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7 The Cathédrales Revolution

Translator’s note: Without the elegiac opening and with several additional paragraphs, much of this chapter appeared as an essay in La Justice (founded by Clemenceau and Stephen Pichon) on May 20, 1895. This was Clemenceau’s first published venture into commentary on the arts. Paragraphs subsequently dropped by Clemenceau, when he redeveloped this article to be Chapter VII of Claude Monet, are translated and included here at note 6.

I am not going to follow Monet’s path from one exhibition to the next; nor will I tell the story of a wonderful array of his paintings, some of which I came upon in America, notably in the beautiful Potter Palmer collection. Here it is enough to recall the major steps in Monet’s journey—from Vétheuil to Les Meules, and then to the poplar trees, and the River Thames, to the self-portrait in the Louvre, and finally to the Nymphéas. I would have liked to talk about all of Monet’s headlong action and aspiration with his brush; I would have enjoyed sorting out the major works according to how they engage with light itself. But I do understand that a project like that is beyond my strength. Besides, my idea here is to produce not even a monograph on him. In these my final and difficult hours on earth, I feel an imperative to talk about Monet. Not to promulgate some doctrine or prove anything at all, I yield to this temptation only because our two lives, so different as they were, grew so close at the end of our respective careers; and also because, now that my friend’s great quest is over, I feel a special pleasure in praising him, in remembering his hard fight for the kind of truth that I cannot separate from beauty.

This little work is of a sort that writers in earlier times liked to try under vague titles like “Meditations.” This is why I need no plan other than a starting-point and a finish line, letting the “series” themselves—wheat-stacks, poplars, cathedral facades, provide us, in their glory, all the connections we need. With sojourns like that on this pilgrimage to those magical waters where the Nymphéas took shape as an apotheosis, we have no need to embellish with this or that discrete masterpiece, laid out like milestones, leading to the inevitable moment when the great fire of the extraordinary life went out. What could I have to say about so many works, vibrantly alive in galleries abroad? Isn’t it enough to note the key features of such a brilliant career? Is it my place to discuss, for example, why Monet turned his attention away from the human figure and towards the landscape? His canvases offer plenty of proof that the human visage didn’t daunt him; his self-portrait in the Louvre, just as dazzling as the Nymphéas, was painted around the same time as the panels in the Tuileries. There is no painter before now that Monet has not matched. Who wouldn’t be happy to join in celebrating his triumph, when doing so only honors oneself?

If our appreciation of art inexorably improves as we engage it, if our artistic sensibilities are heightened to the point where they enhance our awareness of truth itself, and if a commingling of art and science advances our understanding of the world, then all this is merely because, by some law of universal interdependence, insights gleaned amid so much misunderstanding assist in making us human. All of that only increases our gratitude for an artist of true integrity, an artist who guilelessly cultivates his powers of apprehension—and in the process our own—enriches and embellishes our experience of the world and of ourselves. And after all, what experience could be more fruitful than seeing a man stand tall, sustained only by the strength of his passions and the virtue of his character, silencing all the yelps from those packs of ignorance, and finally, after a life of trials, experiencing a triumph born of selflessness and refusal to compromise?

Often I’ve told about finding Monet working with four easels at once in a field of poppies, moving quickly from one canvas to the next to catch the light as it shifted with the movement of the sun. From his younger days we have those white walls at Vétheuil, visible through the fog and mists of the river, a blending of air, land, and water in a run of reflections that we see again, forty years later—and more thoughtful this time, if not more innocent—in the spectacular Nymphéas. Here we see the opening of a drama of development, achievements with light that come clear in the sequence—Les Meules, Les Peupliers, Les Cathédrales, the Thames, at hours of change, when the light does something new under the flaming sun. Behold an artist in pursuit of change itself, those ever-ramifying transformations that show us nature, alive, in perpetual motion.

