How Monet created motion pictures

The great Impressionist’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral prefigures the movies: his eye was the camera, his canvas the screen

Jeffrey Meyers

Claude Monet once wished he had been born blind so that, when his sight was restored, he could see everything with a completely new vision. To achieve this, he painted 30 versions of Rouen Cathedral that reveal the cinematic aspect of his art. Five pictures from this vivid series appear in the current Monet & Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery until July 29. Monet raced back and forth between these canvases, painting a whole sequence simultaneously, just as a silent film director rushed from scene to scene. His paintings were motion pictures. Monet’s eye was the camera, the cathedral his image, the paint his unexposed film, the canvas his screen.

Both verbal and visual art reflected the rapid industrial and technological changes that took place in the 19th century. The factory smoke polluting the landscape and steaming trains rushing through the countryside in the background of Monet’s earlier pictures suggest the transition from pastoral to urban life, from plein air painting to indoor filming. His series foreshadowed the cinematic movement of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912), the dynamic Futurism of Umberto Boccioni’s Simultaneous Visions (1912) and Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed & Sound (1913).

John Carey writes that “the 19th century was essentially a struggle towards visual representation. Dioramas, daguerreotypes, lithographic newspaper illustrations — step by step they all brought camera and film closer.” Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849) had imagined geological change as a kind of speeded-up film:

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands,
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

In the 1870s Eadweard Muybridge’s series of photographic studies portrayed animals and human beings in motion. The painters Edgar Degas and Edvard Munch were both expert photographers.

Lynda Nead confirms that at the turn of the 20th century “the dream of motion haunted the visual art. . . . The transformation from stasis to movement and the varieties and velocities of motion possessed all forms of visual media,” from still photography to film and magic lanterns. In Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) Marcel is fascinated by the lanterns that display a series of chromatic images painted on glass slides. He is transfixed by the way the brightly coloured yet insubstantial projections transform his bedroom walls with “an implacable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.” Two years later, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot imagined a magic lantern that penetrated the body like the recently discovered X-ray and “threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”.
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.

Left: “The Cour d’Albane”, 1892. Right: “Rouen Cathedral, the Portal”, 1894 (LEFT: © Smith College Museum of Art Northampton, Massachusetts. RIGHT: © Klassik Stiftung Weimar Museen (G 541)

Rouen Cathedral attracted painters and writers before Monet. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, and located halfway between Paris and Monet’s birthplace, Le Havre, it dominates the town and the flat Normandy countryside. It had been painted in 1832 by J.M.W. Turner, whose works Monet had admired in London, where he escaped during the Franco-Prussian War. Turner portrayed in beige and from an angle the entire West façade and all but the very top of the two square towers as well as the houses on two sides of the vast open square, thronged with fashionably-dressed people. Turner’s painting, which captured both the soaring majesty of the Gothic building and the animated life of the town, was more impressive then Monet’s, but Monet’s achievement was more innovative and daring. In Madame Bovary (1857) Flaubert uses the spiritual significance of the cathedral to satirise Emma Bovary’s bourgeois hypocrisy and (like Monet) takes a strictly secular approach to the sacred building. Emma, who meets her lover Léon inside the cathedral, intensifies the thrill of the illicit rendezvous by combining adultery with sacrilege.

Since the glare of the sun often blurs and the fog sometimes obliterates the elaborate details of Rouen Cathedral, it is useful to provide an accurate description of the complex and intricate West façade. Monet focuses on three main elements: the high pointed arch of the ribbed and sunken central portal, the tall triangular spire that contains a clock and reaches the middle of the rose window, and the pinnacle that soars above the centre of the façade. The main portal is flanked by two smaller entrances and by two tall square towers, truncated by Monet. There are many statues in their narrow niches on both sides of the triangle, pillars and pediments above the rose window, and fierce protective gargoyles hovering over the saints. A few tiny blurred human figures are barely visible in the left foreground of a few pictures. Paradoxically, the grey, rainy weather shows the decorative details more clearly than the bleaching sunlight.

Monet painted the cathedral in two sorties: February to April 1892 and February to April 1893, and later reworked the pictures from memory in his studio in Giverny. He set up his numerous canvases in the upper floor of two shops across from the West façade. The first, directly opposite, provided a frontal view; the second, a few doors down, gave him an angled view. When the day ended and the titan was forced to stop work, he raged against the dying of the light.

Monet’s letters to his mistress, Alice Hoschedé, whom he was finally able to marry when her estranged husband died in 1892, were Kafkaesque in their expression of hopeless agony, Beckettian in their striving — I can’t go on. I must go on — for the impossible. His pleas were meant to elicit Alice’s sorrow and sympathy for his heroic struggle and creative torture. She loved him for the battles he had won, and he loved her that she did pity them:

I have now taken up so singular a way of working that I work vainly, it doesn’t seem to advance at all, particularly since each day I discover things which I did not see the day before. I add and lose different things. In short, I seek the impossible.

