cathedral and he had cherry-picked the most dramatic and symphonic frames. Comparing them allows us to pick up on changes that we might take for granted today yet were considered revolutionary when observed so honestly 125 years ago. Dull weather lowers the overall tonal range of one, while the pastel pink hues of morning and shown in another are pitched almost within the same single value. Likewise, the background sky fluctuates between being brighter than the west-facing façade in the morning as the sun rises behind the building, to being far darker and more saturated during the day.

And while Cubism gave us multiple perspectives on a single subject within the same composition, Monet’s series helped to build a far fuller picture of a location. When one has seen the deep shadows of the cathedral’s main arches in the noon-day sun coupled with the softer dappled strokes of morning light, Rouen’s structure seems far more three-dimensional and real than any single image could ever show.

It is as if Monet had access to time-lapse footage of Rouen cathedral and cherry-picked the most dramatic frames

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