These are the intentions that prevailed when Les Meules were begun. To create a set of ateliers in the open air, handcarts were loaded up, and in one instance even a small farm-wagon; and out in the fields Monet’s easels were deployed for combat with sunshine. It was a wonderfully simple plan that no painter before had been tempted to try: the credit for the breakthrough is Monet’s. On the canvases of this series we see his highest aspirations unfold, to catch the luminous air that brings such dazzle to ordinary life. Without this, would we have been left to seek the charms of visual experience in the barren precision of line-drawing with nothing real before it, and the joys of light as replicated in a glum indoor studio? The outlined figure was already losing out to these sunlight insurrections, and Monet’s intention was to push still further, taking his analysis and reconstruction of color to new levels of subtlety and refinement. For what the art of painting achieved from all this, the Nymphéas speak for themselves.

Stacks of Wheat (White Frost, Sunrise) Stacks of Wheat (Late Summer) Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer)
Effet de Gelée Blanche (White Frost, Sunrise) Fin de l’Été (Late Summer) Fin de l’Été (End of Summer)
Les Meules (Stacks of Wheat) by Claude Monet.

In the month of May 1891, Monet put fifteen canvases on exhibit: the series of the wheat-stacks, in every time of day and every season. This proved to be a sensational moment, affirming that a revolution in painting had achieved total victory. Before the poppy-fields edged by poplar trees, the four paintings of the shores of the Epte had been a first foray into light caught unawares, as it were, and changing with the passing hours. After Les Meules, Les Peupliers soon followed; and then Les Cathédrales and the scenes at Westminster. And then Nymphéas—what more can one say: an Austerlitz, and no Waterloo. The war was over because no adversaries were left, though some grumbling does go on here and there. But the low level of that benefits us all.

For the critics to catch up with Monet’s success, some cogent theorizing about light in painting was in order, in line somehow with this surge of feeling evoked by his new approach to it. In his excellent study Impressionisme, Monsieur Camille Mauclair has done precisely that, noting along the way that the experiments with light by the Impressionist painters have coincided with important modern discoveries in the physical sciences, revealing to us the dynamics of light as a form of energy. For myself, I can see here only a remarkable parallel: human knowledge and our emotional life evolving simultaneously. Within the self and throughout the universe, everything connects. The emotion redolent in the natural world and its interpretation in the arts will not be in our life what they should be, unless we can imagine and engage the world in accord with the harmony we find in works of imagination.

With regard to perception founded in scientific principles, as with emotional life tempered by learning, ingrained habits do not easily give way to new possibilities, challenging the consciousness imbued with obsolete traditions. It is no surprise then that someone like Monet, who could paint nothing except what he saw, could scandalize anyone in the thrall of entrenched atavism, resisting the advent of a new sort of personality. The world around us is everywhere in motion; for too long we have been content with seeing only superficial constants. What a crisis we suddenly faced when Monet, with four canvases done in the open air to witness the motions of the sun, triggered the worst scandal imaginable—the revelation of truth!

So I find myself now at the heart of my subject: key moments in an artist’s career that offer to enfold us in a more and more faithful experience of reality. To achieve that requires nothing less than the most sustained attention possible, to comprehend as much of the dance of light as a human being can grasp.

Two questions, then: Is it right that a modern painter break with tradition in such a quest? And was Monet, as confident as he was in his own eyes, the right artist for such a challenge?

This is the theme of an essay called “Révolution des Cathédrales” that I published in La Justice on May 20, 1895, and which was reprinted in Le Grand Pan in 1896. After Les Meules and before Les Peupliers, it was Les Cathédrales (1895) that caused me to take up my pen. That was thirty years ago; but because I have no reason to take back what I said at that time, I will take the liberty of including it here, as it confirms that my views now are not off the cuff. Here is the greater part of it:

Rouen Cathedral, Facade, Sunset Rouen Cathedral Facade Rouen Cathedral Portal in Sunlight
Façade, Soleil Couchant (Facade, Sunset) Façade Le Portail au Soleil (Portal in Sunlight)
La Cathédrale de Rouen (Rouen Cathedral) by Claude Monet.

With apologies to the professionals, I cannot resist a desire to play “art critic” for a moment. It’s Claude Monet’s fault: for fun, I went over to the Durand-Ruel gallery to take a look at the Rouen Cathedral studies, which I’d had the pleasure of seeing in the studio at Giverny—and I don’t know how, but those facades have taken hold of me and I cannot shake them off. They’re obsessing me; and I have to say something about them, competently or not.

