In February of 1892 Monet met his older brother Léon in Rouen to discuss important issues of familial inheritance. Reluctant to let personal matters interfere with his painting, Monet searched the city for a motif to paint during his stay. While the cold weather made his usual method of working en plein air very difficult, Monet settled on painting the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (fig. 1). He henceforth began working on a series of paintings that transformed our nature of perception, and today are considered to be the climax of Impressionism.
It is impossible to understand the Rouen Cathedral series without briefly examining the place Rouen held in the contemporary imagination, as well as the dialogue established between Monet and Pissarro around the essence of this city. Camille Pissarro had traveled to Rouen in 1896 and claimed its beauty was comparable to that of Venice. As Christopher Lloyd has explained of Pissarro's fascination with the city, "for Pissarro, Rouen possessed a potency that Venice had once exerted, and indeed continues to exert, on the European consciousness. In both cities there was a similar magic in the effects derived from the aesthetic relationship between the buildings and the water--in Rouen the Seine, and in Venice the lagoon or the canals" (C. Lloyd, Pissarro, Geneva, 1981, p. 88). Both Monet and Pissarro clearly responded to the mythical allure of Rouen, and their paintings from this period reflect the artistic fascination exerted by this gothic city.
While his days spent searching for subject matter quickly became frustrating, in a letter dated 12 February 1892 Monet wrote to his future wife Alice Hoschedé, "I am nevertheless a bit happier today, I was able to install myself in an empty apartment facing the cathedral, but it is a tough job I am undertaking here" (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., p. 15). Monet was speaking of the Louvet House, where he stayed for 11 days and painted the first two canvases depicting the façade of the cathedral (the present painting and fig. 2). These two compositions are the only works in the series displaying the frontal view of the cathedral, including a view of the base of the Neo-Gothic central spire.
As evidenced by his sketchbook, Monet deliberated for some time before painting the frontal view of the cathedral. He first observed Rouen from the top of Saint Catherine's hill and then viewed the cathedral from its southern side. He observed the cathedral's front view in line with the street of the Gros Horloge before returning to a view from the left bank of the river where the cathedral is visible. He finally chose to set up his easel at the window of the apartment at the Louvet house. From this angle he could paint the favorable view of the front of the cathedral and be sheltered from the cold.
Monet's 1892 views of the cathedral were not the first representations of this city the artist had undertaken. Two decades before the Rouen Cathedral series was begun, Monet visited his brother Léon in Rouen and participated in a municipal exhibition while there. These first views of Rouen depict a number of industrial views and landscapes seen from a distance with rowboats in the foreground (Wildenstein, vol. II, nos. 207-218). Living in Argenteuil at the time, the compositions painted there and in Rouen in 1872 carry out similar compositional themes. A distant view of the Rouen cathedral is evident in many of these early renditions.
Painting during February-April 1892 and February-March 1893, Monet completed thirty views of the Rouen Cathedral, twenty-five of which are signed and dated 1894 (one is signed and dated 1893; three are signed but not dated; one is stamped. It is likely that the works dated 1894 were later finished in the artist's studio in Giverny. As a result, it is challenging to distinguish the sequence of the paintings based on their style and it is for this reason that in his catalogue raisonné of Monet's works, Daniel Wildenstein dates each cathedral painting based on vantage point.
As Joachim Pissarro has noted:
At first glance, the series of the Cathedrals is based on a two-fold paradox. Each of the thirty views of the cathedral, while striving to render a 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 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 and worked out together, and as such were almost inseparable. Not only is each painting as a unit almost unfinishable, but the whole cycle of the series as a unified representation of time is in essence limitless. Yet all of these works are bound together by the same intense pictorial experimentation: each of the thirty paintings of the cathedral can be looked at and apprehended as an individual unit of an exploratory sequence, but all individually gain sense when they are replaced within the context of the whole series. (Ibid., p. 6)
Twenty-eight of the paintings were painted from three different locations. The first paintings in the series (including the present work) were executed from the Louvet House apartment. This vantage point offered the most frontal view of the building. Upon his return to Rouen, Monet found that the room at Louvet house was being refurbished and therefore temporarily unavailable. He found refuge at the home of a clothing storeowner, François Lévy, at no. 23 in the same square, however at a slightly different angle in relation to the façade. The third vantage point was observed from the shop of M. Edouard Mauquit (fig. 3).
Critical response to the series was mixed at the time of their first exhibition at Durand-Ruel in 1895. Many critics responded negatively, some of whom even associated the series with a lack of moral restraint, so clear was the absence of drawing and lack of definition. As Joachim Pissarro has noted, "The contemporary critics of Monet, Clemenceau and Geffroy, took a radically difference stance on the Cathedrals. Clemenceau was entirely carried away and confessed inexhaustibly, 'I cannot get rid of it. It obsesses me. I have to speak about it. And, for better or worse, I shall speak about it'. Moreover, Clemenceau imagined the type of person who would enjoy the Cathedral series as much as he did to be a hedonist, and thus deserving praise in Clemenceau's eyes, 'One of these beings with two feet, whose principal merit is to wander around the earth with a pair of eyes ready to be carried away by all the feasts offered to us by the divine light'" (ibid., p. 29).
(fig. 1) Photograph of the Rouen Cathedral, circa 1890.
Archives Musée Marmotton, Paris.
(Photograph by Neurdein)
(fig. 2) Claude Monet, Le portail vu de face, harmonie brune, 1894 Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 3) Photograph of buildings facing the Rouen Cathedral.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.