Monet’s towering obsession

Rouen Cathedral in Normandy was the painter’s most radical fixation

On an April night in 1892, Claude Monet had a nightmare. It was one of those blatant, tormenting dreams that seem embarrassingly easy to interpret. A falling dream, you could call it. Except that it wasn’t his own body falling through space: It was a cathedral, crashing down on top of him.

Specifically, it was Rouen Cathedral.

In 1892 and 1893, over two campaigns that stretched from winter into spring, Claude Monet worked on 30 canvases, all of them depicting the facade of Rouen’s great Gothic cathedral in the Normandy region of France. Built in the span of about 800 years, the cathedral was Rouen’s most famous landmark. Generations of artists had painted it before Monet. But no one had thought to paint it the way he would.

Monet omitted the cathedral’s most famous feature, the massive spire that, for a brief period in the late 1870s, had made it the world’s tallest building. Perhaps wanting to avoid cliche, he focused instead on its western facade.

He painted this complex plane, with its traceries, sculptures, pilasters and sunken portals jutting out and receding, 28 times, after first painting two close-ups of the Tour Saint Romain, one of the two western towers. The 20 versions reproduced here are all in public collections..

Contemplating them as an ensemble, as Monet intended, is eye-opening. One of the questions it prompts is: What does the replication do to the meaning of the image? How do we now see this singular structure — the focal point of Rouen, a building both sacred to believers and integral to France’s national identity — now that it has been dematerialized into colored light and multiplied, like one of Warhol’s soup cans? And how do the subtle changes from one canvas to the next affect our sense of what we are looking at?

An analysis by the art historian Joachim Pissarro, published in his 1990 book “Monet’s Cathedral,” showed that Monet painted the cathedral’s western facade in shifting weather. Mostly, the skies were sunny.

But sometimes, they were overcast or foggy.

And he painted at different times of day, capturing the cathedral in the morning

and around midday,

as well as in the afternoon

and in the evening.

With two exceptions, Monet painted the canvases from rooms across the square from the cathedral. Some he painted (usually in the afternoons) from an unoccupied apartment that provided the most frontal view of the facade. Others he painted from a ladies’ underwear boutique, just a few doors down to the right, and another store even farther down.

Eight of these staggeringly beautiful paintings — symphonic in color, both monumental and oddly unstable in composition — are in American museum collections.

Two are in the National Gallery of Art.

Two more are in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Most of the rest are in public museums in Europe.

Five are at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Two are at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Impressionism is synonymous with the idea of a “light touch,” with broken, brightly colored brushstrokes that are sketchy and loose. What’s startling about Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings is the density of the paint.

On most of these canvases it’s like a thick encrustation of gunk. The surfaces have been compared to plaster and rough cement — less the result of an artist’s intentional handiwork than of an impersonal, cumulative process. They look weathered.

Yet the colors are jewel-like, opalescent. They sing with astonishing, ringing subtlety, like treble voices harmonizing in a choir. When you stand back, the blotches of color resolve and your eyes can make out the subject. Rouen Cathedral. Sheer mass, soaring vertiginously overhead. A structure hundreds of years in the making.

Your mind knows it to be a heavy thing, made of stone — a monument to faith, communal will and the human search for meaning. An enduring glory of Western civilization.

Monet’s composition, however, is far from sturdy. All but two of the 30 paintings present the facade at a slight angle, so that the parts of the building on the right are a little closer than those on the left. This asymmetry, along with the total absence of continuous lines, creates a feeling of instability, all of which may partly explain Monet’s collapsing cathedral nightmare.

What’s remarkable, when standing in front of just one of these complex, heavily worked paintings, is the knowledge that Monet painted 29 more like it. All in different light conditions. What was he getting at? What was he out to achieve?

These 20 paintings are in public collections. Select any painting for an enlarged view or continue scrolling

Monet’s aim, wrote art historian Virginia Spate, was “to embody a continuous perceptual experience.” This was an almost impossible task, because as we all know, perceptions come and go. “The longer he painted a work,” wrote Spate, “the more he saw; and the more he saw, the more he needed to paint.”

As the paint became thicker, the cathedral’s stable reality began to disintegrate. This caused the artist enormous frustration. “Good god, what work this cathedral is!” he wrote to his wife-to-be, Alice, in late February 1892. He worried that the canvases were “obstinate encrustation[s] of colors, and that’s all.”

Nevertheless, he pushed on with his work. Having painted in Rouen all that winter and into the spring, he resumed his campaign the following year.

Monet loved Gothic architecture. The cathedral’s west-facing facade was so much more intricate than the west-facing cliffs he had painted at Étretat or Belle Ile. It fascinated him. He became obsessed with registering how it received and reflected light. He kept swiveling his heavy, bearded head from his palette (where he mixed his colors) to the canvas on the easel and back to the cathedral.

