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Monet's Canvas Cathedrals: A Life Study Of Light07:19

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In 1872, in the French port city of Le Havre, 32-year-old Claude Monet made a painting that would give an art movement its name. Monet called his painting Impression, Sunrise. It was a quick, brushy harbor scene -- small boats and watery reflections in pinks and blues and oranges. When Monet displayed the painting in Paris, along with similar works by artist friends, a sneering critic called the show "The Exhibition of the Impressionists" -- and a movement was baptized.

Visitors to the Andre Malraux Museum on the Le Havre waterfront can see what the great impressionists saw -- the English Channel, full of glints and glimmers as light catches its currents. Museum guide Emmanuelle Rian says the impressionists' fast strokes, their scenes of ordinary life, and the glimpses they left of unpainted canvas were brand new and brave -- "a real revolution in painting." She says impressionism advanced more in two decades than many artistic movements did in two centuries.

Monet spent six months painting the Rouen Cathedral, working to capture — sometimes on 10 canvases at a time — the way light played across the Gothic structure. (AFP/Getty Images)
Monet spent six months painting the Rouen Cathedral, working to capture — sometimes on 10 canvases at a time — the way light played across the Gothic structure. (AFP/Getty Images)

The impressionists broke all the formal academic rules -- they used quick brush strokes, changed perspective, made their shadows out of color, not black. And it all started with a young painter, sitting by the water's edge in Le Havre.

Rian, who works every day in the location where Monet painted his masterpieces, says she doesn't think she sees the water the way Monet did. She simply doesn't have his eyes, she says.

'Just To Capture The Light'

Twenty years after Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, he created 30 paintings of a massive Gothic cathedral in another port city in Normandy, Rouen. He detailed extreme close-ups of one part of the cathedral's facade, using flattened perspective and encrustations of paint. Today, in the room where Monet worked, classes teach aspiring artists how to paint in the master's style.

Eleven of Monet's cathedral paintings are on view at the Rouen Fine Arts Museum. Guide Catherine Brandon explains that Monet worked in town on his cathedral series for parts of 1892 and 1893.

"He came to Rouen twice," Brandon says. "Two sessions of three months -- in the same period because of the light -- February, March, April. He sat from 7 o'clock in the morning until maybe 6 or 7 in the evening, just painting the cathedral. Ten canvases at the same time, just to capture the light."

Monet lined up his canvases in front of a window, moving from one canvas to the next as the shifting light changed the colors of the pale stone facade.

"You can see on each different cathedral, the sky is not the same," says Yves Leclerc, who runs the Rouen tourist office -- just across the street from the cathedral, in the building where Monet worked. "There was no camera. No photo. Nothing. [All he had were his] eyes and his spirit."

In Monet's time, the building across the street from the cathedral was a lingerie shop, and the painter rented space by the shop window. Leclerc says customers were not enthusiastic about the artist's presence.

"Imagine a Norman guy," Leclerc says. A "tall, big guy -- very strong Norman -- and these small ladies come [in to try on] underwear."

So a screen was placed between the painter and the ladies -- though Leclerc says rumor has it that a small hole was found in the screen after Monet finished his work. Never mind the distractions -- M. Monet was surely too busy studying the paths of light on the cathedral and converting them into crusts of color on his canvas.

'I Am Trying To Do The Impossible'

The effort to capture the light on the cathedral obsessed the 50-something artist. He was painting light, but his work weighed on him. Nothing satisfied him, and he began to have nightmares.

"He dreamt that the cathedral would fall down on him," Brandon says -- huge stones, crashing down in pinks, golds, blues.

"In the end," he wrote to his wife, "I am trying to do the impossible."

Monet didn't finish his series of cathedral paintings on the scene in Rouen. He took them home to Giverny, about 45 miles northeast of Paris, home to his family and to his garden. It was around this time that he began putting in a water garden. The master spent the last decades of his long life shifting the shimmers of that garden onto his canvases.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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