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Monet's Canvas Cathedrals: A Life Study Of Light

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.

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.

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More Photos

Le clocher Sainte-Catherine by Claude Monet, 1867. The bell tower of Sainte Catherine, loc...

The bell tower of Sainte Catherine. The church is unusually shaped — it resembles an upside-down ...

Personnages sur la plage de Trouville by Eugène Boudin, 1865. Boudin advised the young Mon...

Conversation sur la plage de Trouville by Eugène Boudin, 1876. The incredibly prolific Bou...

The beach at Trouville. Trouville became a popular tourist destination in the 19th century, when ...

Impressionism: Sunrise, by Claude Monet, 1872. This painting is usually credited as the fo...

Le Havre Waterfront. Claude Monet grew up in Le Havre, a seaside town in north-western France. Ov...

Rouen Cathedral doorway and tower in morning light, harmony in white, by Claude Monet, 189...

Rouen Cathedral in the Afternoon, by Claude Monet, 1894. Monet would usually work on the c...

Hotel Des Finances. Monet began working on his series of the Rouen Cathedral from the first floor...

Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1906. This was one of many in a series of paintings Monet di...

A closer view of the water lilies in the gardens surrounding Monet's home in Giverny. Monet made ...

Water Lily Pond by Claude Monet, 1900. Monet loved the way light moved over the lily pond ...

Another view of of Monet's garden as it is today. Monet modeled this part of the gardens, surroun...

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The French region of Normandy is celebrating a beloved art movement this summer. Exhibitions, concerts, light shows and plays are taking place throughout the countryside where in the 19th century artists mounted a revolution in art. It was called impressionism.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg marked its birth.

SUSAN STAMBERG: This is the Andre Malraux Museum, just on the waterfront of the second biggest port of France - La Havre. It's a sunny day and through the museum's window wall, the English Channel is water the impressionists would have loved.

It's flowing nicely. There's no foam. There are no waves to speak of, but the water runs with currents. It gives off glimmers and glints, as the light catches it.

Claude Monet grew up here in La Havre. And here in 1872, when he was 32, he painted the picture that gave an art style its name. "Impression Sunrise" was Monet's title for a quick and brushy harbor scene - small boats, watery reflections in pinks, blues, orange. When Monet displayed it in Paris, along with similar works by artist friends, a sneering critic called the show "The Exhibition of the Impressionists," and so a movement was baptized.

Museum guide Emmanuelle Rian says their style was brand new and brave.

Ms. EMMANUELLE RIAN (Guide, Andre Malraux Museum): They had a great idea and they contributed to introduce a real revolution in painting. They go further in 20 years than most of the painters did during two centuries.

STAMBERG: The impressionists break all the formal academic rules - use quick brush strokes, change perspective, won't use black; shadows are made of color, they say; patch blue next to red next to brown and look what happens. And at waters' edge in La Havre, Monet is first.

Ms. RIAN: He is free.

STAMBERG: You work here every day.

Ms. RIAN: Yes.

STAMBERG: And so when you walk around and you're outside and you looking at the water, are you seeing Monets?

Ms. RIAN: Naturally. I think I have not Monet's eyes. This is the real difference.

STAMBERG: Here's my paper plate palette. Mix up a little white and blue for the sky.

I try to see and paint with Monet's eyes in another port city, Rouen. Here, 20 years after that first impressionist work, Claude Monet made 30 pictures of Rouen's massive Gothic cathedral - extreme close-ups of one part of the fa�ade - flattened perspective, encrustations of paint.

Today, in the room where he worked, there are classes in how to paint like Monet. Any student struggling with colors may remember that 19-year-old Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, although not for artistic malfeasance.

Oops. Yeah, I think I just...

Unidentified Man: In English. Yeah.

STAMBERG: ...I'm taking my brush.

Unidentified Man: You do speak English.

Ms. CATHERINE BRANDON (Guide, Rouen Fine Arts Museum): I have a very bad English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Do your best. I have very bad painting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: At the Rouen Fine Arts Museum, where 11 cathedral paintings are on view, guide Catherine Brandon says Monet spent parts of 1892 and '93 in town making his series.

Ms. BRANDON: He came to Rouen twice, two sessions of three months at the same period because of the light: February, March, April. He sat from 7:00 in the morning until maybe 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening, just painting the cathedral -10 canvases at the same time, just to capture the light.

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

Mr. YVES LECLERC (Director, Tourist Office, Rouen): You can see on each different cathedral, the sky is not the same.

STAMBERG: Yves Leclerc runs the Rouen tourist office just across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral, in the building where Monet worked.

Mr. LECLERC: When you imagine there was no camera, no photo, nothing -everything he got, it was only the highs(ph) and the spirit. He's a genius.

STAMBERG: So he stood right here where we are?

Ms. MARIE BACHELON(ph) (Tourist Office, Rouen): Yeah. Yes. I mean he was looking out the cathedral by the window.

STAMBERG: Marie Bachelon works here too.

Ms. BACHELON: And he found the inspiration.

STAMBERG: So we're standing in the exact spot where he worked?

Ms. BACHELON: Exactly, in the steps of Claude Monet in Rouen.

STAMBERG: In Monet's time, this room where we are chatting was a lingerie shop. The painter rented this space by the shop window. Yves Leclerc say customers were not thrilled by the presence of Monsieur Monet.

Mr. LECLERC: Imagine a normal guy, one meter ninety and 130 kilo...

STAMBERG: Tall, big guy.

Mr. LECLERC: Yeah, very strong Norman. And these small ladies come for trying the underwear.

STAMBERG: So a screen was put up between the painter and the ladies.

Mr. LECLERC: And when he finished to paint, somebody said that in the screen it was a small hole.

STAMBERG: A hole in the screen? Surely Monet was too busy studying the paths of light on the cathedral and catching the shifts in crusts of color on his canvas.

The work obsessed the 50-something artist. He was painting light, but it weighed on him. Nothing satisfied him. Monet began having nightmares.

Ms. BRANDON: He dreamt that the cathedral would fall down on him.

STAMBERG: Huge filigreed stones crashing down in pinks, golds, blues. In the end, he wrote to his wife: I am trying to do the impossible.

Dabbing, dabbing - I have to say, this is nothing like Monet, can't touch it. But you know what? It's fun.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

STAMBERG: Claude Monet didn't finish his series of cathedral paintings in Rouen. He took them home to Giverny, about 45 miles northeast of Paris, home to his family, his garden. Around this time he began putting in a water garden. We will go there next: Giverny, where the master spent the last decades of his long life shifting the garden's shimmers onto his canvases.

Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of accordion music)

MONTAGNE: You can see some of Monet's cathedrals, plus the first impressionist painting, and Susan Stamberg's attempt to capture his spirit on her canvas, at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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