I am here simply as another two-legged creature wandering around with a pair of eyes ready to enjoy every festival that earthly light provides. About that I have a couple of things to say at the outset: how is it that so many people buy so many paintings, good or bad—and more often the latter—paying their weight in gold, and probably winding up “liking” them, when these same people are incapable of spending five honest minutes contemplating the actual landscape or figure upon which that evocative representation was based? Yes, I know very well the explanation that in a painting the artist puts something of himself. Still, nothing stops the viewer of a work from doing much the same thing: a painting like L’Embarquement pour Cythère[1] can intrigue us only insofar as it gives us a feeling of something real.

In worldly experience, what really ought to hold our attention is the endless vibrant life that animates earth, sea, and sky, everything that moves and everything that supposedly stays “inert.” All of this marvelous motion of life on Earth, surging before our eyes at every instant, this endless miracle that pauses only to spawn others, this intensity immanent in man and beast, but also in flora, wood, and stone, lavished upon us without cessation or slackening. No need to be a millionaire to acquire some level of art connoisseurship, superior to those hapless multitudes condemned to say the same barren things about the same old pictures.

While these unfortunates retreat into themselves, losing their ability to see and to feel, and ossifying their emotional life, I rove the world asking questions, hoping to catch the ephemeral moment, to open myself to its music, to look into dark mysteries, to enjoy the whole show with a joyful attention as the world goes about its endless process of self-renewal.

Yes, as human beings we live our lives in the heart of a miracle, a true miracle from which incredible delights can be had; but we do not even see them—or to put it better, we are only beginning to conceive of them. For many thousands of years our eyes have received upon this planet endless waves of solar fire. Every artistic milestone we have, from the stone-age ax, shapely and powerfully hewn, from the profiles of bear and mammoth that some prehistoric Leonardo scratched on the bones we see in the Musée St. Germain, to these cathedral facades by Monet, provides a glimpse of all the eras of seeing through which our race has passed.

We know that what first caught the eye of our forebears was life in full-tilt motion: the whole form vaguely perceived, in color nondescript, represented in a blur with scant regard for tone or nuance, not unlike the way that small children see the world now when they draw or paint. We know that the Ancients—the Asians, Egyptians, even the Greeks (though their mythology demonstrates a keen sense of the world as a place of motion and change) did not feel as strongly as we do the imperative to express the sensations we feel in the presence of actual life.

Consider the Greek vases where we find some of the most famous images from antiquity. But try to find on any of them a landscape, a tree, rock, ocean, even a hint of quiet or flowing water. For a long time, no doubt, their poets had been moved by dimensions of what we now sum up with the word “Nature”—but those insights were not clear enough to persuade Zeuxis to stop limiting himself to the still-life.[2] In any case, that is the subject for which he is rightly celebrated now. In the lesche[3] at Delphi, Polygnotus painted scenes of the Trojan War with scant attention to historical fact; if Pausanias has it right, he had little to go on, and labels were required to tell what these works were about. But why think only about the earliest painters, their trees, rocks, meadows? Think of the bizarre landscape that the great Leonardo, at the very height of the Renaissance, gives us as the setting for his Gioconda.

La compagne à présent n’est pas beaucoup fleurie.[4]

According to Théophile Gautier, this is the only comment that the great Molière gives us as a thought about nature. It wasn’t until La Fontaine and Rousseau that our poets fell in love with the world around us; how can anyone take pleasure today in those contrived landscapes of Poussin?

I am not out to write a history of landscape painting; it is enough to affirm, with Gustave Geffroy, that for ages the sun that shines for us all scarcely did so in painting: “Ruysdaël, Hobbema: working your way down the checklist of great landscape painters, you’ll find yourself looking at foliage the color of ink, spotty and tinny; the sun is extinguished, and everything is lit by the somber light of the studio.” Yet sunlight did move Corot—among artists, the eye was beginning its education. From Geffroy’s fine study of Impressionism, a book[5] that has had such an impact on us: “An understanding of light could not be manifest in works of art until it became a subject of scientific inquiry…. Painting, like every other variety of human expression, had to mirror the laborious discovery of the self and the world which is the very essence of the human condition.

