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In February 1892, a few weeks before spring came to Northern France, a shaggy artist in a cloak and beret began to paint the old Gothic cathedral at Rouen, 90 minutes northwest of Paris. “The Cathedral in the sun is admirable,” Claude Monet wrote to his fiancé, Alice. “I started two of them.”
Having painted haystacks in shifting light, Monet assumed he might catch the same shadow and shimmer as they played across the grey Gothic facade. He did not know that, for the next two springs, the task would drain, frustrate, and ultimately exhaust him. But the cathedrals at Rouen, some thirty canvases in all, would remain his most lasting tribute to his favorite motif — light.
By the 1890s, Impressionists had won their battle with critics. Outlasting traditionalists who had openly laughed at their early works, Monet and his peers had converted all but the stuffiest critics. “Proceeding from intuition to intuition, they have little by little succeeded in breaking down sunlight into its rays,” one critic wrote. “The most learned physicist could find nothing to criticize in their analyses of light.” Yet Monet, white-bearded and worried about becoming passé, needed a fresh challenge. A new subject, more complex than haystacks, closer to his canvas than London’s Houses of Parliament, would make all of France notice. Monet, Cèzanne would later note, “was only an eye, but what an eye!”
Throughout the 19th century, France seemed to own light. Between 1800 and 1875, Frenchmen working in or near Paris had proven the wave theory of light, created the first light shows and the brightest lighthouses, stunned the world with the first lasting photographs, clocked light’s speed with unprecedented accuracy, and broken all the rules for capturing light on canvas, creating Impressionism. If the French loved light, Monet would give it to them, as it appeared at all hours of the day. By mid-March 1892, working on several canvases at once, he was painting twelve hours a day.
“I worked like a slave, today nine canvases,” he wrote his fiancé on March 18. “You can imagine how tired I am, but I am amazed with Rouen, with all that one could do here.” In love with the cathedral’s arches, porticoes, and towers, he started several new canvases, each from the same angle, each titled for the time of day. “Morning Effect,” “The Facade in Sunlight,” “Setting Sun — Symphony in Grey and Pink.” But soon the task overwhelmed him.
Striving for a perfect rendering of ever-changing light, he destroyed some canvases, started others at new hours of the day. The weather was good but still he struggled. By early April, he was having nightmares where “the Cathedral would crash on top of me, [or] it would appear either blue or pink or yellow.” As spring blossomed, toting twenty canvases in various stages of completion, he returned to Giverny. That summer, he married his fiancé, Alice, painted in his garden and thought no more about the cathedral in Rouen. But come the following February, he was back in the same apartment opposite the cathedral, painting the same arches and porticoes, seizing the light at all hours. This time, the weather did not cooperate.
A gray drizzle fell throughout February and on into March. Monet painted when he could, adding some canvases in fog, others in dull or diffused light. “My goodness!” he wrote to his new wife, “they are not very far-sighted, those who see a master in me! Beautiful intentions, yes, but that’s it! Happy the younger ones, those who believe that it is easy. I was like that once, but it is over; yet tomorrow morning at 7:00 I’ll be there.”
For the next month, he continued painting through typical French weather — drizzle, sunshine, more drizzle. His left thumb, stuck all day in his palette, grew numb and swollen; his back ached. He was in his early fifties, and a prisoner of his vision, a prisoner of light. But then spring released him. Suddenly Monet saw “no longer the oblique light of the February days; it is every day more white, more vertical, and as early as tomorrow I am going to work on two or three extra canvases.” Finally in mid-April 1893, the series was done. Monet spent another two years adding final touches. In May, 1895 his show opened in Paris.
Crowds wandered through the Durand-Ruel Gallery, intrigued, surprised, not knowing what to say. Here was the same cathedral on canvas after canvas. Only the light was different – soft blue when caught in early morning, golden at noon, grey in the afternoon, white in the fog. Critical reaction was mixed. One called the cathedrals “exasperated and morbid,” but another — future French prime minister Georges Clemenceau — hailed the series as “a revolution without a gunshot.” A third chimed in: “This series of the portals of Rouen at every hour and in every kind of light is amazing in its mastery, its strength, its bright colors, its delicacy and its magic.”
As the 19th century drew to a close, other artists extended Monet’s revolution. Post-Impressionists flattening the pyramids light made in each visual plane. Cubists broke light as if in a fractured mirror. Fauvists exaggerated colors, and the rest did just about anything they pleased with light. Monet’s cathedrals remained fixed in time and place. Only the light changed, shifting from morning fog to midday brilliance to afternoon shade to dusky, from midday blaze to ethereal evening.
In using light to fix time and place, Monet had captured the essence of the eternal. Light was not some simple radiance one could contain in a single painting, a single moment. Light was, in effect, a time machine. Time, like the light the French had mid-wifed into modernity, was fleeting, impossible to grasp. But if you spent time wisely, perhaps during a luncheon on the grass, perhaps at the seaside, along a sparkling river, or just outdoors on a spring day, light and time could be equally lovely.