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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.
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