[I am shocked by] the sight of my canvases, which seemed to me atrocious, the lighting having changed. In short I can’t achieve anything good, it’s an obdurate encrustation of colours, and that’s all, but it’s not painting.

Monet was tormented by gothic nightmares in which he was crushed by his own motif: “I am worn out, I give up, and what’s more, something that never happens to me, I couldn’t sleep for nightmares: the cathedral was coming down on top of me, it was blue or pink or yellow.”As in Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), the very stones seem to have human feelings: “The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones . . . above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement.” In Poe’s story, as in Monet’s nightmare, the ill-fated building comes crashing down.

In his influential book The Stones of Venice (1851), John Ruskin wrote: “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” The glories of Monet’s sublime mutations are the iridescent colours that illuminate the ash-grey stones: lemon and gold; pink and rose; carmine, scarlet and vermillion; beige, fawn and umber; lilac, violet and magenta; olive, lime and emerald — all brilliantly projected against an azure and cobalt sky.

Unlike Turner, as Virginia Spate observes, “Monet severed the façade from the building, the building from its surroundings, the cathedral from the meanings history had given it.” He also “effaced the signs of modern time, the face of the clock”, and in some pictures the yellow sun on the white clock looks remarkably like the yolk of a fried egg. Though the numerals would have usefully told the precise time the paintings were executed, Monet preferred flowing visual to strict chronological time.

The first two Cathedrals show the base of one tower in the courtyard behind the building, steep-roofed medieval houses with bluish windows leaning against the side of the tower, a cloudy grey-blue sky and a dark circular tunnel leading to the main square and West façade. Monet’s heavy layers of paint suggest the weight of the ancient stones. The dramatic effects of light and fog, the subtle variations from bright sun to dark shadows, make the cathedral seem blurred and palpitating, fragmentary and friable. It sometimes seems to be trembling in an earthquake, or as if the medieval stones, aged and worn by the centuries, were absorbing the varied light and then weeping, even bleeding en plein soleil, down the ornamental façade. Like W. H. Auden’s description of his own creased and weathered face, the cathedral can look like “a wedding cake left out in the rain”.

The solid form and lacy stonework, transformed by Monet’s acute perception, thaw and resolve themselves into a dew. Although light, by its very nature, is ephemeral and evanescent, it seems to dissolve the monumental cathedral and — as Tennyson suggested — all that is solid melts into the air. Yet at the same time, the vanishing building is also brilliantly and permanently fixed on Monet’s canvas.

Left: “Rouen Cathedral, setting sun”, 1892-4. Right: “Rouen Cathedral”, 1894 (LEFT© Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Right: Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner)

In May 1895 Monet exhibited 20 of the 30 Cathedral paintings in Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. They were the startling antithwesis of the sharply delineated, finished and varnished 19th-century official Salon pictures, but received an enthusiastic press. Monet’s closest friend and most passionate supporter, Georges Clemenceau (prime minister of France from 1906 to 1909 and from 1917 to 1920), wrote a perceptive review in his newspaper La Justice. He had seen the Cathedrals in Giverny and discussed them with Monet before the exhibition; he now suggested that they should be ideally viewed — like a movie unwinding and projected through a camera — by their colours:

Imagine them aligned . . . serially, according to transitions of light: the great black mass in the beginning of the grey series, constantly growing lighter, to the white series, going from the molten light to bursting precisions that continue and are achieved in the fires of the rainbow series, which subside in the calm of the blue series and fade away in the divine mist of the azure. . . . [They are] the ultimate perfection of art never before achieved.

Clemenceau later persuaded the French state to buy Monet’s comparable series of Water Lilies. The flat green pads support the red bulbous flowers — as in the floating world of fashionable Japanese prints — and the lilies, gently pushed by the rays of the sun, seem to be undulating in the pond. Red Water Lilies (1914-17), for example, portrays two groups of darkly outlined pinkish-red flowers, separated by a gentle channel of blue water. The reflected sky and patch of yellow cloud dance on the shimmering surface. Painting with both thick impasto and thin washes of pigment, Monet gave it a soothing, dreamy quality.

In 1927, the year after Monet’s death, Clemenceau organised an exhibition of the Water Lilies at the Orangerie in Paris. The circular display of eight enormous paintings on curved oval walls that surround the spectator foreshadowed the wrap-around movie screens of our contemporary Imax cinemas. The 1927 exhibition, which gave a vivid idea of the cinematic effect of the 1895 show, helps the modern viewer to appreciate the beauty of the Cathedral paintings and realise that they are in effect a series of motion pictures.

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