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Episode 7: Claude Monet’s "Rouen Cathedral Series" (1892-94)

Let’s take a minute to talk about light. 

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Historically, light in a painting serves the same purpose as spotlight on a stage, or even flicking on the light in your bedroom: it allows you to see something else more clearly.  You’ll hear the phrase “clear light source” batted around by art historians, and me, all the time, because a light source is one of the many techniques a painter has up his or her sleeve to explain an unfolding image.  It divides a traditional Western canvas between foreground and background, taking a flat two-dimensional canvas and giving it depth.  Light draws your eye to the important part of a narrative, like we saw with Copley’s Portrait of Samuel Adams.  In other words, light was shy and competent worker bee, keeping its head down, pushing its broom backstage, until Claude Monet saw its quiet spark, and pushed it in front of the crowd.  They went nuts, and a star was born.

Paris, the City of Lights, has a special relationship with light all its own, which came to bear during this period, the second half of the 19th century.  In the middle of the century, around the early 1850s, Paris had been a city ravaged by revolution.  If you know your French history, you’d be very familiar with the sheer number of aftershock revolutions following the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.  And if you know your musical theater history, you can picture the cast of Les Mis belting their finales from atop the architectural shorthand for these revolutions: the barricade.  See, up until the mid-19th century, Paris looked more like Venice does today – tight, winding streets cutting a path through gray walls of stone, that then opened up into huge, bright plazas where there stood a cathedral or something equally grand.  The original Paris was dark, cramped, and remarkably easy to barricade, should the need arise.

By 1853, Napoleon III, the ruler of France, had had enough.  He commissioned Baron Georg Haussmann, an architect and urban planner, to essentially burn down the barn: to tear the city down and rebuild it with wide, grand boulevards that cut clear vistas from landmark to landmark.  Picture the easy sightlines to the arch de triumph, the opera house, Notre Dame cathedral.  The boulevards were then lined with the iconic uniform five story, cream-colored limestone apartment buildings with slate mansard roofs and delicate ironwork balconies.  Google any image of Paris and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. 

 The narrow alleys of Venice compared to the Haussmannized Paris of today.

The narrow alleys of Venice compared to the Haussmannized Paris of today.

It’s easy to feel ambivalent about a plan of this magnitude, for, on balance, all the good and bad it did.  This renovation of the city, called Haussmannization, was a radical, traumatic, architectural marvel.  It cost a fortune, displaced the lower classes, and gave us the gorgeous Paris that we know and love today.  It served a specific political purpose by making barricades much harder to erect (although not impossible, as the Paris Commune in 1871 made clear – it turns out that bigger boulevards only breed bigger barricades).  But it also had an unintended aesthetic consequence: the city was flooded with light.  The buildings could breathe.  The limestone reflected the brightness of the sun.  It was around this time, too, that technology had allowed for gas lights to illuminate the evening outdoor cafés with a hazy, tremulous glow.  Whether it was conscious or not, everyone had light on the brain.  And it was in this city, in this brilliance, that Monet embarked on his series of paintings.

Of course, painting light is really, really hard.  It is, Monet’s own words, “unobtainable,” even “nothing short of impossible”.  Not only is it essentially formless, but it’s never even one thing.  Light is a constant shapeshifter; by the time the brush makes its way from the palette to the canvas, it’s already changed, a little.  Light takes on different qualities depending on the time of day, the time of year.  So Monet would decide on one object – a haystack, a lilypad, and, here, a cathedral – and paint a series.  Not because the object itself changed, although sometimes it did, somewhat, but because if you had a series, you could paint the progression of the light across the sky, across the seasons, capturing mood and environment and shadow.  In that way, Monet paintings are the Lay’s potato chips of the art world: you really can’t have just one.  They may stand on their own as objectively beautiful artworks, but in order to really see what Monet was trying to accomplish, they require one another, to compare and contrast what the light will do now versus later, today versus tomorrow.  In this way, it’s incredible to think about how monumental, interminable a task it is to try to capture something so fleeting.

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, from which the MFA is fortunate enough to have two, was a series of 30 canvases painted from his easel across the street from 1892-93, and then reworked in his studio over the course of 1894.  He often had several canvases set up at once, and would move with the sun throughout the day, working on each simultaneously.   Painting en plen air, or outdoors, is a style associated with the Impressionists, and moreover, with speed – painting something as quickly as the wind blowing through leaves, illustrating ephemera, and, consequently, leaving open areas of canvas and showing your brushstrokes.  But these are not quick impressions: you can see the texture of the paint built up slowly, layer on top of layer, day after day.  And this creation of texture is important for two reasons. 