With the Impressionist school we finally see light in ascendancy. It burst upon us, permeates creation, conquers all; glorious and triumphant, it rules the world. Does anyone still not see that today the human eye sees in a new way? After so much effort it no longer sees through a glass darkly, but face to face. But that is not the end of it: who can imagine what joys lie ahead, as our powers to see into the life of things continue to evolve?

When I first saw Monet out in that poppy-field with four canvases underway at once, changing his palette with the track of the sun, I felt I was witnessing a study more faithful to natural light precisely because it emphasized metamorphosis rather than the immutable. This was an evolutionary moment in our perception of the world, our expression of it, our feeling of it—truly a revolution. In that poppy-field, edged with three poplar trees, a new era began in our collective sensibility and our representation of the world.

Les Meules came after that, and Les Peupliers—the same wheat stacks, the same poplar trees, at sunset, sunrise and noon; in fog and sunshine; in rain, wind, and snow. Then came the studies at Vernon, dazzling with light and melting into the mist. The artist had come to know that there is no escape from careful attention to things as they are, and that if, in the course of one single day, morning conjoins with evening through a sequence of infinitely subtle transitions, every new instant of each ever-changing day becomes, under these inundations of light, a new state of being that has never existed before and shall never shall be so again. Such conditions the expert eye must be as ready to take in as the hand is ready to catch. Isn’t this in truth a new kind of seeing, and a new mode of artistic expression?

Dark in itself, the object draws all of its life from the sun, all of its power to hold our gaze. But these waves of light which envelop it and penetrate it, which give it radiance in our world, are in endless turmoil, stunning bursts of lightning, tempests of wonder. What can lie at the heart of this fury of dancing particles and waves through which it swims into our sight and becomes, for us, truly there? This is the mystery we now must solve, the mystery that painting must express, deconstructed by the eye and recreated with skill.

This is essentially what Monet boldly undertook to accomplish with these twenty pictures of the cathedral at Rouen, organized into four series which could be called the gray, the white, the iridescent, the blue. With twenty canvases, each for a carefully-chosen effect, the artist has conveyed the sense that one might experience from fifty, from a hundred or a thousand, or as many seconds as one has in a lifetime—if life could last as long as this monument of stone, and if with each heartbeat one could catch the corresponding instant in the life of the subject. For as long as the sun shines, there will be as many incarnations of Rouen Cathedral as there are moments of time in any human reckoning. A truly sublime eye might see them all, as they are all immanent in the experience of the retina. But here again Monet is in the vanguard, guiding us in the evolution of our seeing, helping us look with new penetration and subtlety into the life of the world.

Thus it is that the arts, in their quest to represent nature with ever finer discrimination, teach the rest of us to be aware, to perceive, to feel. And from this constant development of expression our own awareness unceasingly improves as well. The wonder of Monet’s sensibility is not only that he can discern vital energies in stone, but also that he can catch them and give them to us, these waves of incandescence, clashing and bursting into a shower of sparks. We have now, at last, seen the end of lifeless painting; the very stones are now alive, and one can feel their transition from one state of being to the next and the next. For the witness they no longer keep still. They change, and now one can see that changing unfold.

About technique with color I can say nothing; it’s not my line of work. From ancient times comes a story of a painter struggling to represent the foam around the mouth of a mad horse. Frustrated, he threw down his brush, which slapped against the panel and achieved by sheer luck what his skills could not accomplish. From the annals of antiquity this legend sheds light on the despair that people have always felt when confronted with stubborn challenges. Looking closely at these cathedrals of Monet, one gets a feeling that they were made from some multi-hued mortar rubbed into the canvas in a burst of insanity. But though passion lies at the heart of this furious process, it is passion conjoined to science. Working only a few centimeters away, how could an artist perceive an effect which can be comprehended only at a distance? One more stunning mystery of Monet’s eye.

