Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral Series

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral (The Portal, Grey Weather), 1892, oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm; Rouen Cathedral Seen from the Front, 1892, oil on canvas, 107 x 74 cm; Rouen Cathedral (The Portal and the Tour d’Albane, Morning Effect), 1893, oil on canvas, 106 x 73 cm; Rouen Cathedral (The Portal, Morning Sun), 1893, oil on canvas, 92 x 63 cm; Rouen Cathedral (The Portal and the Tour d’Albane in the Sunlight), 1893, oil on canvas, 107 x 73 cm (Musée D’Orsay, Paris)


Claude Monet painted more than 30 canvases depicting Rouen cathedral between 1892 and 1894. This video discusses four paintings in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”MonetRouen,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re at the Musée d’Orsay. We’re looking at four of over 30 canvases that Monet made of Rouen Cathedral, which is a little more than an hour’s drive north of Paris.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Over two late winters and early springs, 1892 and 1893, he rented a space across from the cathedral and painted the cathedral in different effects of light. What he did was he had several canvases going at once, each for a different moment of the day and a different effect of light.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] Well, that makes sense. If Monet is trying to define this ephemeral quality of light, then as the sun moves, he would need to change canvases, he can’t paint that fast.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] No. [laughs]

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] Then he would come back to it day after day, but in also different weather effects. Having this temporary studio across the street allowed him to paint in the rain, early in the morning, etc. There’s a lot of paint on these canvases, and so this is not something that was done quickly.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] Monet was always interested in capturing the fleeting effects of something that he saw. Here, it’s become the exact subject of the painting. The irony is that as he’s capturing something that’s fleeting, he takes longer and longer to paint it and to finish it, not outside, but to finish it in the studio.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] There’s another irony here, which is that if their subject is really about light and the way light constructs form, and I think that really is the subject, he’s picked a pretty potent thing to render that on. That is to say, a medieval cathedral, with all of its religious connotations, its historical connotations, and is solid in the extreme, and yet in the rendering by Monet, these are not such solid forms.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] No. They really appear very light, almost filigree forms. They lack a sense of heavy three-dimensionality. The subject of a Gothic cathedral is divine light itself.

Dr. Zucker: [1:55] Why would he be interested, in a just formal sense, of a Gothic cathedral? I’ve always thought that it had to do with the enormous complexity of the surface.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] There’s no doubt that it’s the complexity of light and shadow on the façade of a cathedral like Rouen cathedral that was appealing to him. I don’t think it’s simply because the Gothic church has a fabulous façade.

[2:21] He’s choosing something very identified with France, the Gothic style. There feels to me like there’s something nationalistic here. There feels to me like there’s something poignant here.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] This is, in a sense, taking that grand history, taking all of the power that these function as symbolically, and in a sense understanding them through the lens of the late 19th century.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] They’re meant to be seen together, and he exhibited them together. They’re very beautiful. One really does get the sense of optical effects of different times of day: the morning mist, the sun coming out, the heat of the afternoon sun.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] What happens to my eyes as I move across the canvases is different parts of the cathedral protrude and recede in different ways and different light, and in a sense the physical stone itself becomes this mutable experience in that the building is shaped and reshaped by the way that light hits it, and that the very architecture is transformed. In a sense, it is the triumph of the optical over the physical.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] Which is something very different than the Gothic architects would have thought about the church, because what could be seen was really a symbol for what couldn’t be seen. In a way, what Monet seems to be telling us here in the end of the 19th century is what we see is what there is.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] That there is truth to our experiential.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral Series," in Smarthistory, November 19, 2015, accessed July 13, 2024,