Monet's Canvas Cathedrals: A Life Study Of Light
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The French region of Normandy is celebrating a beloved art movement this summer. Exhibitions, concerts, light shows and plays are taking place throughout the countryside where in the 19th century artists mounted a revolution in art. It was called impressionism.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg marked its birth.
SUSAN STAMBERG: This is the Andre Malraux Museum, just on the waterfront of the second biggest port of France - La Havre. It's a sunny day and through the museum's window wall, the English Channel is water the impressionists would have loved.
It's flowing nicely. There's no foam. There are no waves to speak of, but the water runs with currents. It gives off glimmers and glints, as the light catches it.
Claude Monet grew up here in La Havre. And here in 1872, when he was 32, he painted the picture that gave an art style its name. "Impression Sunrise" was Monet's title for a quick and brushy harbor scene - small boats, watery reflections in pinks, blues, orange. When Monet displayed it in Paris, along with similar works by artist friends, a sneering critic called the show "The Exhibition of the Impressionists," and so a movement was baptized.
Museum guide Emmanuelle Rian says their style was brand new and brave.
Ms. EMMANUELLE RIAN (Guide, Andre Malraux Museum): They had a great idea and they contributed to introduce a real revolution in painting. They go further in 20 years than most of the painters did during two centuries.
STAMBERG: The impressionists break all the formal academic rules - use quick brush strokes, change perspective, won't use black; shadows are made of color, they say; patch blue next to red next to brown and look what happens. And at waters' edge in La Havre, Monet is first.
Ms. RIAN: He is free.
STAMBERG: You work here every day.
Ms. RIAN: Yes.
STAMBERG: And so when you walk around and you're outside and you looking at the water, are you seeing Monets?
Ms. RIAN: Naturally. I think I have not Monet's eyes. This is the real difference.
STAMBERG: Here's my paper plate palette. Mix up a little white and blue for the sky.
I try to see and paint with Monet's eyes in another port city, Rouen. Here, 20 years after that first impressionist work, Claude Monet made 30 pictures of Rouen's massive Gothic cathedral - extreme close-ups of one part of the fa�ade - flattened perspective, encrustations of paint.
Today, in the room where he worked, there are classes in how to paint like Monet. Any student struggling with colors may remember that 19-year-old Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, although not for artistic malfeasance.
Oops. Yeah, I think I just...
Unidentified Man: In English. Yeah.
STAMBERG: ...I'm taking my brush.
Unidentified Man: You do speak English.
Ms. CATHERINE BRANDON (Guide, Rouen Fine Arts Museum): I have a very bad English.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: Do your best. I have very bad painting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: At the Rouen Fine Arts Museum, where 11 cathedral paintings are on view, guide Catherine Brandon says Monet spent parts of 1892 and '93 in town making his series.
Ms. BRANDON: He came to Rouen twice, two sessions of three months at the same period because of the light: February, March, April. He sat from 7:00 in the morning until maybe 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening, just painting the cathedral -10 canvases at the same time, just to capture the light.
STAMBERG: Monet lined his canvases up in front of a window, and moved from one canvas to the next as the shifting light changed the colors of the pale stone facade.
Mr. YVES LECLERC (Director, Tourist Office, Rouen): You can see on each different cathedral, the sky is not the same.
STAMBERG: Yves Leclerc runs the Rouen tourist office just across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral, in the building where Monet worked.
Mr. LECLERC: When you imagine there was no camera, no photo, nothing -everything he got, it was only the highs(ph) and the spirit. He's a genius.
STAMBERG: So he stood right here where we are?
Ms. MARIE BACHELON(ph) (Tourist Office, Rouen): Yeah. Yes. I mean he was looking out the cathedral by the window.
STAMBERG: Marie Bachelon works here too.
Ms. BACHELON: And he found the inspiration.
STAMBERG: So we're standing in the exact spot where he worked?
Ms. BACHELON: Exactly, in the steps of Claude Monet in Rouen.
STAMBERG: In Monet's time, this room where we are chatting was a lingerie shop. The painter rented this space by the shop window. Yves Leclerc say customers were not thrilled by the presence of Monsieur Monet.
Mr. LECLERC: Imagine a normal guy, one meter ninety and 130 kilo...
STAMBERG: Tall, big guy.
Mr. LECLERC: Yeah, very strong Norman. And these small ladies come for trying the underwear.
STAMBERG: So a screen was put up between the painter and the ladies.
Mr. LECLERC: And when he finished to paint, somebody said that in the screen it was a small hole.
STAMBERG: A hole in the screen? Surely Monet was too busy studying the paths of light on the cathedral and catching the shifts in crusts of color on his canvas.
The work obsessed the 50-something artist. He was painting light, but it weighed on him. Nothing satisfied him. Monet began having nightmares.
Ms. BRANDON: He dreamt that the cathedral would fall down on him.
STAMBERG: Huge filigreed stones crashing down in pinks, golds, blues. In the end, he wrote to his wife: I am trying to do the impossible.
Dabbing, dabbing - I have to say, this is nothing like Monet, can't touch it. But you know what? It's fun.
(Soundbite of accordion music)
STAMBERG: Claude Monet didn't finish his series of cathedral paintings in Rouen. He took them home to Giverny, about 45 miles northeast of Paris, home to his family, his garden. Around this time he began putting in a water garden. We will go there next: Giverny, where the master spent the last decades of his long life shifting the garden's shimmers onto his canvases.
Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(Soundbite of accordion music)
MONTAGNE: You can see some of Monet's cathedrals, plus the first impressionist painting, and Susan Stamberg's attempt to capture his spirit on her canvas, at NPR.org.
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