The Normandy weather can turn quickly, from bright to murky and back. So Monet had several canvases underway simultaneously. He rotated them on and off the easel on the half-hour, or hour, or simply as the light changed. He hoped for good weather, but both winters were unusually miserable and gray. Still, as spring approached, the oblique light became stronger, starker, more vertical.

Paul Cézanne’s famous critique of Monet was that he was “only an eye.” (“But my God!” he added, “what an eye!”) This has fed the idea that Monet was trying to attain a kind of machine-like objectivity, as if he were a dumb camera, faithfully depicting the motif precisely as he saw it. But that’s clearly not the case. If Monet were that kind of artist, he would never have settled on the astonishing color combinations he used for the cathedral, which go well beyond nature.

It’s true that his instincts were empirical. But Monet was as much a poet as a literalist, and he was trying to get the two things, canvas and cathedral, to speak to one another in ways that felt true to him. The process was intuitive and ongoing, like dream-work, and less like a closed loop than a spiral, always corkscrewing ahead. Resolution was elusive.

The paint on the scumbled surface kept getting thicker, more encrusted. The cathedral kept disappearing, and the image itself became ever more abstract, like an incantation you repeat aloud until it loses its sense. Why do this? Why strive to convert what is happening in reality, minute-by-minute, into fixed images destined to remain unchanged for hundreds of years?

The whole project threatened to defeat him. “Things don’t advance sensibly,” he complained in a letter to Alice, “primarily because each day I discover something that I hadn’t seen before.”

“What drives me to persist in researches that are beyond my strength?” he wondered. “I am doing nothing of value. I don’t know how many sessions I have spent on these paintings, and do what I may, they don’t advance. … It’s depressing.”

Explore Sebastian Smee’s Great Works, In Focus series

In mid-April 1892, Monet took all the cathedrals back to his studio in Giverny. He felt, he said, “absolutely discouraged.” He had all but lost faith in the project, and it was many weeks before he dared to open the crate and see what he had done.

When he did, he resumed work on them in his studio for many more months, making thousands of small adjustments, relying on memory but also responding to each work’s internal logic. (This is why they are all dated 1894, rather than 1892 or 1893, when Monet was actually in Rouen.)

Monet was keen for the entire series to be displayed together. But, much to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel’s frustration, he continually delayed the planned exhibition (his first in three years). When 20 of them were finally put on display at Durand-Ruel’s Paris gallery in 1895, the artist’s friend Georges Clemenceau devoted the front page of his newspaper to lauding Monet’s series. Clemenceau — a former radical left-wing mayor of Montmartre who would become prime minister of France — tried to pressure President Félix Faure to buy the entire series for the French state. Monet, he correctly predicted, would be remembered and “celebrated throughout the world long after [Faure’s] name will have fallen into oblivion.”

But that effort collapsed and the paintings are now scattered throughout the world.

Impressionism can seem the most benign, the most complacent, the most cliched of art styles. All that sunlight and transience! All those pretty poppies and placid riverbanks! What does it actually amount to? What does it reveal of the world?

People were asking the same questions when Impressionism emerged in the 1870s. Many critics dismissed what they saw as undercooked sketches that should never have left the studio. A degree of acceptance ensued, but the voices of skeptics remained prominent, both within and outside the art world, reaching a crescendo in the 1880s and 1890s, when the innovations of the Post-Impressionists (Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat) indicated that Monet’s time might be over. Even today, and despite the movement’s proven durability and popularity, plenty of people in the art world tend not to give Impressionist paintings a second look.

But Monet was revolutionary. Not just in the late 1860s and 1870s when he developed the Impressionist technique of broken brushstrokes, unmixed color and flooding light. And not just near the end of his life, when his horizon-less views of his garden at Giverny suggested a new kind of poetic, pantheistic vision that inspired such abstract artists as Jackson Pollock, Ellsworth Kelly, Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell. He was radical at every stage of his career — and perhaps never more so than when he spent those two successive winters painting Rouen Cathedral.

To think about why, we can start with the most obvious.

This was the only time that Monet focused so exclusively on an existing work of art. He took a French Gothic cathedral — heavy, enduring, deeply symbolic — and turned it into a motif devoid of straight lines, stripped of symbolism. He made it express neither religious conviction nor national glory, but transience and lightness. Something, in fact, very close to meaninglessness. It was a bold, counterintuitive thing to do, and, given Monet’s predilection for painting nature, wholly unexpected.

The repetition — not just one cathedral facade but 30 — exponentially deepens the aesthetic intensity.

The paintings were propositions that, for all its beauty, a cathedral facade is merely another configuration of elements, no different from a cloud. (Some have speculated that Monet wasn’t painting the cathedral at all, but rather the ever-shifting “envelope” of air around it.)

Of course, Monet’s awareness of transience chimed with certain discoveries in science in the late 19th century. Some of these, such as Michael Faraday’s discoveries that rays of light were affected by magnetic fields and James Clerk Maxwell’s recognition that light, electricity and magnetism were manifestations of the same phenomenon (laying the foundation for special relativity and quantum mechanics), were undercutting the idea of a permanent, solid, objective reality. Everything, suggested the new science, was contingent and relative to everything else.

