Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monet's series paintings - Rouen cathedral

Three of the paintings of Rouen Cathedral by Monet
(images from The Atheneaum)

I vividly remember the first time I ever saw any of Monet's series paintings of Rouen Cathedral. I was on my very first visit to Paris which naturally means it was also my very first visit to the Musée d'Orsay.

The museum has an amazing room (salle 34) full of impressionist paintings which I highly recommend as a "must see" for anybody visiting Paris.

The Monet paintings were arranged in sequence. They were the same and yet different. The view was virtually identical and yet all were different in some respect - in terms of colours and the degree of shadow or sunlight. They were all crusty with oil paint, the cathedral seemed to have almost been sculpted from the paint by Monet. Each on its own would have been impressive. However, together they acted as a magnet and drew a crowd.

Below are the correct French titles as listed on the Musée d'Orsay website
  1. La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil - Harmonie bleue et or (Rouen Cathedral, the Portal and the Tour d'Albane, Full Sunlight - Harmony in blue and gold)
  2. La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, effet du matin -Harmonie blanche ( Rouen Cathedral, the Portal, Morning Effect - Harmony in White)
  3. La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail, soleil matinal -Harmonie bleue (Rouen Cathedral, the Portal, Morning sun - Harmony in Blue)
  4. La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail vu de face - Harmonie brune (Rouen Cathedral, the Portal, Front View - Harmony in Brown)
  5. La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail, temps gris (Rouen Cathedral, the Portal, Gray weather)
These paintings are all broadly speaking the same sort of size - about a metre high and about two thirds of a metre across (very roughly about 36" x 24").

You can also see more of the paintings on a couple of websites
The motif and its significance

Rouen Cathedral is a Gothic cathedral in Rouen, in northwestern France. It's the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen and the building of Notre dame Cathedral started in 1200 and contains nearly the entire history of the Gothic style over a period of some 400 years. In the middle ages it's also where the kings of France were crowned.

Rouen is also situated some 60 kilometres from Giverny and is a city which Monet - and the French - knew well.

When looked at from the perspective of his paintings prior to 1892, the important thing to note is that he had never before before focused on one building or architectural element or even painted one motif as often as he did with Rouen Cathedral and its facades.

It's maybe important to note that Turner - the other great painter of atmosphere and light - had also created an engraving of Rouen Cathedral as part of his series on River Scenery in France.

The novelty of working with one motif meant that it became imbued with meaning. Hayes Tucker points to the religious revival in France in the 1890s and the fact that a Gothic Cathedral was a distinctly French symbol. Importantly Gothic was perceived in the 1890s as being symbolic
....the Gothic was perceived in the 1890s as the product of a unique partnership involving all segments of society - enlightened rulers, generous chruchmen and the common man, who was understood to b a worthy and talented individual.
Paul Hayes Tucker - Monet in the 90s page 154
The Location

Monet's home area is Normandy. Rouen is the historical capital city of Normandy, in northwestern France on the River Seine, and currently the capital of the Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) région.

The dates

Monet began the paintings in January or early February 1892. He visited Rouen on three occasions and completed 20 views of Rouen Cathedral between March 1892 and Feb-April 1893.

The process

He did a number of studies of different facades. He most often painted the cathedral from a southwestern vantage point (see the Google Map for the Cathedrale Notre Dame) - near to where the Tourist Office is situated on the corner of the Rue Petit Salut and the Place de la Cathedrale.

Two different Morning Effects
paintings of Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet

According to Hayes Tucker this site had several benefits:
  • it permitted Monet to see most of the facade
  • created a view which contrasted in the shorter tower on the left (north) - the Tour d'Albane - with the much taller tower on the right - the Tour de Berre
  • gave him the best view as the sun passed around and across the facade of the entrance to the cathedral. It rises from behind the Tour d'Albane and creates a silhouette of the cathedral in the morning and then bathes the whole facade in light in the afternoon.
I had some fun with Google Earth and clicking the photos around the cathedral to see what were the views which Monet would have seen.

To start with Monet worked in an apartment which he had rented on the second floor of a building opposite the Cathedral. This would give more of a sense of looking at the building rather than looking up at the building. Then after a short break, he moved his studio to the front room of a shop on the square and was now at an angle rather than directly across from the Cathedral.

He moaned and groaned to friends and family during the project in terms of the difficulties he was encountering in terms of the complexity of the motif and the light! He changed his mind about treatments, experienced setbacks and continued to add and subtract from the paintings. Eventually he had nightmares! The description of the process in Monet in the 90s is riveting and not for the faint-hearted!

