Light and Paint Merge in Monet’s Impressions of the Rouen Cathedral.
Recently my friend in India, Uday, who is an avid Art Collector and Connoisseur of the finer things in life, wrote me to appreciate my post on Kandinsky. He forwarded the post to a friend of his who taught art in a university. In the e-mail he sent me a link to the paintings—Monet’s impressions of the Rouen Cathedral done in 1892-4. I had seen examples of these before in museums, but I did not realize he painted so many of them. The article had at least ten different paintings, done at different times of day and different times of the year, with different light effects and different color ranges.
This was the whole point of Monet’s focus on one subject: to show the visual effects that different light has on the same subject, the different moods created, and almost as if totally different subjects emerging out of the variable daylight and seasonal contrasts—alas, Monet’s Impressions were born. I was so “impressed” by these “Cathedral Paintings,” I knew they would be the subject of my next “Art Look” on an artist who had such an influence over me.
Monet was a master of Color and Light.
In the painting of the Rouen Cathedral at Mid-Day, the sun shines brightly. Light reigns down from above and creates the huge contrast of shadow, an intensity of warm color that is almost blinding. The warmth of the earth radiates upward from the ground. This warmth moves toward the sky, and by the time you reach the pinnacles of the spires, you enter the realm of a cool-blue etheric quality. All this is communicated in one impression, captured skillfully by the hand of a painter who serves the eyes of true vision. Monet had the eyes to see. They are what made him great. Plenty of artists had the skills to make paintings, probably even more proficiently than Monet. But we don’t want to know an iota about them, a hundred and twenty years later. But we DO KNOW MONET. Why? Because his eyes perceived a vision that was heavenly, grounded in the actual, in the depths of reality that went beyond the mere appearances into the realms of spiritual TRUTH.
Monet was a master of Color and Light. The effects of light on a scene, on an object, on a vision were his forte to perceive and to transmit. He could take the moment and extend it into eternity. He could take a fleeting impression and convert it into the timeless. He could SEE with the eyes of God through Paint. We are awestruck by the sensitivity of his sight, of his vision, and of his ability to transfer this into his painting—and subsequently to us.
A different time of day inspires a different vision. Why not? The sun is in a totally unique position that only that hour can produce. What is engulfed by the sun in the twilight is totally different than the impact of light at mid-day. This is obvious—but not so obvious to the onlooker who is unaware of the elemental reality of Life. Monet’s impressions were in touch with this elemental nature of things. This is why we are still looking at his paintings a hundred and twenty-five years later, with the same wonder and freshness in which he created them.
Monet’s Impressions made contact with a reality you could see, touch and feel.
Painting is not reality. It is at best an impression of reality. But the best painting leads us to the reality that inspired it. In so doing it takes on a reality of its own. It becomes a masterwork. It is a vehicle for re-experiencing the reality that the painter saw in that moment of creation. This is what makes a great painting great. Rothko referred to the religious experience that viewers felt in front of his paintings—so much so, they wept—which recapitulated the experience he had in the painting’s creation. It does not get any better than this, people. If the painter can convey this meeting with Divine Forces which he or she has in the creation of a work of art, then their job is done, and done well. In the case of Monet, it is his Religious encounter with color and light due to his acute awareness of the impression of nature upon his subject of observation. This is why he was called one of the first “Impressionists.”
Rouen Cathedral at Sunset is quite different than Rouen Cathedral at Mid-Day. The shadows and deep murky blues hug the ground—indicative of the time of day when the shadows from a low sun are long, and low. But as you rise above the ground levels, the sun catches the facade and the spires and illuminates them in the brilliance of a yellow orange hue. We are illuminated ourselves, as if from within, from this impression of brilliance itself we have all experienced.
The Cathedral of a Harmony in Blue is a whole different painting. In this one of Monet’s impressions, you can feel the coolness of it. It is perhaps a winter scene, and one in which the warmth of the light has left, gone out. We are in the wintry feelings of a cold, but unified hue of bluish grey. All this comes together in the winter of our emotions, in the coolness of our acceptance of the season gone frigid. We may want to put on a wrap, or a jacket , or a woolen to make ourselves ready to receive this particularly frozen impression of the Cathedral, in a time of year we may like to sidestep, to avoid. Wouldn’t we rather place ourselves in front of the roaring fires of a December hearth and home? One wonders what Monet did on this day of painting this scene. Was he out amidst the coldness of the day to capture this bluish grey symphony of frigidness?
Monet takes liberties even beyond nature.
We have to remember that Monet is making a painting, and as such, the painting has a life beyond the model of his work. Color, paint, and the formal elements of his craft come together to make something to stand on its own apart from the nature that inspired it. There is a reality of painting which transcends the reality of the model. It does not replace it, nor pretend to be better than nature. But it enters into the realms of an ideal, a thought in the Mind of God which is beyond the experience of worldly stuff. A painting presents a metaphysical reality, even to the extent it is concretely tied to the form of a physical thing. Monet’s Impressions express this metaphysical reality.
One can hardly imagine a sunset or a burning sky red enough to cast this sanguinary tone upon the whole facade of The Red Rouen Cathedral. Nonetheless, Monet gives us this impression. Where did it come from in nature? Perhaps it did not. Yet, could it emerge out of the paint box of poetic license? Artists and poets and musicians alike have the where-with-all to take their medium and fashion it into the sublime. Their relationship with the medium itself becomes the seedbed for vision and content. The red came from Monet’s passion for red. Nowhere else. And applied, this passion gives new depth and vision to Nature Herself. She is yet enhanced, not lied to. She is elevated, not made up by some fantasy of artistic liberty. She rejoices in the expansion of this Holy Vision of the humble artist to dare something beyond mere conventions.
Where do we stand with it? Are we on fire, like Monet was on fire to give us a passion beyond worldly limitations? We are entering into the freedom of spiritual truths now. We can use color to ascend into realms hitherto unknown by our experience of worldly concerns. We go into realms of the sublime. Will we go there with Monet or not? Why not?
Color and Light are the Servants of the Painter Divine.
Monet was a Painter Divine. We would probably all agree. Even art history treats him so. He was one of the first who hinted of a break from the visual world of the depicted, to the autonomous world of the painted. Paint began to define itself, like sound had for centuries in music, to present color and light as the Divine elements that they are. Combine them in harmonious ways that formulate an artful impression, and they can give us a sense of worth and beauty that transcends the world.
The Painter Divine listens not to convention. He knows them, for sure, because he is responsible to know what went on before him in the long lineage of traditions of his craft and art that define his medium. But, he does not stop short in these conventions. He presses on to break with the traditions that held him in check. He breaks the rules to find new and everlasting laws which are always fresh, relevant, vibrant, creative, and unpredictable.
Monet left us a legacy. He also left us a roadmap for Truth, his Truth, that he gave so much of his conviction to impress upon us. The impressions of his painting—A Brilliance of the Rouen Cathedral—cover us in a blessing. How could they not, when Monet labored so diligently in a painterly love to bring them to us? We are the beneficiaries of his genius. Over a century later, these paintings are as fresh as the day they were made. The speak to us. They touch us in the guts, and show us what it means to be true to one’s craft, one’s art, one’s vision. This is Monet’s legacy: he gives us impressions that expand our awareness of the Divine Realities inside of us, as they do in the different times of day, different lights of seasons, upon the holiness of the Rouen Cathedral. He connects with these impressions in his own religious experience, passionately through painting, that we may as well be a witness to our own.
Thanks for Reading.
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