From dawn till dusk
The world-famous painter Claude Monet (1840-1926), at the height of his creativity, was eager to dedicate an entire series of 33 paintings to Rouen Cathedral in the light of different times of day.

From dawn till dusk

Claude Monet's series of works of Rouen Cathedral

26. November 2021 | by Dr. Veit Ziegelmaier

The depiction of light and its atmospheric ambiences has always been a central theme in the visual arts. From the implementation of mythological ideas of antiquity to the sophisticated, technically demanding lighting of the Old Masters to contemporary art, where real light sources are increasingly being used: the aim is to literally put motifs, sceneries and places in the right light. In Impressionism," a stylistic era of the late 19th century, the facetted rendering of light reached a peak in the course of the endeavor of capturing the peculiarity and the atmosphere of a special moment on canvas. And so it happened that the world-famous painter Claude Monet (1840-1926), at the height of his creative powers, was eager to dedicate an entire series of 33 paintings to Rouen Cathedral in the light of different times of day.

Claude Monet is considered one of the main representatives of "Impressionism" and pioneer of modernism, known also for his impressive series of paintings of water lilies. At the end of the 19th century, painters left their studios to capture directly on location the atmosphere and the splendor of a light setting. This required a brisk and simultaneous painting method, which is therefore called "wet-on-wet" painting. Rather than elaborating precise details, the impasto and dynamic application of paint in the paintings of this period convey a vividly shimmering impression of the scenery, as if in the blurring of contours the permanent changes in the play of wind, light and shadow can be picked up.

Monet's series of works of Rouen Cathedral was created in 1892-94, initially renting a small apartment with a direct view of the church's west portal during his first stay, and later painting directly on site. He was not primarily concerned with the precise reproduction of the magnificent 13th-century architecture, but with the impression of the sensation of how the light played around the forms of the façade at different times of the day. This is also evident in the almost identically chosen image details with only a few perspective deviations. Monet even went so far as to have his preliminary drawing printed on canvas so that he could concentrate entirely on the special and fleeting moment of the prevailing light conditions. He tirelessly rendered the cathedral sometimes in a milky morning mist that obscured its outlines, or in the blue-orange tones of the rising morning sun. At other times in the shimmering, glistening midday light or even in the rich glow of the evening sun. He also picked up on different weather conditions.

While painting, he placed small patches of varying colors directly next to each other, sometimes in nuanced gradations, sometimes in contrasting colors. Only with some distance the sum of these color parts mixes in the eye of the viewer to an overall impression of an intense light and shadow play.

In the end, far more than 33 pictures were created, none of which can claim general validity due to the constant changes in lighting conditions. But Monet struggled with himself and was plagued by doubts whether he could succeed in a suitable representation at all and destroyed several versions himself. Today, as then, these paintings are considered masterpieces and among the most important creations of the era. And they are an essential step in the development of modern art. The Russian painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), a pioneer of 20th century abstraction, wrote with admiration about Monet's Rouen Cathedral: "[This is] painting in the true sense, movement and endless growth of colored spots, no one has ever seen that. [...] His central goal was not light and shadow [...] It's not about the cathedral, it's about painting."