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In France in 1895, the same year that Monet exhibited his paintings of Rouen Cathedral, the Lumière brothers exhibited their first films. These early movies included multiple exposures and slow dissolves, created movement on the screen through a succession of stationary images and used a sequence of frames to record gradual changes over a period of time. The cinema historian Kevin Brownlow notes their “gauzed soft-focus . . . highlights glistening with an almost liquid intensity, tints and tones which subtly underlined atmosphere . . . and a luminescence that was magical”. Monet’s motion pictures employed the same techniques as these fin-de-siècle films and expressed the spirit of that time.

In the second half of his long career Monet worked on series of paintings on the same subject. He needed a sturdy young peasant to carry as many as 14 canvases to his vantage point and would miss a day’s work if his helper got drunk. Monet painted haystacks in 1890-91, poplars in 1891, the façade of Rouen Cathedral in 1892-93, his Giverny gardens in 1899, views of the Houses of Parliament and the misty Thames in 1899-1901, and waterscapes of water-lilies in 1909. He sometimes painted only a few strokes on one canvas before light transformed the scene. He would then rush to the next picture, already begun, to capture — as in the cinema — the dancing moment of illumination, the momentary perceptions, the shifting effects of atmosphere and colour. Linda Nochlin describes the tormented Monet in 1899, trying to implement this vision by “hovering feverishly over his 90 canvases in the Savoy Hotel in London, searching for exactly the right patch in exactly the right canvas for this particular instant of light”.

Everything seems to move in Monet’s shimmering Impressionist paintings: the sea shifts, the sails tilt, the clouds drift, the river reflects. In the cathedral pictures he observes how the changing weather and transient sunbeams strike the façade differently in various times of day and in various seasons. In his cathedrals, as in the movies, there are close-ups and long-shots, gliding images and fade-outs, the flow of action from one scene to another and, the specialité de la maison, the sovereignty of flickering light. As early as The Red Cape, Portrait of Madame Monet (1873) Monet used a filmic frame and backlight to intensify the dramatic effect. His wife, seen from behind the wispy curtains and stark windows of a barren interior, stands isolated in the snow that surrounds her and reflects the sunlight. Protectively clutching the blood-red cape that covers her fur-trimmed dark-blue jacket and skirt, she turns her head and looks longingly into the house that seems to cruelly exclude her.

In his earlier series Monet went to great lengths to make the changing landscape seem permanent. When an early spring brought forth new leaves on the poplars, he hired a man to pick off every single leaf and restore the trees to their naked form. When painting a series of poplars near his home in Giverny, he was forced to buy the entire grove along the riverbank to prevent the trees from being chopped down before he could finish his work. In 1892 he shifted from landscape to architecture, from painting many different haystacks and poplars in the countryside to the one static, massive and permanent cathedral in the town. Monet, who trained his eye to see in a new and different way, defined his goal: “It would be interesting to study the same motif at different times of day and discover the effects of the light which changed the appearance and coloration of the building, from hour to hour, in such a subtle manner.” The result was a series of cathedrals that move in time.
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