What matters is that we see this monolithic facade rising in powerful unity and majestic authority. Clean, mathematically precise, the outline reconciles this prevailing order with all the sharp delineations and sculptural intricacies where the statuary is positioned. Floating in the sunlight, the stone also seems hard and unyielding against the pressure of centuries. The whole mass is robust, solid amid the blurring mist, yet softened under the changeful skies, stunning like some powdery blossom of rock under this burning sun. A bouquet of vibrant stone, suffused with a life open to the embrace of heaven, these vexing volutes of joy, making all the sensuality of life leap forth, from a touch of golden rays upon surfaces of dust.

So skillfully selected, these twenty moments of daylight, these twenty panels arrange and classify and complete themselves in one achieved sequence. As a chronicle of the sun, the monument launches skyward, its magisterial form soaring into these turbulent skies. Depths and heights, in powerful convolutions and knifelike edges: a vast solar tide pours in from infinite space, its luminous waves shattering over the stone with every color in the spectrum or lapsing into quiet amid pure shadow. From such encounters our days are created, days of life and metamorphosis, black, gray, white, blue, crimson, the entire range of light. For Duranty tells us that all colors converge into whiteness, parched, “reduced,” he says, “to that luminous unity where the seven rays of the prism subsume into that single, colorless beam which we know as light.”

Presented as they are, these twenty panels amount to twenty marvelous revelations, though the strong connections among them could be lost on the casual visitor. Sequenced for a purpose, they can show us a perfect correspondence between art and phenomenal experience: this is their miracle. Think of them, grouped as a series on these four walls, as a study of daylight transition: a great black presence at the start of the série grise leading us on a path to increasing brightness, the série blanche moving from diffused light into an immersive and stunning brilliance, giving way in turn to the fire of the série irisée, to be quenched in the calm of the série bleue, and fading into a supernatural mist, a dying into brightness.

Letting the eyes move all around the gallery, you will be dazzled by this look into the abyss, this encounter with something prodigious. And these gray facades, seen here as crimson or azure with outbreaks of gold, and these white facades, with their portals of fire, redolent with flames of green or red or blue; and these facades all aglow as if seen through a spinning prism; and these blue forms which prove to be rose, can provide a lasting insight, not of just twenty paintings but of a hundred, a thousand, a billion states of this one eternal cathedral in the endless cycles of the sun. That would be tantamount to life itself—for the experience here is of the real world supremely alive. This is art at its best, art as we have never encountered it before.[6]

This is why, in a postscript to the piece, I regretted that no art-lover had stepped forward to purchase the entire series of Les Meules, for example, in order to understand what is at stake here, for nobody looking at one painting from this set can comprehend the great insight that calls out so urgently for our attention. The truth is this, that all the vitality of Impressionism lies in how it educates our own understanding of light. This is what Gustave Geffroy explains so skillfully in his study of Claude Monet. “Mankind,” he writes, “has not only lived under a delusion that he lives at the center of a world that is special, unique, made knowable only by revelations from On High, and that the answers to all the mysteries must emanate from some will superior to his own; he has also imagined that as a creature he exists apart from this world. He never dreamed of anything beyond, any greater reality to which this planet where he dwells is connected. Nor did he comprehend any relationship between himself and the natural context in which he was born. For ages that was the gist of human philosophy, and great numbers of people still ascribe to it. Nonetheless there are others, in numbers that are steadily rising, who understand that their life is inextricably part of a natural environment, that earthly existence is always contingent upon the life of the sun; and accordingly, sensing within themselves some particle of this universal vitality, they commit themselves to expressing that relationship, how they feel themselves sustained and carried forward into eternity.

“Like all human expression, painting must reflect this slow process of discovery of the world around us, and also of the self as the foundation of human destiny. Playing its part, Impressionism signifies a heightened awareness, bringing us closer to understanding the poetry of light. Space acquires meaning; human thought ranges far; the relationship of sun and earth seems stronger and clearer than ever before. We contemplate our own condition as children of sunlight…. For the sun, the life-giving caress from afar, has been the essence of painting as long as painting has existed. The poetry of the sun is the life-force, the energy of the universe, rushing headlong to expire on the bounded field of the canvas.”