Firstly, because the building up of paint on top of paint on top of canvas creates a new relationship entirely between the painting itself and the shadows created from the light of the gallery.  If you’re standing in front of these paintings, and if the gallery draws in natural light, as this gallery in the MFA does, then you can actually watch the painting change in real time as the sun moves across the sky, activating and illuminating different peaks and valleys of light and dark on the canvas. 

Secondly, it draws our attention to the surface of the paintings’ subject: the cathedral.  Why a cathedral?  I mean, lillipads and haystacks, well, they’re on brand.  They fit nicely into the story of the ephemera of nature, the changing of the seasons.  But a Gothic cathedral—and you’ll know this if you’ve ever been to one—seem like the most permanent structures on the planet.  They are sheer walls of overwhelming, dense stone slabs.  Maybe, you could argue, how better to juxtapose the transitory nature of light than on something so solid?  But you could also argue that there’s more going on than that.  Gothic cathedrals also have a special relationship to light, and a special relationship to France, and we’ll take these one at a time.

 Gothic flying buttresses.

Gothic flying buttresses.

If you already know anything about Gothic architecture, then you recognize the pointed arches and probably giggled the first time you heard about flying buttresses.  Gothic architecture was named, pejoratively, by the Renaissance writer and proto art historian, Giorgio Vasari.  From his tidy, humanist perch a century later, Vasari found those massive French cathedrals to be barbaric and debased, and therefore named them for the roving, repugnant Nordic tribes, the Goths, that overran the Roman Empire.  Renaissance style, with its calm, rational emphasis on the human scale, hid from the enormous scale of Gothic cathedrals like a puppy from a thunderstorm.  But everything that Vasari found so distasteful about Gothic architecture was exactly the point it was trying to make: it was meant to be too big to swallow, too overwhelming to take in.  Everything that is iconic about Gothic architecture—the pointed arches, the vaulted ceilings, the large rose windows, the stained glass, and especially the flying buttresses—are all in the service of light.  You were meant to lose yourself in the sense of verticality and upward lift by following those pointed arches to the heavens.  And moreover, you were meant to bathe in the divine colored light that poured through the stained glass windows and feel an uncanny connection to God.  Flying buttresses were actually the heroes of the day, pushing against the outside, providing counter thrust, and ultimately taking the load off the walls – so there could be, drumroll, more windows, more light, more transcendence.  And that’s the thing about the ever changing quality of light: to stand inside a Gothic cathedral is to experience not only the light of religious faith, but the light of the day as it moved across the sky, hitting different windows at different hours, changing colors in real time.  In this way, a Gothic cathedral tells the story of Impressionism better than any haystack.

And Monet is on the outside, painting the textured façade as the light moves across it, just like the natural light in the gallery moves across the paint.  He captures the incredible, dynamic interplay of light and shadow as they hit the very same architectural elements that allow for the divine light on the inside: the pockets of shadow in the semicircular tympanum over the doors, between the complicated flying buttresses.  And in doing so, he snatches the architecture from Vasari’s clutches, and puts it back where it belongs: in French historical pride, and in the present day. 

Gothic architecture is a uniquely French style, a symbol of French nationalism, permanent and stoic, yet in Monet’s hands it is also airy, delicate, and shaped by its environment.  Something historical and iconic becomes as immediate as sunlight.  In looking at these paintings, the façade dissolves into the very same ephemeral atmospheric elements that touched Monet as he was painting the cathedral, and touched the weary post-revolution, post-Haussmanized Parisians as they were viewing those paintings.  And it’s true – looking at them, it’s impossible to not feel the warmth of the orangey late afternoon sun against the blue sky, or smell the coolness of dawn, and be there, in that moment.  For all of its elusiveness, light is incredibly specific, and grounds you in an immediate time and place.  And maybe painting this French cathedral, in this modern French style, which allowed for its contemporary viewers to be as close to their own proud history as they are to the sunset, was the most patriot thing he could do.  Or maybe he just wanted to capture the unobtainable the only way he could, over multiple canvases and untold tubes of paint, following the path of the sun across the sky, hoping that light will look back someday and tip its hat to the man who introduced it to the world.