However the outcome is successful - even if it's very different from previous paintings
In these finished canvases, the age-old battle between line and color, draughtsmanship and paintery verve is taken to a new level, while Monet's analysis of light and its effects on form is pushed well beyond all his previous efforts
Paul Hayes Tucker - Monet in the 90s page 167
He returned to Giverny in April 1892 (for various reasons including his coming marriage to Alice in July 1892) and did not return to Rouen again until February 1893 to capture the same weather and light conditions. This time his studio was located at a slightly different angle - and this is where he painted the views which include the edges of houses on the left. Again he returned to the despair he'd experienced the previous year. The main problem seems to have been that he wanted the paintings to all be very good and found it depressing to be unable to achieve what he wanted.


20 Rouen paintings exhibited in Galerie Durand-Ruel between May 10th-31st 1895.

This exhibition was initially delayed as Monet considered that he needed to include other work as well to round out the exhibition (presumably in case everybody hated the cathedral paintings!).

The first exhibition of the paintings in 1895 apparently caused a great sensation and most people agreed they were a triumph. However, there were also criticisms of drawing, the choice of subject and the use of colour!

Paul Hayes Tucker quotes Pissaro
I am carried away by their extraordinary deftness....Cezanne.....is in complete agreement...this is the work of a well balanced but impulsive artist who pursues the intangible nuances of effects that are relaised by no other painter.
Pissaru quoted in Monet in the 90s
Interestingly he initially decided to hike his prices after a lengthy period without showing work and asked 15,000 francs for each of his Cathedrals more than five times what he charged for the haystacks. He based the figure on the time taken to complete them and the toll on him personally! Then he got cold feet and called off the exhibition. Then he decided to only ask that figure for the very best paintings. The end result was that he managed to sell some of the best paintings before the exhibition was held for the asking price. So, of course, he then had an exhibition which already included 'sold pictures' - always a great incentive to get people buying!

Where are the paintings now?

I'm in the process of tracking down all the paintings and will be recording my findings in Monet's Series Paintings - Rouen Cathedral which I hope to publish later today.

The paintings can be found all around the world - some in public collection and some in private hands.

La cathédrale dans le brouillard was in the Sotheby's sale on 3rd November 2008.
Lot 54, Claude Monet’s La cathédrale dans le brouillard, 1893, est. $16 million-$20 million. Sotheby’s had high hopes -- or high anxiety -- for this picture, for the firm tagged it for the cover of its catalogue wrapper. Monet painted 16 pictures of the cathedral in 1893, leaving behind a monument on the timeline of art. Put generously, this picture is the least simple of them all. The cathedral is diaphanous almost to the point of invisibility, easier to see at a distance, and still a considerable piece of work. It is not coy in the fog, it’s dreary. On an economic note, the early Le pont du chemin de fer a Argenteuil sold last May for $41 million. A high return for what was bruited as an average picture. Le portail (Soleil), a defining picture in the cathedral series, sold in May 2000 for $24 million. La cathédrale dans le brouillard passed. What a surprise.
artnet - Art market Watch by Stewart Waltzer
  • Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings by Paul Hayes Tucker. Book produced for an exhibition of Monet's paintings in the 90s. Proposes that Monet's series paintings also related to contemporary events in France and to Monet's determination to provide active leadership for his nation's artistic production.


  1. A very interesting blog. Rouen museum has one of the series on show.

    Did you know that Sisley did a series of paintings of the church in Moret sur Loing. Whether he was copying Monets example I do not know, but similarly they are all painted from a very similar view point. I was there earlier in the year and took a photo from the same location. Very little has changed. Did not have time to do a sketch.

  2. No I ddn't know - how interesting.

  3. My first visit to Musee d'Orsay caused me to cry - there are so many paintings there that are so familiar that it feels like meeting long lost family. I suspect many people have the same experience.

    Now I'm trying to imagine what an incredible experience it would have been to be able to see ALL those cathedral paintings together at the original exhibition. You are obviously enjoying tracking them down.

  4. Enjoying this informative topic. Can only agree with Robyn that the Orsay collection is very special & emotive.

    One of the Rouen series is currently in Sydney at the Art Gallery of NSW until January 2009 (Rouen Cathedral facade & tour d'Albane (morning effect) 1894)- Unfortunately only on a loan from Boston, Good video of the exhibition here

  5. Robyn - you have captured EXACTLY my reaction when I first visited.

    Fred = thank you so much for that information

    I'm afraid I still haven't got the resource site up - and I'd love more tips of where all the paintings can be found!

  6. For an exhaustive look at the Cathedral series

    Monet's Cathedral
    Rouen 1892 - 1894
    Joachim Pissarro
    pub. Pavilion Books, 1990
    isbn: 1 85145 600 7

    30 colour plates, including details
    such as time of day, which of the locations the artist used as viewpoint, and which gallery owned the canvas (in 1990, obviously... )

    My naive understanding, having stood in front of the building a number of times, is that this is not simply 30 pictures of the same building, but 30 pictures of a building that was DIFFERENT each time, by virtue of different weather, viewpoint, time of day, etc.


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