These ideas were echoed in the philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche who, under the influence of various Eastern philosophies, speculated that there was no matter, per se, only energy and motion. All these profoundly disorienting notions fed the insecurity we associate with modernity.

“What were we doing,” asked Nietzsche in his 1882 book “The Gay Science,” “when we unchained this earth from its sun? … Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”

Monet’s vision of Rouen Cathedral possesses some of this untethered, plunging quality. Most people look to Monet for reassurance. But far from celebrating Catholicism or the beauty of the Gothic or the greatness of France, his vision in many ways epitomized modernity. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 pamphlet “The Communist Manifesto.” “All that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life … ”

Clemenceau intuited that Monet could have painted as many versions of the cathedral as there are seconds in the day. The implication was that, under the sun, no moment was more important than any other and that no building or belief system was inherently enduring. All of which may be why Virginia Spate described the vision expressed in Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings as “inherently terrifying.”

We register such apprehensions today almost with a shrug. But in the 1890s, Monet’s expression of transience must have felt awesome. He was embracing a vision that, while staying true to the (by then) century-old tenets of plein-air easel painting, also pointed forward to existentialism and postmodernism, tapping into a sensibility that came to be identified with the work of such figures as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

At least one critic at the time, André Michel, sensed the series’ undertow of meaninglessness. Referring to Monet’s “arbitrary and compelling dream,” Michel suggested that the cathedral paintings represented “the last throes of oil painting which has nothing left to say.” That is exactly the sort of thing 21st-century critics say in front of paintings by artists like Richter.

This is not to suggest that Monet was a prophet, or that he was out to make political statements. He was, according to Spate, a “passionately detached observer” — a freethinker who remained pointedly mute on the subject of politics. But to Clemenceau, who contrasted Monet’s vision with what he called the “false miracles of Christianity,” the Rouen Cathedral series constituted “a revolution without a gunshot.”

In France, the 1890s saw something of a religious revival, as people looked to the consolations of Catholicism’s moral order as an antidote to wider upheavals in society, which had reached a low point during the Paris Commune in 1871. Nor was the religious revival confined to Catholicism. Buddhism was another creed garnering enormous interest as the end of the century approached. So Monet’s transposition of the empirical world into colored light can also be seen in the context of Buddhist ideas about the interconnectedness of all things.

In a sense, the very transience Monet depicted depreciates value. When Milan Kundera wrote about “the unbearable lightness of being,” the author meant exactly this: “What happens but once,” he wrote in his 1984 novel, “might as well not have happened at all.” Registering this can be liberating. It can free us from the heavy burden of history. But what is lost is no less than our sense of reality, which is rooted in the feeling that our existence has weight and a set of meanings steeped in tradition, shadowed by consequence. Deprived of this weight, Kundera wrote, reality threatens “to splinter into thousands of split-second impressions.”

Toward the end of his career, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called “On Transience.” He began by recounting a conversation with a poet friend who had told Freud that he struggled to find joy in the beauty of the countryside through which they were strolling, knowing that “all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendor that men have created or may create.”

Freud could find no way to dispute his friend’s apprehension. But, he wrote, “I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.” On the contrary, he claimed, its worth is increased. “Transience value is scarcity value in time.”

It’s a reassuring notion. Just as we place a higher value on certain objects because they are scarce, we might value moments in time precisely because of their transience. We may not be able to commodify transience as we can rare objects, but there are other, more intimate ways to confer value.

Monet understood the challenge of painting transience, of capturing time as it intersected with colored light. It meant working quickly, and learning to live with doubt and dissatisfaction. “One must know how to seize the moment of the landscape,” he wrote, “for that moment will never return, and one always wonders if the impression one received was the right one.”

He probably didn’t need Freud to interpret his collapsing cathedral dream. It was clearly a manifestation of the stress he was under as he attempted something no painter had tried. But Freud was more than just an interpreter of dreams, and he had a special way of tempering anxiety. His thoughts on transience — essentially, “if no moment ever returns, we should appreciate all the more each moment that is given us” — palliate Monet’s otherwise terrifying vision.

Freud’s conversation with his poet friend took place right before World War I, when so much of value, including millions of young lives and countless centuries-old buildings, would be destroyed. Mourning the loss of the things we love, Freud said, is inevitable and natural. But mourning ends.

“When once the mourning is over,” he concluded, “it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”

Perhaps. Perhaps. Repeat it 30 times and we may believe it more. Or less.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to art historian Joachim Pissarro’s 1990 book on Claude Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings as an exhibition. The story has been corrected.

About this story

Paintings in order of appearance: Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Mass.; Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt; Museum Folkwang, Essen; J. Paul Getty Museum; Klassik Stiftung Weimar; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt; Clark Art Institute; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection; Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt; Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Editing by Janice Page and Amy Hitt. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Photo research by Moira Haney and Kelsey Ables. Copy editing by Angela Mecca. Design by Irfan Uraizee.