In his famous pamphlet, La Nouvelle Peinture (1876), Duranty says this about the Impressionists: “With regard to color they have scored a true breakthrough, the sources of which can be found nowhere else, not among the Dutch painters, the bright hues of frescos, the tonal lightness of the Eighteenth Century. Nor have they confined their interest to this fine and subtle play of color, their awareness of these delicate nuances in tone and how they mingle and contrast. The heart of their discovery lies in a recognition of how full sunlight can diminish the experience of color, that sunlight reflected from subjects comes away reduced, an incandescent blend that turns the whole spectrum into the undifferentiated brilliance that we call light. Moving from one insight to another, they have achieved a deconstruction of sunlight into its rays and components, on the canvas a harmony reified as spreads of these flashes of hue. For the discerning eye, made aware of these subtle interplays of color, the effect is extraordinary. For the study of light itself, these paintings should please the best natural philosophers of our time.”

So—everything that needed saying had been said, and there was nothing more to do, except do. And that was the quest of Monet.

  1. The Watteau painting mentioned by Clemenceau earlier as a formidable presence in the Louvre.
  2. Zeuxis, a painter of the Greek Golden Age, is referred to in the writings of Pliny the Younger and Quintilian. Though none of his works have survived, extant Roman murals are believed to provide copies.
  3. A Greek term, signifying a place set apart for councils or conversation—a kind of refuge.
  4. “The countryside as yet has not reached full bloom.” Molière, Le Tartuffe, Act I, Scene 5.
  5. First published in La Justice in 1892, Geffroy’s “Histoire de L’Impressionnisme” appeared later that same year as a substantial portion of Volume I of La Vie Artistique (Paris: E. Dentu).
  6. At this point in the original essay, Clemenceau makes a truculent plea to Félix Faure, President of France from 1895 until his sudden death in office in 1899, to intervene and purchase the whole set of Cathédrales panels as a gift to the Republic. The Poincaré referenced here is Raymond Poincaré, at that time Minister of Education and in the closing years of WWI President of France when Clemenceau was both Prime Minister and Minister of War; “Roujon” refers to Henry Roujon, Director of Fine Arts in the Faure administration. The paragraphs from the La Justice essay, reprinted in his collection Le Grand Pan (Paris: Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1896) but dropped from Claude Monet, are translated below:

    Such was my experience with these cathedral studies by Monet, arranged as they are in sequence by Durand-Ruel, allowing us to engage and understand them amid the harmony that they create together. From the catalogue, I see that any admirer can buy this or that individual panel that might strike his fancy; somebody else can come and buy another. What?! Can’t we find just one millionaire who can grasp, even vaguely, the effect of these twenty works together and say “I’ll buy the lot!” as he might do in one of his business deals? What’s going on here is a disgrace to the Rothschild class.

    And as for you, Félix Faure—oh thou king-for-a-day, ruling so graciously from the palace of Madame de Pompadour, with Roujon and Poincaré at your side to guide you in your appreciation for Art—I’ve read that you’ve made countless buys for yourself in any number of picture galleries. This is a job for you.

    But you’re not just Félix Faure; you are also President of the Republic, President of France. Apparently you pilfered this title from the bedside table of Napoleon I, as if the great man himself had bestowed his blessing upon you. Why hasn’t the notion entered your head to go and see the work of one of your contemporaries, for which France will be famous long after your own name has tumbled into oblivion? And where are Poincaré and Roujon? Are they overwhelmed with the blessed sleep of warriors? But don’t wake those good people up; and if somewhere in yourself there’s an atom of imagination, go and see this series of Cathédrales as the sensible bourgeois that you are, without seeking the advice of anyone else.

    It’s just possible that you understand me; and dreaming that you actually represent France, perhaps the idea will come to you to endow us all with these twenty canvases which, as a set, represent one moment for art—in other words, one moment for mankind itself, a revolution without a single shot fired.

    Know that History will remember such paintings as these; and if you have some genuine ambition to live on in the memory of others, try to catch up with Claude Monet, this peasant out at Vernon. It’s a surer thing than any vote by the Congrès at Versailles, or any business in the Ministries.


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Claude Monet: The Water-Lilies and other writings on art Copyright © 2017 by Bruce F. Michelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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