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Rouen Cathedral, Set IV

Rouen Cathedral, Set IV
signed and dated 'rf Lichtenstein '69' (on the reverse of each canvas)
triptych—oil and Magna on canvas
each: 63 x 42 in. (160 x 106.7 cm.)
Painted in 1969
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Holly and Horace H. Solomon, New York (1969).
The Mayor Gallery, London and Anders Malmberg, Malmö (circa 1985).
Douglas S. Cramer, Los Angeles.
Gagosian Gallery, New York (2000).
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2000.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Roy Lichtenstein, September-November 1969, pp. 70-71, no. 58 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art About Art, July-September 1978, pp. 92-93 (illustrated).
Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, In Our Time: Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum 1948-1982, October 1982-January 1983, p. 74.
Venice Biennale, 41st International Art Exhibition, Art in the Mirror/Art and the Arts/History and the Present in La Biennale di Venezia, June–September 1984, p. 57, no. 1-3.
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Pop Art: 1955-1970, February-August 1985, pp. 162-163 (illustrated in color).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.
Further details
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

Brought to you by

Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

”Lichtenstein rewards us with a highly complex visual and intellectual statement… [one] based on his understanding of modern art”—Diane Waldman
(D. Waldman, Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1969, p. 20).
Rouen Cathedral, Set IV, Roy Lichtenstein’s epic interrogation of art history through the lens of contemporary art, is one of the most perceptive paintings of his career. Fresh from the success of his groundbreaking paintings inspired by comic books, in 1969 the artist turned his attention to the celebrated paintings of Claude Monet, one of the most visionary artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Captivated by the French artist’s investigations into painting light, Lichtenstein took as his inspiration Monet’s famous painting Rouen Cathedral, Façade (1894; Museum of Fine Art Boston). He had seen the painting in a monograph about the artist and began transforming Monet’s ethereal brushstrokes into his signature Ben-Day dots. The result was a group of about half a dozen triptychs (two of which are now in major international museum collections) that demonstrates Lichtenstein’s uniquely academic approach to Pop Art. As Diane Waldman writes in the catalogue to the artist’s 1969 Guggenheim retrospective (his first museum exhibition, and one which included the present work), ”Lichtenstein rewards us with a highly complex visual and intellectual statement… [he] is able to present us with a new vision, not one based on the comic strip but more probably based on his understanding of modern art” (Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1969, p. 20).
Across these three conjoined canvases, Lichtenstein produces a simulacrum of Monet’s famous depiction of the west front of Rouen Cathedral. The French master’s version was a triumphal essay on the Impressionists’ treatment of light, as—over approximately thirty canvases—he painted the same building at different times of day and at different times of the year, replicating the deep shadows cast by the building’s Gothic façade as it changed in the different light conditions. In Rouen Cathedral, Set IV, Lichtenstein swaps Monet’s loaded brushstrokes for the utilitarian nature of his Ben-Day dots, imitating the printing process that has reproduced Monet’s original painting countless times. The result is a Pop painting that dissolves into abstraction before our very eyes. This builds on one of the qualities of Monet’s original, as Lichtenstein himself pointed out in an interview with John Coplans, “I follow Monet’s general idea in a much more mechanical way. Of course, they are different from Monet, but they do deal with the Impressionist cliché of not being able to read the image close up—it becomes clearer as you move away” (quoted in J. Coplans, "Interview: Roy Lichtenstein," in G. Bader, ed., October Files: Roy Lichtenstein, Cambridge, 2009, p. 43).
Rather than applying color in a field of luscious brushstrokes as the Impressionists did, Lichtenstein’s canvases were painted using a metal stencil, producing the hard-edged optical dots of color. Although mimicking the mechanical process of industrial CMYK printing, Lichtenstein’s process is much more laborious and complex than rapid printing: “It’s an industrialized way of Impressionism, by a machine-like technique,” the artist once quipped, “but it probably takes me ten times as long to do one of the Cathedrals or Haystacks as it took Monet to do his” (ibid.). Each of the works in the series is painted individually using the same labor-intensive process of applying the dots by hand, yet each of the sets is unique: slightly different images and changing color combinations insuring that no aspect of the composition is repeated.
The use of repeating images also plays into the idea of seriality, something which interested both Monet and Pop artists such as Lichtenstein and his contemporary, Andy Warhol. Lichtenstein reminds us that Monet painted in series—a very modern idea at the time—by painting essentially the same view of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day, and at different times of the year. Lichtenstein replicated this idea but with a slight, yet significant, difference. “I thought using three slightly different images in three different colors as a play on different times of day would be more interesting” he said (ibid.).
Lichtenstein’s sophisticated understanding of color is another factor that is paramount to the success of his Cathedral paintings. In Rouen Cathedral, Set IV, the artist situates his canvases at the red light end of the spectrum: the first canvas in the sequence combines a lighter orange ground with a deep red primary image, the second canvas is comprised of a cooler ground counteracted by the same red hue as the first canvas, and the final canvas in the triptych combines two tones of deep red. “I think changing the color to represent different times of the day is a mass-production way of using the printing process” Lichtenstein has admitted. In this matter, he was continuing an interest in color theory and the science of optics that had enthused Monet and his contemporaries. In paintings such as Circus Sideshow (1887-1988; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Georges Seurat employs his pointillist technique to play with the idea of light and shadow, fracturing it into dots of pure color. Rather than mixing together colors on a palette or directly on the surface of the canvas, Seurat was placing dabs of contrasting colors side by side and letting the eye do the mixing. In the present work, Lichtenstein advances the same line of enquiry, but with an industrial technique, thus reversing the traditional high art-to-low art trajectory of the time.
