David Drouant, Paris
J. Lafage, Paris (acquired from the above circa 1950)
Private Collection, France (by descent from the above and sold: Christie's, New York, May 9, 2001, lot 2)
Acquired from the above sale
Horishima, Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum & Nara, Nara Prefectural Museum of Art, Claude Monet. A Hymn to Light, 2004, no. 37, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Une ville pour l’impressionnisme. Monet, Pissarro et Gauguin à Rouen, 2010, no. 59, illustrated in the catalogue
Joachim Pissarro, Monet's Cathedral, Rouen 1892-1894, New York, 1990, pp. 43 and 94, illustrated in color pl. 4
Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet catalogue raisonné, vol. III, Cologne, 1996, no. 1320, illustrated in color p. 528
Monet had painted a view of Rouen cathedral in 1872, right before the official debut of the Impressionist movement. His rendition at the time depicted the cathedral as part of the general landscape, but the ornate architectural features were obscured by the distance. When he returned to this subject twenty years later, he became more focused on the building itself, eclipsing in scope and visual impact the famous, similarly-themed series by the British artist John Constable of Salisbury Cathedral from the early 19th century. Now Monet's thirty oils of Rouen Cathedral, produced during February-April 1892 and February-March 1893, are perhaps the most recognized examples of architectural painting in the history of modern art.
Monet completed his Cathedral pictures during three painting campaigns, and the present composition shows his first attempts at this theme. This canvas, painted on February 10, 1892, depicts the vantage of the Louvet House, which offered the most frontal view of the cathedral. This picture and the one in the Musée d'Orsay were Monet's first depictions of the cathedral's ornate facade, with its Neo-Gothic central spire. Monet stayed at Louvet House for eleven days and was unable to return there for his second and third painting campaigns, so he set up a studio above a clothing shop at 23 place de la Cathédrale and the next year above the shop at 81 rue Grand Pont. All of these pictures feature the great medieval structure from a midpoint that perfectly frames the elaborate fenestrations and ogival archways of the portico.
There were several factors that Monet took into consideration when he painted La Cathédrale de Rouen: Etude pour le portail vu de face, most important of which was the time of day. According to Daniel Wildenstein, "the direction in which Rouen cathedral faces is such that the sun begins to illuminate the façade from right to left, after 12 o'clock Greenwich Mean Time which was, formerly, French standard time. Monet therefore insisted on 'being at work from midday to two o'clock' to capture this effect" (D. Wildenstein, op. cit., p. 539). Each of the paintings included in the series focuses on a relatively short-lived-experience that could only be captured in a relatively rapid manner of execution. But while the Rouen Cathedral series represents a further manifestation of the Impressionists' fascination with light and color, Hamilton notes that "the reality of nature, experienced as the coming and going of light in time, is observed against the impersonal, non-natural man-made material of the cathedral. The phenomena of change are powerless to affect the object; they affect only the subject, the observer, whose experience changes from moment to moment... What was changing was the perceptual experience of the observer himself" (G. H. Hamilton, op. cit., p. 19). What Hamilton proposes, then, is that these paintings are as much about the artist's own subjective interpretations as they are records of the transient effects of changing light on the façade. Furthermore, the fact that Monet's subject here is a building with obvious religious significance cannot be overlooked. This grand structure had withstood time and the elements, much in the same way that the institution of the Church had weathered the storms of its own past. Here we see the imposing and symbolic edifice in all of its glory, holding strong amidst the changes of fin-de-siècle France.
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