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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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