It was this interest in light and shadow falling across the façade of Rouen Cathedral that attracted Monet to this particular subject matter in the first place. In February 1892 he was in the French city to meet his older brother Léon. While he was there, Monet searched the city for a subject to paint and eventually fell upon the façade of the city’s gothic cathedral. As Joachim Pissarro has noted: “At first glance, the series of Cathedrals is based on a two-fold paradox. Each of the thirty views of the cathedral, while striving to render pictorial account of the artist’s fleeting, momentary, sensation of the cathedral under some ephemeral light effect, was the result of months and months of work. Further, although each different view of the cathedral represents a separate moment, an individual and a separate slice of time and light as perceived by the artist in front of the cathedral, everything in Monet’s working process and in his letters indicates that the paintings were conceived, thought out together…” (quoted in C. Lloyd, Pissarro, Geneva, 1981, p. 6). The result transformed the nature of our understanding of perception, and today these paintings are considered to be the climax of Impressionism.
These paintings also mirrored Lichtenstein’s unique way of conveying seemingly simple pieces information, the result of his perceptive and systematic understanding of how visual communication developed in the age of mass communication. He began to form these ideas under the tutelage of Hoyt L. Sherman, his professor at Ohio State University in the 1940s. In his influential book Drawing by Seeing, Sherman advocated a new approach to conveying narrative, “Students must develop an ability to see familiar objects in terms of visual qualities,” he wrote, “and they must develop this ability to the degree that old associations with such objects will have only a secondary or a submerged role during the seeing-and-drawing act” (quoted in B. Rose, The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 29). This theory was reinforced by Sherman’s use of what he called his "flash room"—a darkened room where images of objects were briefly flashed onto a screen for the students to copy. Teaching drawing in this manner proved to be extremely influential for on Lichtenstein as it forced him to focus his attention on the most important visual aspects of the objects structure, and not to become distracted by extraneous matters such as unnecessary decoration.
Lichtenstein’s Pop breakthrough came in 1961 when he adopted the flat graphic style of commercial printing. After many years working with unsuccessfully in the Abstract Expressionist mode of painting, he suddenly found himself propelled onto the international art scene with his bright, bold, optimistic imagery. In 1962 the legendary Ferus Gallery’s first director, Walter Hopps, curated the group exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum, in which Lichtenstein’s early comic strip and consumer goods paintings were shown on the West Coast for the first time. The Ferus Gallery would then host important solo shows for the artist in 1963 and 1965, as well as featuring his work in the 1964 exhibit A View of New York Painting, including Major Works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Larry Poons. Each show helped to enhance Lichtenstein’s standing, and collectors were soon eager to acquire the comic-inspired paintings that shocked so many viewers with their confrontational banality.
Rouen Cathedral, Set IV was included in Lichtenstein’s first ever museum retrospective, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1969. In his review of the exhibition, Max Kozloff of Artforum recognized Lichtenstein’s progressive approach, even among the Pop artists. He wrote “Lichtenstein has always been a revisionist. It means nothing and everything to say that he feeds off the given accoutrements of culture, high and low, old and new. Even when he invents a composition, he is not free from borrowing its style, and even when he is at his most derivative in style, he can be most authentic in thought. He gives as much as he gets, feeding back into the cultural mainstream, not so much comments or précis or afterthoughts on his sources, but witty alternatives of looking ‘through’ them—and by extension, at ourselves” ("Lichtenstein at the Guggenheim," in G. Bader, op. cit., pp. 11-13).
Rightly regarded as one of the founders of the Pop Art movement, Lichtenstein was also in many ways a conceptual painter. As can be seen with the Brushstroke paintings that preceded his Cathedral canvases, the artist was fascinated by the physical act of painting as much as he was by the visual language used to convey different ideas. He was also a consummate student of art history and joined the canon with his insightful interpretation of the artistic process. The curators of his last major retrospective, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012-2013, knowingly surmised his unique contribution: “He was the first artist to systematically dismantle—through appropriation, repetition, stylization, and parody—the history of modern art, and he himself is now an inviolable fixture in that very canon. By rendering reproductions of paintings plucked from a familiar litany of Modernist art history, Lichtenstein conflated disparate genre subjects and styles, though not without deference and respect” (J. Rondeau and S. Wagstaff, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, May-September 2012, p. 20). In Rouen Cathedral, Set IV, Lichtenstein knowingly engaged in a century long conversation with one of his artistic heroes to create a fundamentally new style that allowed him the capacity to innovate while pursuing the same artistic conventions that had dominated the previous two decades.

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